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


– 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.


– 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+

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


– 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.


– 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+

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


– 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.


– 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+

Toy Story 4

Directed By Josh Cooley

Starring – Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Keanu Reeves

The Plot – Woody (Hanks), Buzz Lightyear (Allen) and the rest of the gang embark on a road trip with Bonnie (Madeline McGraw) and a new toy named Forky (Tony Hale). The adventurous journey turns into an unexpected reunion as Woody’s slight detour leads him to his long-lost friend Bo Peep (Annie Potts). As Woody and Bo discuss the old days, they soon start to realize that they’re two worlds apart when it comes to what they want from life as a toy.

Rated G


– Evolving animation. While the computer graphics associated with character designs and appearances have remained consistent throughout four films spanning 24 years, the opportunity to blend them with some richly authentic backdrops is what establishes as the most beautifully rendered of the Toy Story franchise. Pixar once again masters this seamless immersion of weather design in the form of raindrops and natural sunlight, and ups it further with a series of objects in frame that make the animated toys feel like they are living and breathing inside of this real life world that feels continuously like our own. There were several times during the film when I had to legitimately stop and focus on a cat or a slab of concrete for how visually striking it conveyed its realism, and overall its evolving dimensions in animation have allowed this series to adapt to the times in ways that never compromises the believability of the visual continuity.

– New personalities. More than anything, what keeps this franchise fresh is the constant addition of new toys that not only give us a chance to enjoy some big name cameo appearances off-screen, but also delightfully feed into the gift of their gimmicks. In this regard, none are as gifted as Keanu Reeves Canadian stuntman Duke Kaboom, who takes pleasure in the thrill of crashing. Reeves unusually excited demeanor in the film gives way to many scene-stealers and insanely quotable dialogue, but it’s the duo of Key and Peele who stole the show for me. As a duck and bear combo who are quite literally joined at the hand, the two embark on an adventure that allows them to bring along the sinister side to their personalities, bringing forth no shortage of laughter for this critic each time they had an idea to add to the conversation. Between these three, I could easily watch another three Toy Story movies without getting tired, and the precision in casting these very vibrant personalities not only brings to life the passion of the characters, but also dazzles us in ways that makes them unique to the dynamics of such a crowded cast in the foreground.

– Funny bone. Nobody does G-rated humor better than Disney/Pixar, and thanks to a consistency rate that was truly out of this world for a kids movie, “Toy Story 4” became one of my favorite comedies of the 2019 film year. What’s commendable is that nothing feels strained or confined because of the dominant audience age, and the material therefore is able to balance awkward pratfalls and timely deliveries in a way that practically dares you not to laugh. Likewise, the material itself never feels geared single-handedly towards youthful audiences, instead extending its hand not only to the newer generation, but also those who, like their kids now, were that age when they first delighted from Woody yelling at Buzz that he is a “CHILD’S PLAY THING”. “Toy Story 4” truly is one of those crossing of the generation moments, and thanks to no shortage of comic firepower, the film manages to keep our attention firmly in its grasp for many belly-tugs.

– Complexity of material. This one works in subplots and tone for the film, as the roller-coaster of emotional pulse makes this easily the most emotionally expansive of the franchise. Dealing with issues of abandonment, lost love, fitting in, and especially past trauma, the film respects its audience in conjuring up enough profound parallels to teach and learn all at the same time. It’s rare that a film can do this all the while transpiring the tone so smoothly, and even though this film has the depth of three or four different movies of comedy, drama, romance, and even horror, the pacing never felt like an arduous task. “Toy Story 4” teaches many lessons simultaneously, and the method of its madness constantly feels earned through twists and turns that honestly I didn’t see coming in the slightest. I probably should have because the hints are there all along the way, but they’re inserted in a way that doesn’t require strained focus or obviousness to sell its purpose, planting the seeds of progression that truly does grow into some beautiful and heartfelt.

– Prominent performances. In addition to the couple of rookies that I previously mentioned, the returning cast of Hanks, Allen, and especially Annie Potts gives way to some compelling dimensions of character that tell the story of their pasts. Allen is easily the least used between the three, but without the direction of Woody he is left to lead by example, and it gives us a few Allen performances for the price of one, thanks to him searching for his inner voice in ways that are anything than what is intended. Potts has evolved into this badass of sorts that is only rivaled by Charlize Theron’s Furiosa in “Mad Max: Fury Road” in terms of female heroine. Thanks to an introduction that tells the story of her abrupt departure from Andy’s household, we are able to see what comes from living out nature over nurture, illustrating her as a take-no-prisoners kind of protagonist. Finally, Hanks emotes Woody in a way that not only hints at a deteriorating psyche, but also a vast amount of vulnerability that has him reflecting on a lifetime of shifts and changes. Woody is realizing for the first time that his best days are clearly behind him, and for the first time ever it has him questioning his purpose in a way that adds a refreshing uncertainty to his moral compass for being the one who always puts things back together.

– Randy Newman. The legendary musical composer is back again, but this time his level of vocal familiarity is exchanged for nuanced tones that better establish a scene’s tonal consistency without kidnapping the volume controls. The level of their incorporation feels subtle enough to constantly remind you of its existence, yet mature enough to never take away from the dramatic tension of the scene, and if one thing is for certain it’s that Newman has lived life through every avenue of the blues, and his level of somber resonance knows no boundaries in garnering the perfect poke to prod at tears from the audience. Sure, “You’ve Got a Friend In Me” as well as the new track “Don’t Put Me In The Trash” are there to remind us of Randy’s one of a kind raspy enveloping, but my appreciation here is more for his compulsion in mastering the fruits of the environment so effectively that the music itself is the one character that outlasts all of the others, very rarely leaving our ears if only to change to the next orchestral influence that highlights what’s to come.

– A gentle hand. For a first time filmmaker, the things that Josh Cooley is able to accomplish is nothing short of phenomenal, landing a consistency and fitting place for this film with the others that establishes him as the perfect man for the job. Cooley’s chase scenes are rapidly full of energy and urgency, using many magnetic movements of the camera to perfectly articulate the range in speed and direction masterfully, and his dedication to capturing the perfect resonating moment is something that can only be learned through moments of a director immersing himself into the shoes of the audience, who he knows he can’t let down. This film could’ve easily fell apart after the immense task of picking up the pieces on a finale that left so many ringing from buckets of tears, but his influence breathes new life into the character’s and franchise, inspiring us to seek more from this franchise to continue pursuing the grasp of human commentary from the smallest angles.

– Hidden Easter Eggs. How much can I even talk about this one? There is a specific Hitchcock reference in the film from one of his biggest film accomplishments that was every bit as sinisterly alluring as it was effective in capturing the essence that both films were trying to attain in their respective scenes. Obviously, children won’t interpret this in the same ways, but it gives the sequence a measure of twisted wink-and-nod to horror hounds like myself who simply can’t ignore the comparisons that are so obviously mirrored right down to the familiarity in musical notes. There’s also an entirely different Easter Egg that reaches into Disney’s growing library of properties, and inserts it into the middle of a wild county fair where all rules go out of the window. This truly is one of those blink-and-miss-it moments that could easily be Disney flexing its bulging muscles, but I liked it because it further captures the realism of the world around it, depicting heroes from other movie universes in a way that feels believable because of the way they clash in frame.


– A Familiar formula. Part of the nagging bother for me from this movie was how familiar this screenplay outline felt, even if given different directions for it to flourish. Particularly with the original “Toy Story”, there are many comparisons that I found that I would like to mention. Woody and new toy go on long distance adventure, the duo land in a horrific land of distraught toys, Woody constantly tries to tell new toy that he is in fact a toy, There’s a moment where Woody’s intentions casts a huge feel of isolation from the rest of the group, and a scene where the group is being chased by a four legged companion. These are only a few of the similarities that I noticed. If I wanted to, I could spoil much more, but will choose not to. The point is that the Toy Story franchise has been making the same script outline for four movies now, and it’s insane that they are getting away with it.

– Believability. Should I be complaining about logic in a kids movies where toys come to life? You bet your ass I should, as this film not only forgets about the rules that it set with toys being less obvious to the human eye, but also defies wear-and-tear in a way that I’ve never seen before. On the latter, you mean to tell me that none of these toys are decaying even remotely? You mean to tell me that Woody’s voice box is working as good as it was the first day he came packaged? You mean to tell me that we are STILL getting new catchphrases from both Woody and Buzz? How big is this voice box? On the former, there is simply too much toy interaction in the film that wouldn’t go unnoticed by someone in a classroom or county fair that saw something more. In the first two movies, this gimmick felt believable because the way the toys returned always felt grounded in reality. Here, toys disappear and reappear at the drop of a hat, and no one questions it. There’s also a finale with an RV that couldn’t be more absurd if a pink elephant was pushing it from the rear with no one seeing it.

My Grade: 8/10 or B+

The Souvenir

Directed By Joanna Hogg

Starring – Honor Swinton Byrne, Tom Burke, Tilda Swinton

The Plot – Julie (Byrne), A shy film student begins finding her voice as an artist while navigating a turbulent courtship with a charismatic but untrustworthy man, named Anthony (Burke). She defies her protective mother (Swinton) and concerned friends as she slips deeper and deeper into an intense, emotionally fraught relationship which comes dangerously close to destroying her dreams.

Rated R for some sexuality, graphic nudity, drug material and adult language


– Non-linear storytelling. What’s so synthetically natural about the exposition in the film is that it’s delivered in a series of events in a girl’s life, rather than one cohesive running story that connects each scene together. This makes the screenplay at times feel like a jagged collection of memories, rather than a conventional story, and speaks volumes more towards the spontaneity of life that is constantly evolving. This requires audiences to pay attention to key images in the background, as well as stay fully committed in the unraveling of each conversation, otherwise the answers don’t fill in with the question properly. Not everything that happens in detail is shown on-screen, and I greatly appreciate any film that makes the audience work hard for its answers, refusing to spoon-feed us like nearly every film does today with its valued exposition.

– Unorthodox camera angles. Hogg is definitely a director who loves her mirrors, and her use of incorporating them into nearly every scene is done so in a way that presents body movements and interactions in a more revealing perspective than we would normally receive shooting in front of our actors. Some of these shots are truly breathtaking in capturing the dynamic that is slightly off focus, all the while studying the change in tonal temperature that is present in the foreground, giving us a complete picture of the dramatic pulse that is transpiring between these two people learning about each other for the first time. In addition to this, the personal reflection shots off a POV angle, where the character’s are speaking to us the audience, putting us front-and-center in the heat of the moment to better convey the love, anguish, and humility developed from its many conflicts.

– Stimulating performances. Before I even start on the performances that were out of this world, I commend the casting agent for casting Tilda Swinton’s real life daughter as her daughter in the movie. This not only transcends the art that is persistent on-screen, but cements the visual believability better than it could ever possibly be. For my first film seeing her, Honor Swinton Byrne completely blew me away. From a once reserved girl on the verge of her sexual and creative awakening, to the life-tested control she exerts over every angle of her life, this woman harvested a constant plunge of gut-wrenching emotional pull that not only made you invest in her character, but also created a deeper narrative for the personal battle taking place inside of her, courtesy of some timely narration that was appreciated. Her male opposite is also played wonderfully by Tom Burke, another first timer for me personally, who juggled the bi-polar complexities that his character moved through like a roller-coaster, thanks in whole to a drug influence that depicted his change emotionally and physically before our very eyes. The chemistry between Honor and Burke not only felt rich with honesty because of the many trysts they are forced to endure, but also advantageous to both actors who capture our attention with facial expressions that tell the story long before dialogue ever could. Tilda Swinton’s physical performance, donning a grey wig and wrinkle prosthetics, also radiates with an essence of natural aging and seamless delivery that transforms what we’ve expected from the actress before our very eyes. It’s cool to see the two generations of Swinton dominate the screen, and outlines a relationship that is a loveletter to mothers everywhere who go from protector to protected as time carries on.

– Story within the story. This is a film that feels very personal to Hogg, for the way it spiritualizes the highs and lows of first time love, and upon further digging, Hogg has clearly expressed herself from the trials and tribulations of a similar story that she took from her own life growing up. The flat used in the film is a perfect replica of the one Hogg lived in during that same age, constructed in an airplane hanger that is continuously projecting 35 mm photographs that she took as a student in her 20’s. She is a London film student similar to the female protagonist in the film, and actually was best friends with Tilda since both of them were ten years old. I mention this as a positive because I’ve always felt that the best told stories stem from real life experiences, and there’s a certain articulation to the psychology, as well as authenticity to the specific detail, that speaks volumes to the nourishment of a particular experience, and I find it therapeutic for Hogg that she was able to bring so much of her past experiences with her to the bettering of her picture.

– Effective production value. This film takes place in the 80’s, and to capture the aesthetic of such a specific time, the production crew uses a fine blend of grainy cinematography, a multitude of different camera lenses, and an attention to detail with wardrobe, decor, and soundtrack that perfectly captured the mood of the cocaine-driven 80’s nostalgia. There are parts in this film where the imagery encased remarkably transported me to where I legitimately felt like I was watching a shelved picture from the 80’s, and even with my picky eye for detail, I couldn’t find a single instance of any object or depiction that soiled the integrity of its unique time frame. The objects of the apartment are also documenting a story within their many shifts and disappearances that I don’t want to spoil here, and only mention because its brilliance used to channel maturity is something you rarely ever think about when it comes to set pieces during an aging story.

– Accurate depiction of first love. Some women will view the love depicted as ridiculous, but I feel like every woman has dated someone that today their wisdom would tell them differently, and that’s what I find so intoxicating about this relationship. We the audience feel leagues above the girl in terms of knowledge. We know what signs to look for, we know where everything is headed, and it’s that aspect that is frustrating but in a way that is entirely for our investment in the well-being of the character. There is no initial first spark really, it’s just that a guy is paying her attention at a party, and especially in the case of her being a virgin, that first time always exposes the vulnerability that women face, especially considering the kind of influence a look from him holds over her through the first half of this film. It’s not the most delightful watch in this regard, but no film should be shunned for its unabashed honesty, and this film has it in spades, reminding us behind every corner of the wisdom that she will gain because of her timultuous experiences.

– The judgment game. In Hogg’s ability to give us so little time with every supporting character, with the exception of the occasional party or on-set scene, the film manages this level of uncertainty with each of their intentions that puts as in the shoes of Honor’s Julie. Especially during the late second act, when a barrage of these characters received more time in front of the lens, I began to wonder who had her best intentions in mind, and who was there to be another Phil on the highway to her accomplishing her goals. This once again begs the audience member to invest themselves in the unraveling of these exchanges, making us feel as a parent of sorts to Julie’s newfound breath of escape, and it outlines a level of weightless suspense that feels beneficial to the film without smothering it in urgency. This feeds more into the idea of Hogg grounding this story so deeply in reality, as anyone who comes into our lives really is just a smiling face until we get to know them.

– Meaning behind the title. The title “The Souvenir” is named after an 18th century rococo painting of the same name by Jean-Honore Fragonard, which features a woman scratching the initials of her lover into a tree. This painting is shown twice throughout the movie, and at least from a metaphorical stance can easily be emitted from what transpires in the way Anthony influences Julie throughout. Without spoiling anything, I took away a complex tone of permanent scarring from the painting, which alludes to the permanence of someone etched into the memory of the carver’s psyche, for better or worse. A film’s title should summarize everything enclosed within its walls of creativity, and the title used for Hogg’s nearly autobiographical feature is one that requires digging beneath the material if one is to fully understand the meaning of its message.


– The pacing. Especially the case in the first act of the film, the unorthodox nature of storytelling and event depiction is a bit of a jump to overcome when you’re getting settled in to a film’s style. In this reflection, if you can get through the opening half hour of the film, your investment will give way to the meatier material that fills the remainder of the film. With the romance in particular feeling so cryptic early on, there’s very little to bounce off of within the initial meetings between these two lovers, and even for editing that remains patient throughout the film, these first few scenes feel so dramatically slower than anything else that accompanies it.

– Musical incorporation. I didn’t care much for the film’s soundtrack, as the inclusion of pop tracks like “Is She Really Going Out With Him” by Joe Jackson and “Love My Way” by The Psychadelic Furs felt like such an unnecessary forcing into a film that is stripped down in reality without them. In a sense, the scenes with no musical incorporation helped maintain this slice of real life that so much of the film was buried in, and to add songs, especially ones as familiar with the decade as these, gives it an overbearing feeling of obviousness for time-stamped gimmick that this film doesn’t have to stretch itself for. If they were played during the party scenes, I would be fine with them, but their inclusions during moments of self-reflection for Julie, feel like an obvious distraction in the clarity of the situation.

My Grade: 8/10 or B+

Late Night

Directed By Nisha Ganatra

Starring – Emma Thompson, Mindy Kaling, John Lithgow

The Plot – Katherine Newbury (Thompson) is a pioneer and legendary host on the late-night talk-show circuit. When she’s accused of being a “woman who hates women,” she puts affirmative action on the to-do list, and…..presto. Molly (Kaling) is hired as the one woman in Katherine’s all-male writers’ room. But Molly might be too little too late, as the formidable Katherine also faces the reality of low ratings and a network that wants to replace her. Molly, wanting to prove she’s not simply a diversity hire who’s disrupting the comfort of the brotherhood, is determine to help Katherine by revitalizing her show and career, and possible effect even bigger change at the same time.

Rated R for adult language throughout and some sexual references


– Best comedy of the year. As a film that is full of audience laughter and participation, this one hits it out of the park quite frequently. There’s a rich blend of varying degrees of entertaining comedy in the script, but the interaction between characters, especially that of the two female leads, conjures up several example of sharp-tongued wit and bold sarcasm, which is completely up my alley for the kind of humor that I appreciate from a comedy. The film also doesn’t stay reserved as just this, eventually evolving into this dramatic crumbling of walls from every side of Katherine’s life, which succeeds at delivering no shortage of dramatic heft, and proving once more that while comedy is the way to get the butts in the seats, it’s rich life experiences that make you invest more into the characters, and every transformation in the screenplay feels every bit as earned as it does necessary to the conflicts springing from all around.

– Wisdom in social commentary. One could expect that a film starring an Indian actress getting a job in a male caucasian dominated workplace would be full of poignancy about the uphill climb that minorities and women face when inserted into this environment, and the film does have this unapologetic stance on depicting this cold, callous world, what truly surprised me was how it speaks on both sides of the coin in this regard. The film doesn’t make Molly a flat-out victim as much as it makes her an equal in the problem of hiring, explaining to us that she was only picked in the first place to fill a workplace quota. While this could be condemning for a 21st century politically correct landscape full of sensitivity, I commend it for its honesty in valuing both sides of the debate, highlighting that we as a society are still a long way out from making it a level sided playing field for all to contend with.

– Strong characterization. What I love about the screenplay is that it very much feels episodic in the way it brings along several on-going subplots at a time, as well as values each character in frame for being someone so much more than an occasional cameo. Instead of following just Thompson and Kaling, the film values rich supporting cast members like Hugh Dancy, Dennis O’ Hare, John Lithgow, and the legions of other familiar faces that fill this board room of testosterone that a majority of the film takes place in. This is huge for the film because it allows us the audience several dynamics to establish between this group to give the dominant plot in the foreground time to age and pace accordingly, and it’s entirely successful, as there wasn’t one side of the spectrum that I didn’t enjoy spending time with and feeling firmly invested in. This is a film that values all of its cast, big or small, and with plenty of time invested, we really get to see this team grow together and understand what makes each of the tick in regards to workplace interaction.

– Surprising performances. Thompson and Kaling are both national treasures, but what amazed me was the undeterred energy that each brought to their respective roles in making this feel like a big stakes drama. For Kaling, it’s finally the chance to shed some of that comic muscle and establish her as a watery-eyed kindred spirit, who we the audience engage and invest into. Mindy shows a soft side that makes her a shoe-in for future romantic comedies, and balances a fine line of intelligence, wit, and a radiant smile to make us fall for the positivity of her character. Thompson deserves academy recognition, and I’m not kidding. Katherine is a powder keg of emotional response, feeling her way through a fierce tug-of-war between a network ready to pull the plug on her show, as well as a husband feeling the same constraints thanks to a battle with Parkinson’s. Thompson’s earnesty and flawed protagonist is something that gives her dimensions from a character like Meryl Streep’s in “The Devil Wears Prada”, all the while preserving this side of vulnerability that transforms her for us, as well as the audience on-screen who keep the ratings going. Emma gives us many powerful gut-punches during scenes of pain, as well as a damp blanket of cynicism during initial meetings with her team, and it led to this bigger picture for the character that kept her maintained as this enigma of sorts, which in turn made it easier to understand why her show has been the stable that it’s been for so many decades.

– Informative. In the same vein as “Spotlight” did for newsrooms, “Late Night” presents a vivid rendering of a television writers room, complete with thinktank discussions and fast-paced confrontations, which feel authentic in their progressions. To absorb as much in this room as possible is understanding how conventionalism played such a pivotal foe in Katherine’s diminishing returns with her audience, with this broken link in communication between them being this obvious adversity to understanding what makes the host so endearing. Years of experience prescribes arrogance, and conjures up this difficult pill of truth for each of them to swallow with regards to the failing reputation of the show. Being the writer of this film, Kaling definitely has the experience and wisdom to accurately portray these kind of dire situations, and it’s why much of the material encased feels authentic in its wisdom.

– Dane Cook. No, he’s not in the film, but to anyone who was an avid MadTV watcher like me, will remember Ike Barinholtz’s near perfect impression of the infamous stand-up comic, and in certain elements it returns in this film. Barinholtz plays this popular stand-up comic who is shamed by Katherine because his material feels very degrading and thirsty for attention. In addition to this, Ike’s deliveries feel very fast paced, crude in dialogue, and flimsy for depth in material. Sound familiar? If I didn’t list this on the positives, I would be doing my final grade a disservice, because I could watch Ike portray this character for years, and never get tired of it. Beyond the debate of who he is impersonating, the character reminds us of everything that is wrong with today’s comedy landscape, where audiences trade in intelligence of storytelling for vulgarity and cheap sound effects that should be marketed towards an infant.

– Art imitating life? There are many situations in the film that feel plucked from real life, and establish a sense of humanity within these celebrities who we view as anything but human, thanks to their infamy. Some examples that I found were definitely the pushing of a fresh, new host to the decades old show (Jay Leno), a network pressuring a classic host to adapt with the times (David Letterman), and a ratings slump despite being prestigious in awards recognition (Conan O’ Brien). What I love about this is it summarizes the best of every world in favor of this one lone embodiment, then makes that figure a woman, which is something that we haven’t quite yet had hosting a late night show on a major network. So we get to blend the reality with fantasy for a result that proves the human similarities of men and women, in hopes to erase this line of separation once and for all in every facet of entertainment.

– Costume design. For a movie so grounded in reality, there is a strong use of fashion in the film, specifically within the two female leads, that fruitfully delves into the contrast in each of their personalities. For Katherine, the use of pantsuits and lack of skin shown speaks volumes to the strict demeanor that has earned her intimidating presence among her staff. For Kaling’s Molly, it’s a combination of free-flowing sundresses and vibrancy in colors that illustrates her bubbly personality front-and-center, allowing her to visually convey her as this colorful breath of fresh air that this team so desperately needs. The flare of fashion persists throughout the film, hinting at something deeper beneath its intention, and does so without feeling like a distraction to what’s transpiring around it.


– Romantic subplot. Not only is this the most unnecessary aspect of the script, but its lack of development leaves so much on the bone of curiosity from the lack of what develops. First of all, I don’t think there should’ve been a romantic subplot because it demeans the integrity of a female character, and feeds into her sleeping her way to the top. Secondly, the romance between Dancy and Kaling goes literally nowhere, disappearing for long periods of screen time without further elaboration or exposition to remind us that it is still a thing. Another romantic subplot materializes by the film’s end, and its result is so shoe-horned in to the closing minutes that it’s not only disappointing for how they built these two characters along, but also for how it comes out of nowhere from the lack of previous establishing scenes. It’s the biggest mess to a film that is otherwise written pretty tightly.

– Stilted stand-up. This is a continuous problem with the stand-up comedy world being portrayed in film. It’s rare in a movie where I will laugh during a stand-up comedy scene, and especially in this case coming from someone who is a prophet of that environment, how is the material left on the page so terribly unfunny? Maybe it’s a point to prove that stand-up comedy overall isn’t funny, especially considering it’s mostly ushered in by that Dane Cook character that I mentioned earlier, but this is a repetitive problem in every movie featuring stand-up comedy ever, and while it isn’t enough to ruin the sharp sting of the sword in conversations and casual dialogues, it does take some steam away from what Kaling is capable of as a screenwriter.

My Grade: 8/10 or B+

The Lion King (1994)

Directed By Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff

Starring – Matthew Broderick, Jeremy Irons, James Earl Jones

The Plot – A young lion prince (Broderick) is cast out of his pride by his cruel uncle (Irons), who claims he killed his father (Jones). While the uncle rules with an iron paw, the prince grows up beyond the Savannah, living by a philosophy: No worries for the rest of your days. But when his past comes to haunt him, the young prince must decide his fate: Will he remain an outcast or face his demons and become what he needs to be?

Rated G


– G-rating. What astonishes me about this film is that it was one of the last non-documentary cinematic releases to be stamped with the rare G-rating, that is often times looked at as a statue of limitations, but here is executed brilliantly to never hinder or demean the film’s potential in material. Aside from the scenes of war and loss coming across as emotionally effective despite showing so very little to us the audience, the themes in the script mature at the rate of speed that its central protagonist does, transitioning us into a third act where the urgency of the film is very in-tuned to the pulse of the unraveling narrative, eventually building to a high-stakes final conflict that has immense consequences that are tastefully carried out. G-rated films in 2019 are as dry as paper, but in 1994 there was an animated movie that touched on the concepts of love, loss, evolution, and jealousy fruitfully, and it’s one that resonates loudly twenty-five years later as the film that didn’t abide by a letter grade.

– Memorable soundtrack. Hans Zimmer and Elton John on the same compilation? Phenomenal. The work done by these two masterminds of music led to a collection of timeless hits and infectious energy that can only be ignored by the heartless, and led to one of the highest grossing soundtracks in cinema history. Not only are the songs reflective of the storytelling beats, not only are they thunderous in the way that everything in frame plays into the heart of the performance, but they also transpire seamlessly at the perfect opportune time at each moment of the changing dynamic to not violently halt the storytelling. Some of my personal favorites are “Circle of Life”, “Hakuna Matata”, and the terribly underrated “Be Prepared”. Not to be outdone by lyrical tracks, however, Zimmer manufactures a presence of the Pride Lands of Africa that constantly persists throughout 83 minutes of brief screen time, outlining an original flavor of geography for the time that better allowed audiences to immerse themselves in the heat of the environment, perfecting every angle of the setting gimmick that gives it consistent weight throughout the film.

– Unmatched cast. This film is easily the winner for best animated ensemble of all time for me, not just for the prestigious names involved with the picture, but also for the highly transformative vocal work that makes it increasingly difficult to imagine anyone else in these roles. In that respect, Jones, Broderick, and especially Irons do such a tremendous job that it often feels like their vocal range is emoting to the movement of the animation, and never vice versa, and it’s that aspect that brings out extreme believability with their influence to the character’s. For Jones, it’s a combination of brawn and heart that etch out the ultimate protector not only for Simba, but for his entire kingdom that depends on him. The tag-team work of teen dream Jonathan Taylor-Thomas and Broderick conjure up a believable transfer of character in Simba that echo the ideals of childhood and adulthood respectively, and make the transformation gel smoothly for a character who grows in size and responsibility before our very eyes. Irons is the true M.V.P for me however, as Scar, the jaded uncle antagonist with a thirst for power that knows no boundaries. Irons chews up an abundance of scenery with his arrogantly sarcastic personality, never hiding for a second the hatred he harvests for those who wear the crown that he deems should rightfully be his, and it’s a conflict that is not only easy to understand in that aspect, but also one that hinders on one of the seven deadly sins (Greed) that echo the devilish demeanor of such a dangerous antagonist.

– Extremely quotable. The dialogue in the film feels as sharp as a dagger, and a lot of that has to do with screenwriters Linda Woolverton, Jonathan Roberts, and Irene Mecchi’s to channel the roller-coaster of emotional vulnerability that keeps it from persistently remaining in one particular genre of material, giving audiences the right level of change at the perfectly precise moment. One example of this is after Mufasa’s untimely death, which is followed by the introduction of Timon and Pumba, leading to the proper amount of comic relief after the single biggest gut-punch of the movie. These two character’s are responsible for many spirited one-liners that have become philosophies of die-hard Disney fans for generations of past, present, and future, but none bigger than Hakuna Matata, the mantra of living without worries. It feels like the perfect branch to Que Sera Sera, and adds importance to a second act that could easily trail off without that proper execution of mood change that I mentioned previously that values the fun in a screenplay as much as it does the dramatic elements.

– Fluid screenplay. What works to the benefit of the movie’s pacing is its ability to pack so much into an 83 minute run time, yet never feel limited by the tiers in the narrative that it constantly touches on. This is a film that continues to march forward, even during the scenes of dramatic mourning that likely made audiences feel like a necessary cool down period. The movie’s notorious death sequence happens with a measly 46 minutes left in the film, choosing to build the relationship between father, son, and the kingdom in depth up to this point, all the while telegraphing the moves of the board for the opposition that awaits him. It feels like we’re seeing each side, good and bad, every step of the way, leading to that previously mentioned confrontation that doesn’t disappoint for heartstring tugging or permanence within a usually light-hearted kids atmosphere. Beyond this, the second and beginning of third acts construct a crossroads for Simba’s past and present, bringing a balance of emphatic reunions and maturity to the protagonist that proves his fate for the throne. When all is said and done, there are 13 minutes left for the showdown between uncle and nephew, and while not the longest or most elaborate in terms of fight choreography, does excel in audience vulnerability for how many of the battle beats strike a familiar chord with the second act fight that took the life of the original king. This film is constantly engaging, and never lags or distracts from the material for a single solitary second.

– The perfect antagonist. Part of what allures you to Scar as an endearing villain is in the way Irons emotes him, but beyond that it’s the way that his actions capture the entire spectrum of devilish deeds, otherwise known as the seven deadly sins. He believes himself to be deserving of power. He also refuses to abandon the Pride Lands, even if it means the death of his subjects (Pride). He acts indolent even as the Pride Lands fall into ruin. (Sloth) He enjoys food while letting the rest of his kingdom, including his loyal followers, starve (Gluttony). He is envious of his brother and nephew for getting the throne, and plots their deaths for it (Envy). In a deleted scene, he comes onto Nala, eager to produce heirs(Lust). He wants power and will destroy anyone to get it. (Greed) He gets enraged when Mufasa is mentioned to him, and he attacks Sarabi for comparing him unfavorably to Mufasa (Wrath). Most Disney antagonists have at least one redeeming quality about them that hints at an air of conscience persisting deep down, but Scar is an empty shell of a man so deceitfully sinister that he gladly sacrifices family if it means attaining the things he wants, a first for Disney antagonists at this point, that was later followed by Hades in in 1997’s “Hercules”.

– Aged well animation. Despite the lack of depth and detail associated with the backgrounds in some tight character angles of framing, the vibrancy in illustrations of animals and environment in the foreground generates a level of artistic merit that I’d easily put up against 80% of today’s animated advancements. Slow motion effects, expansive facial expression resonation, and no shortage of high intensity framing movements gives the film a maturity well beyond its years in terms of capabilities, and really stood as the measuring stick for animated feature length films well before the dawn of Disney Pixar. In addition to this, the haze cinematography is just enough of a presence in each frame without taking too much away from the vibrancy in production design that radiates with the influence of sunbaked scenery. This is a film that gets most of its attention for music and screenplay, and not quite enough for the luster of the lens that immediately captures your attention high atop a cliff during life’s sweetest celebration. In that perspective, “The Lion King” isn’t just a film, but an admiration for all things life, love, and family, and the poetic imagery of visual transfixion does wonders in relaying to the audience the things in life that are most important.

– Modern day Shakespaere. Part of what makes “The Lion King” so compelling and rich in its hierarchy setting is that it’s positively derived from arguably William Shakespeare’s biggest work of literature. Don’t believe me? Lets examine. Simba, like Hamlet, is the king in grooming, both feature an uncle who is eager to kill their nephew for the benefit of gaining the throne, Timon and Pumba easily echo the same comedy-instilled sidekicks that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern do for Hamlet, both Simba and Hamlet are driven by the ghosts of their fathers appearing to them in a vision, and the overbearing similarities of graveyards in each story, which involve jokester antagonists like the gravediggers (Hamlet) and the hyenas (The Lion King). Calling this a coincidence is a bit of a stretch, but even so, there’s no denying that Disney beautifully blends the worlds of stage and safari seamlessly, making for a screenplay that proves that great literature is immortal when redesigned to accommodate the era that borrows it.


– Lack of female influence. Between Nala and Sarabi, I couldn’t escape this overwhelming presence that female character’s simply don’t apply as much as a necessary influence to the dynamic of the film, and more than not serve as virtual arm candy for the happenings around their male counterparts. Nala receives screen time, but when you consider that there’s never a scene of lone reflection for her that doesn’t involve Simba in the very same scene, you start to conjure up feelings that the story isn’t interested in what she lost that fateful day. Likewise, Sarabi, Simba’s mother, goes missing for ample amounts of time after scenes that rightfully should include her, if only to document her reaction to immense loss. She has a few scenes, but what’s most concerning is that the film never answers if she is still the queen of the land after her husband’s untimely passing, and more than this why she isn’t at the crowning ceremony during the film’s closing shot.

– A tragic misstep. This is all personal opinion, but I feel like Mufasa died in the wrong scene during the movie. He is ambushed by a herd of wild animals, the trio of hyenas, and of course his own brother Scar, at the height of a casual day of training between father and son. This does very little for Simba in terms of emotional tug, because even though he lost his father to disgusting circumstances, it happens during a scene where Simba is obeying the royal parental unit, thus nothing of substance to regret about that fateful day. Now imagine if the death actually took place in the bone graveyard scene instead, during a defiance of his father, which would then lead him to lose the person who matters the most to him. The weight of his immature decision would weigh even heavier on the conscience of the boy, thus outlining a much stronger character arc and internal conflict for him to overcome in the way of adversity. The finished product death scene is fine, but a conflicted protagonist always feels leagues more relatable to the audience, and could’ve practically doubled the dramatic heft of the passing, that would only further enhance Simba’s distancing from the place he once called home.

My Grade: 8/10 or A-


Directed By David Yarovesky

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

My Grade: 8/10 or B


Directed By Olivia Wilde

Starring – Beanie Feldstein, Kaitlyn Dever, Billie Lourd

The Plot – On the eve of their high school graduation, two academic superstars and best friends (Feldstein and Dever) realize they should have worked less and played more. Determined not to fall short of their peers, the girls try to cram four years of fun into one night.

Rated R for strong sexual content and adult language throughout, drug use and drinking – all involving teens


– A Wilde ride. No offense to the wonderfully gifted Olivia, but I feel like she should give up acting and focus more on directing, because her debut effort behind the lens is among the greatest that I’ve ever seen in that regard. Wilde’s combination of energy, anxiety, and especially chaos is something that speaks volumes to the teenage spirit, as well as the infectious indulgence that the audience easily immerses themselves in from start to finish, and commands the biggest laugh from the audience based on where she places the camera at the right particular time. The editing is also sharp as a tack, preserving an absorbing quality in consistency that keeps the pacing stimulating through 100 minutes that seriously felt like half of it. To say that I had a blast with this film is an understatement, as it may very well be my favorite comedy of the past four years for the way it takes an ages old structure like the final party of high school, and boils it down to a story about non-romantic love between two best friends, and it’s a film that rewards by taking the very chances that its subgenre predecessors simply never capitalized on.

– Character’s first mentality. Aside from the exceptional work of its two leading ladies, which I’ll get to in a second, the film crafts and remains committed to its wide range of supporting cast, some of which play bigger roles in their dynamics with Feldstein and Dever, but all of which enhance the landing power of average material elevated by boisterous nature of their complex personalities. Usually when a film drifts away from its important leads, it starts to take away from the consistency in pacing, but Feldstein and Dever are able to confidently progress off-screen, while the focus of the film thrives because of the time and attention dedicated to preserving the world around them. There isn’t a single weak link among the very eclectically vibrant talents used to bounce off of the film’s main character’s, and it made me welcome the transitioning of multi-tiered storytelling because there wasn’t a single aspect that I didn’t want to re-visit as the film went on.

– One for the ladies. Wilde is a director who not only knows how to mold females into typically male stereotyped roles, but she also knows how to document a bond so strong that it often feels like these two character’s run on the same wavelength. A lot of that is in part thanks to the impeccable chemistry between Feldstein and Dever, which many teenage girls will be emulating for years to come. In Feldstein, it’s her cartoonish expressions and the passion displayed in saying lines that would otherwise boil a lesser comedic talent. Dever likewise balances a nuance of nerves towards a sexual awakening, that makes her tender when clashing with the unabashed honesty of Feldstein’s prying words, leading to several long-winded laughs thanks to their precision with the material. In addition to them, Lourd trumps anything that she has done on “American Horror Story” to this point, fleshing out a re-appearing goth character for a new generation. There’s a point in the film when her appearances feel almost angelic in the way they steer the two ladies through each party of debauchery, and Billie’s dry demeanor in getting across some rather stern details makes you almost have to rewind to make sure you heard her correctly.

– Music incorporation. Like more comedies are doing these days, “Booksmart” uses its soundtrack of mostly modern rap recordings as a gimmick, but does so in a way that feels representing of the psychology of the character’s in a particular situation. For instance, when the ladies require a slow motion montage to look cool, the accompanying of free-flowing hip hop casts them in a light that bears sarcasm, considering these two don’t have a rebellious bone in the bodies. When there’s a deeply moving dramatic sequence, like one that takes place under water, the composer slows everything down, and rides the waves of heart-breaking atmosphere to bring forth a feeling that we identify with and sink our teeth into, for the way it plays on our investment and well-being of the character’s. The collective compilation, while filled with tunes that are anything but my style, do a superb job of emulating the kind of attitude that Wilde requires throughout a night of mayhem, and prove that music can be necessary in garnering a much more valuable presence than just background noise.

– Dreamy cinematography. I don’t get to compliment a raunchy comedy often for its lens presentation, but Wilde, as well as cinematographer Jason McCormack, capture our attention with some truly beautiful sequences and movements of the camera that make this the exception to the rule. For visual clarity, Wilde shoots all scenes with Feldstein and Dever together tightly, and scenes apart with a wide angle lens. This is to better convey the connection and closeness that the two ladies share. There’s also two impressively shot long take sequences, one in particular involving a back-and-forth shouting match between the two leads, that is not only impressive for how much they had to memorize, but also in the way that the bouncing camera work takes just long enough to study the words playing off of one another before making its round trip back to the next person forced to listen. It’s clear that Wilde was going for so much more than conventional compositions and mundane framing, and her debut in the director’s chair instills a sense of ambition to the comedy genre that hasn’t been seen in quite some time.

– Another favor to the material is the coveted R-rating, which actually serves a dutiful purpose here. For this film to be given anything less than this rating would do a huge disservice to the teenage speech patterns that we expect. This also allows women the rare chance at being as open in their discussion’s as the men frequently are granted, but it never feels like an obvious gimmick such as it did in last year’s “Blockers”. Here, the material never lowers itself below the impressive intelligence of the two ladies grade point average, and is instead inflicted with patience until the moment in the scene of mayhem practically begs for it. Likewise, the sexual material is a bit testing of younger audiences, but shot tastefully enough, with more left to the imagination of the audience where to fill in the blanks. Part of me still believes this has to do with Hollywood’s uneasiness of seeing a teenage girl dabble in her sexuality, but at the end of the day, it is a part of the daily teenage routine that would otherwise be a huge disservice in overlooking if this film was anything but R-rated.

– Positive message. I pay great respects to the movie for playing against character stereotypes, and instilling a sense of originality in the lesson learned by our protagonists to not judge or assume about anyone else, as well as ourselves. I don’t feel I’m spoiling anything because the basis of this theme was clearly evident in the trailer, and the screenplay by four different female writers does a remarkable job of planting its feet firmly in the meat of the meaning, and illustrating a school that feels very much as progressive as the world outside it has taken to everything from cultural traditions, to sexual orientation. If I could pick one high school to go to from a movie, the one depicted in “Booksmart” might be my pick, if only for the dimensions given to what feels like real people for a change, that often are distributed into convenient clique groups that are often reduced to a single identifying trait.

– Every scene has meaning. This is a film that rewards the dedication of its audience, turning scenes that otherwise feel like miniscule throwaway’s in a conventional narrative, and planting the seeds of storytelling early to watch them bloom later on. There’s two examples of this happening during the film, and what’s important is that each example is given an ample amount of time to allow audiences to forget about the small details, before they incorporate them back in at the most naturally opportune time. It’s the culmination of a third act, which combines enough dramatic pulse, meaningful stakes, and especially storytelling progression to end the film on a high note of creativity.


– Familiarity. I mentioned this earlier when I said that the popular tropes of the genre are clearly evident, especially in 2007’s “Superbad”, which the film borrows a bit too heavily from to be coincidental. Aside from the incredible coincidence that Feldstein is Jonah Hill’s real life sister, both films share that Hail Mary party at the end of the year, with each character pining over a love interest, and taking a long and troubling road before finally making it to the party. “Booksmart” never runs from the things it mimics so unabashedly, but in terms of breaking new ground from a narrative standpoint, the film’s biggest hurdle will be in trying to escape the notes of comparison from moviegoing audiences, who feel like they’ve seen it all before, so why is it necessary to see again?

– Plot conveniences. There are quite a few of them. In fact, one deep moment of thinking through scenarios and solutions would bring forth the idea that all of the madness that these two girls go through could be easily resolved if they used even half of the intellect they maintain in being at the top of their class rankings. There’s also certain tidbits dropped especially late in the movie that are there out of convenience for the very next scene being able to proceed. Bits of exposition like these drive me crazy for the laziness they battle against from within, and stand as the only noticeable flaw that I have from a collection of writers that otherwise knew how to progress a story seamlessly.

My Grade: 8/10 or B+

The Mustang

Directed By Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre

Starring – Matthias Schoenaerts, Jason Mitchell, Bruce Dern

The Plot – Roman (Schoenaerts), a convict in a rural Nevada prison who struggles to escape his violent past, is required to participate in an “outdoor maintenance” program as part of his state-mandated social rehabilitation. Spotted by a no-nonsense veteran trainer (Dern) and helped by an outgoing fellow inmate and trick rider (Mitchell), Roman is accepted into the selective wild horse training section of the program, where he finds his own humanity in gentling an especially unbreakable mustang.

Rated R for adult language, some violence and drug content


– A wide range of emotional response. Very few films, especially today, have the kind of depth in screenplay that connects with the audience on such a personal level. To this degree, “The Mustang” brought forth, laughter, sadness, anger, and an overall sense of inspiration in me, for what I call the modern day rendering of the “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” ending. If films can invest you in a way that makes you feel one of these emotions, then it’s done a good job at connecting to its audience, but when you have a film touch you in a way that allows your own registry to ride hand-in-hand with those of the character’s, then you have something that transcends the screen, and gives us a sense of the vital importance of connection, even beyond that of a human level.

– The Roman/horse dynamic. When you compare these two lost souls coming together, you discover that they have a lot more in common than meets the eye. Both of them are captured and imprisoned in ways that take them away from familiarity. Both are well reserved in their demeanor’s, requiring the bond of the other to open up and invest in something important to feel free again. Likewise, they both come together during a time when the lives surrounding them have crumbled, leaving them leaning on the dependency of the other to get by, and redeem the level of trust that they are both capable of. I also found it interesting how Roman’s engagement with the horse is reflected upon the brief visitation interaction’s that he shares with his daughter. The first one is very well reserved and full of anger, but by the third one he seeks forgiveness and redemption for the missteps taken in his handling of the situation. It’s not accidental that Laure depicts these two living, breathing creatures so closely in movements, and it all leads to the final shots of the film, where I interpret that these two become one almost metaphorically, bringing forth a back-handed triumph in the closing moments that makes sense the more you think about it.

– Heavy-hitting turns. This is easily Schoenaerts single best performance to date, transforming himself physically and personally to becoming this shell of a convict who remains to himself. Matthias’ ability to say so little throughout the movie, yet speak so loudly in facial reactions is something that establishes a line of immersive acting that he hasn’t been saddled with until now, and despite this character being a bit of a terrible person, you engage in him because his eyes are the windows of this tortured soul that is living with a fine combination of grief and regret. It builds to a third act transformation that gives way to him being able to open up the closer he gets to his trusty four-legged companion. In addition to him, it’s always charming to see Bruce Dern’s dry delivery of wit that commands respect if only for its stern enveloping. Young phenom Gideon Adlon is also a revelation, making the most of a few scenes with unabashed anger in streaming tears, that really forces you to turn against our central protagonist. I saw Adlon in last year’s so-so raunchy comedy “Blockers”, but her turn here shows that there’s a lot of fire burning in this furnace, and with any luck in casting, we will see her coals burning for a long time to come.

– Precise editing. The tight cuts are asked to perform a bit more magic in this film, as the movements of the horses are used to manipulate audiences into thinking that we are seeing them naturally attack. This is done with a fine amount of close angles and fluid continuity in pasting different takes together, to make a presentation that puts us front-and-center with Roman, in the heat of the action. Sequences like these almost give us no time to zero in and focus on even the slightest detection of weakness, but we never find it, and it’s all a testament to Clermont-Tonnerre’s hand of magic, where she only allows you to see what you want to see. For her first feature length film, her consistency never shatters, and it makes me want to see what else she can do on a bigger scale production.

– Seeping-in musical score. The somber ingredients dispersed in the film echo such a cold sadness in the presentation of the movie, that it almost feels somewhat reflective of Roman’s interior compass. What’s impressive is patient level of volume used in post production to never overstep its boundaries on the art of the scene itself, and only becoming audibly obvious during scenes of transition, where the echo of hopelessness begins to evaporate. The man behind the callous tones is Jed Kurzel, the same man who scored “The Babadook”, one of my favorite horror films of the decade, and it was his influence that triggered much of the anxiety-ridden nightmare fuel that film had to offer. For “The Mustang”, he’s able to show a much more intimate side than horror can grant, and the confidence in his music to never strike louder than anything in the scene itself, better allows the elements of drama to simmer with the heat in orchestral engagements that he sprinkles each scene with.

– Ruben Impens. One of my favorite cinematographer’s going today is back, and it’s no surprise that his boldly beautiful frames and color filters are the very best thing that this film has to offer. The wide angles that depict the mountainside and endless deserts convey a sense of freedom being so close, yet so far away for Roman. Likewise, the sunbaked effects that reflect in the camera itself, establishes a visual metaphor for his golden opportunity that he simply can’t let slip away. These things prove that a film doesn’t need a blockbuster budget to present these visually breathtaking enchantments, and these elements better channel the mental location of these characters, in a place that feels so isolated from everyone and everything they love.

– Educative and informative. A fine line of poignancy and human commentary persists in the idea of these horses being taken from their habitat, and sold for devilish greed, and the film never shies away from this inescapable feeling of victimizing that it is truly responsible for taking. Beyond this, I appreciate that the film not only gives us the facts with this disgusting poaching, but it also takes the time to teach us the steps in gaining a horse’s trust that other films may overlook. In this regard, we are able to slip into Roman’s shoes that much easier because we are learning things on the same speed that he is, and can’t escape that feeling of uncertainty and fear that smother the initial confrontations. This film not only told me how similar the breeds of human and horse are truly are, it showed it to me, and it proves that even in a 91 minute film, it’s important for audiences to understand how unpredictable their movements truly can be if you make even one wrong move.

– True story. I appreciate that the movie never got lost in the heat of the “Based on a true story” gimmick, and instead reserved itself for the beginning and end of the movie to relay its information. The end even treats us to some real life pictures of the people that the movie is based on, but doesn’t lose itself to fully telling their stories. This may sound a bit insulting to the real life figures, but when you’re not discussing a historical event of tragedy, the people can become shaped in whatever way the script requires them to be, to further enhance the element of surprise, which this movie has a couple of.


– Unnecessary prison subplot. This angle, which distracts from the intimacy of these stirring subplots, feels every bit as tacked-on as it does compromising to the film’s pacing. This angle involving drug trading and race war’s is something that didn’t feel synonymous with something in this particular prison film, and if it was removed completely, the film would trim ten minutes and lose absolutely nothing. It doesn’t hinder the progress of my score as a whole, but these brief hiccups were the only times when “The Mustang” felt like it was trying to be something and cater to a particular subgenre that it absolutely isn’t, and this element of the script simply doesn’t mesh well with its counterparts.

– Missed opportunities. Even if we do find out the “what” and the “how” of Roman’s incarceration, the “why” seems to be a much more important aspect that the movie never fully exploits for compelling drama. There’s a scene of remorse from Roman, where he speaks to his daughter about one faithful night, but the actions of an angry man come and go with so little understanding of the situation, that it almost feels secondary to the environment surrounding it. The father and daughter do confront one another, but for it being the closing shot between them, the resolution left a little more to be desired, and if it wasn’t for an additional closing narration (Which also feels tacked-on), this subplot would leave many audiences missing the finer points of easily the most engaging material that the movie has to offer.

My Grade: 8/10 or B+

Hotel Mumbai

Directed By Anthony Maras

Starring – Dev Patel, Armie Hammer, Nazanin Boniadi

The Plot – A gripping true story of humanity and heroism, the film vividly recounts the 2008 siege of the famed Taj Hotel by a group of terrorists in Mumbai, India. Among the dedicated hotel staff is the renowned chef Hemant Oberoi (Anupam Kher) and a waiter (Patel) who choose to risk their lives to protect their guests. As the world watches on, a desperate couple (Hammer, Boniadi) are forced to make unthinkable sacrifices to protect their newborn child.

Rated R for disturbing violence throughout, bloody images, and adult language


– Picture perfect documentation of the real life events. There are many different variations of heroes in this story, and the movie’s dedication in taking time to cover every end of the respective spectrum from this hellish nightmare is something that I commend Maras’ style of filmmaking greatly for. In addition to following our big name actors throughout this hotel, the film brings along no fewer than ten other pivotal characters, each with their own obstacle to face as a result of this terrorist group, and all of which inbedded with extreme engaging qualities from personality to heart that makes each of their tiers to this story feel vitally important. Most movies can’t carve out two interesting characters, but “Hotel Mumbai” brings for the single best ensemble that I’ve experienced so far this year. In addition to this, the film is obviously based on real life, so the predictable factor and endless cliches are thrown out the window in favor of finely tuned vulnerability all around, and it further elaborates that the less you know about this story, the better it will be for your indulgence in its unraveling.

– Versatile shot composition. The deviation from handheld to still frame is something that normally feels uncanny to me in the worst kind of way, but here it utilizes and stitches together both aspects fruitfully, thanks to pacing in photography that never overstays the benefits of either. The unnerving angles and sequencing add strong anxiety to the movie’s developments, crafting a sort of mouse maze within this hotel, in which two sides of the moral compass are heading down two different hallways that will eventually meet up, and only us the audience see the future on this inevitable confrontation. It tiptoes on this trepidation repeatedly throughout, and never grows stale or repetitive because the heartbeat of the action remains firmly gripped with what’s transpiring.

– Sizzling social commentary. Beyond the night’s mental tug-of-war that keeps each guest and employee on their toes, the inclusion of racism in the form of spiritual symbolism in clothing is something that I appreciated the screenplay greatly for, in its ability to turn the mirror of reflection against us, the very same people who displayed it towards the innocent after 9/11. This side thread is really just that: A momentary hiccup in the film’s much bigger picture, but its mere mention offers a poignant open door that helps us further realize what the victims deal with on a daily basis, which only provides yet another obstacle for them to contend with in their lives. I commend any film that takes valued minutes to try to carve out a better and more conjoined world, and it reminds us of the valued connection that movies can serve if we only stop to listen at what’s being said.

– A unique approach. I’ve always said that the best kind of antagonist is one whose intentions are clearly defined and given ample time to comprehend for us the audience. That couldn’t be more true here, as the film’s opening five minutes begin by following this terrorist group to India, as they prepare for the dangerous mission that awaits them. They all know that death is inevitable, yet because of everything they feel they’ve had robbed from them by supposed money hungry corporations and business time greed, we see the line of visibility in understanding. We are put in their shoes: hearing the message of hate from an unforeseen leader, and seeing what clues only further allude to such preaching by him. In a strange sense, the group themselves are the main character’s of the movie, and this mindset goes a long way in understanding the who as well as the why in a way that other films aren’t brave enough to capitalize on.

– Transcendence of film. A special touch that blends the worlds of real life and film seamlessly is the use of real life footage taken from the unfolding scene itself, which constantly reminds us that there’s a world much darker than the one that takes place in that magical realm of fantasy. The combination of news broadcasts and cell phone footage helps rivet these impactful scenes exceptionally so much more than actors and convenient editing ever could, and the choice to include chronologically with the transpiring film speaks volumes to such a tragic event holding such a place with the world that even 11 years later hasn’t been forgotten.

– Hard-R material. The violence is certainly there, even with the gunshots taking place with a wide angle lens, but the coveted rating does more for the dialogue and enhancement of the personalities in terms of distinguishing each character’s respective demeanor with the crippling drama that surrounds them. Jason Isaacs character is probably my personal favorite because of it. Here’s a guy who coerces prostitutes in the most charmless of methods, as well as insults hotel patrons unapologetically, and it humanizes the interaction aspect between these people much clearer and synthetically than a lesser rating more than likely would allow. Likewise, the make-up work gets a lot of time to shine, garnering enough wounds and dislocations to document the effect after the cause. This is the best kind of way to harbor an R-rating, and it cements the thought of how much weaker its devastating punch would be if it were taken down a letter or two.

– Technical achievements. The cinematography by Nick Remy Matthews is every bit as gritty as it is suffocating, emitting that overall dirty feeling of needing to take a shower after seeing it. Likewise, the tight angles and claustrophobic compositions speak volumes to the confines of the hotel patrons limited spots of relief from their pursuers. Finally, the editing is precise, keeping the consistency in entertaining pacing of each scene firmly gripped through two hours of pulse-setting action and conflict that constantly helps elevate the redundancy in material. I went into this film dreading it because of the questionable run time that I didn’t think possibly matched what transpired at the scene, but each scene included holds valued significance to the integrity of the victims, and brings forth the single easiest two hour sit that I’ve had in years.

– Featured players. It’s great to see Hammer and Patel again, as they’ve become two of my more sought after actors for the variety in projects they attack with two prestigious careers. Hammer is once again given a chance to play an action role, but this one really sees him commanding more of the Bruce Willis vibes involved with rescuing family and outsmarting terrorists that the story treats him to, while Patel juggles enough heart and nuance to establish himself as the glue that holds the story and group together. Without question though, the breakout is Tilda Cobham-Hervey as the babysitter of sorts for Hammer and Boniadi’s child. She doesn’t have a major role in the script, but the emotional stratosphere of this woman is something that simply cannot be ignored, displaying a command of endless tears and shook demeanor that truly echoes the effects of this invasion. Her more than anyone articulately taps in to the victim mentality, and it’s something that provided a roller-coaster of range that frequently covered my arms in goosebumps.


– Contrast to originality. I mentioned earlier that the film focuses primarily on that of the antagonists, and one backlash from this different style of following comes from the protagonists feeling so brutally underwritten that other than the tragedy itself, you find it difficult to indulge in any of their characters. When you really think about what you’ve learned from each of them, you come to understand that exposition in each of them before they ran into the hotel is deemed unimportant, and it’s a big mistake, as I feel that focus is needed to better draw out the drama in some of their untimely passing. Without it, the ambiguous victims in the film don’t fully realize the intended reaction required to sell the weight in consequences, unfortunately leaving over one hundred victims left without a character outline.

– Of the three films covering this touchy subject matter, “Hotel Mumbai” is the one that covers the most ground, yet ironically is the most assuming of the trio. What’s dangerous about this is it blurs the line creatively as to what’s legitimate and what’s speculation, forcing me to dig a little deeper if I want to disprove what is created just for the sake of the screen. I understand that there’s really no way to solidify the complete spectrum of events that took place with something behind closed doors, but I wish a film wouldn’t try as forcefully to force what doesn’t fit. In this exception, plot holes are appropriate, because I’d rather not tread where eyes and ears haven’t, if it means respect to those unable to speak.

My Grade: 8/10 or B+


Directed By David F. Sandberg

Starring – Zachary Levi, Djimon Honsou, Jack Dylan Grazer

The Plot – We all have a superhero inside us, it just takes a bit of magic to bring it out. In Billy Batson’s (Asher Angel) case, by shouting out one word: “SHAZAM!”, this streetwise 14-year-old foster kid can turn into the adult superhero Shazam (Levi) courtesy of an ancient wizard (Honsou). Still a kid at heart: inside a ripped, godlike body, Shazam revels in this adult version of himself by doing what any teen would do with superpowers: have fun with them! Can he fly? Does he have X-ray vision? Can he shoot lightning out of his hands? Can he skip his social studies test? Shazam sets out to test the limits of his abilities with the joyful recklessness of a child. But he’ll need to master these powers quickly in order to fight the deadly forces of evil controlled by Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong).

Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of action, adult language, and suggestive material


– A Different direction for D.C. In finding something that sticks to the wall positively, D.C has stripped everything down in order to find what is great about the comic book genre of films in the first place. Long gone are the big budgets, the extensive post-production rendering, in-the-dark cinematography, and atmosphere that makes us feel like we’re watching a movie from The Crow franchise. Instead, we are treated to an airy environment full of wonder and humor, vibrancy in color texture, and an overall presentation that looks like it was something off of a C.W Channel of shows. That’s not to say this is a bad thing, but instead reminds us that “fun” should be the first adjective mentioned when discussing comics, and with some hope in consistency to this approach, D.C will rise from the ashes to fight again.

– Imagination in action set designs. Where the budget that the movie does have goes is in the variety of backdrops and sequence pieces that stand as a love letter to the city of brotherly love. Because this is set in Philadelphia during the winter time, we are treated to a mall scene that pays homage to 1986’s “Big”, a convenience store, and a winter fair full of rides and prize booths for our characters to lose themselves in. These are settings with a purpose, and because of such we are treated to supreme improvisation when it comes to the ways these adversaries adapt and overcome one another that would otherwise make things difficult. Above all else, the setting of Philadelphia itself is an original take for comic book films, and proves that D.C is all for spreading their influence across the geographical stratosphere.

– The comedy works. One thing I was worried about heading into this film were the trailers that convinced me on everything BUT the humor, and thankfully this isn’t the case, as the film saves its best lines and sight gags for the feature presentation itself. Not everything lands as intended, but I can say that the chemistry between these actors, as well as the positive energy commitment that they give to making these lines pop from personality, is something that gave me plenty of hearty laughs, and all in a way that is good for the whole family. I also enjoyed the gags at superhero films, like long distance hearing, that otherwise usually bothers me, but is commended here for being called out by the sheer ridiculousness of it all. This is a PG-13 film, but there’s nothing here that is too extreme or testing for younger audiences, and I commend that much higher than something like “Deadpool” that can easily reach for the raunch of no restrictions whenever it needs to tickle its audience.

– Razor sharp performances all around. Aside from a little girl character, whose speech patterns were completely unbelievable, the rest of the cast here knocks it out of the park, and each receive ample attention in getting their characters over. For my money, it’s easily Levi and Grazer who steal the show, bouncing off of one another in interaction like typical bored teenagers who have just stumbled across the greatest thing in either of their lives. For Grazer, it was the slick tongue in the way he reacts to Shazam’s superpowers that I couldn’t get enough of, as well as the command he has over every scene he stands in. Mark Strong is also solid as an above average antagonist, who does carry with him a lot of torture from his past. Strong is having the time of his life playing this role, and the menace and persistence from his character design collides well with a demeanor that never shifts from serious. However, it’s definitely Levi’s show, as the complexity of harvesting the immaturity and curiosity of a teenager is something that is clearly evident in his deliveries, making it easier to see the child buried deep down in this barrage of bulging muscles that nearly protrude his seat. Levi’s charisma is feel good humor at its finest, and if his infectious powers have no effect on you what so ever, you may in fact be heartless.

– Evolution in script. There is a subplot involving Billy’s mother that until the final half hour or so I found to be faulty because of its believability, but it turns out that the film was saving the biggest impact for our hearts, and what emitted was a third act dramatic pull that I truly didn’t see coming, that even tugged at my heartstrings. This, in addition to an overall family-first narrative is something that I took great pleasure in, and proves that the film tries so much harder in conjuring up the human side of its superheroes for us the audience to see ourselves in. Because of such, it proved that this movie was doing so much more than resting on its laurels with a one-sided humorous pull, bringing with it the crossroads between past and present for our character that really serves as the catalyst for his psychological transformation.

– D.C continuity does exist. It’s funny to see a notable chapter in the D.E.C.U that does in fact take place in the same world as its most notable superheroes, but the film never feels desperate in getting that point over as anything other than table dressing. In addition, the weight of the threat from the antagonist itself, while serious, doesn’t feel big enough that the entire world is at stake, at least not yet, so it, as well as the distant setting from Gotham and Metropolis alike, makes it feel believable that all of this could be taking place somewhere out of the grasp of Batman or Superman alike. Most of all, it’s cool that because these are child characters, the film can exploit those superheroes as idols or rock stars in a way that their respective films never could, and it makes Billy’s delve into that territory feel much more attainable to the kid watching at home, from beyond the screen.

– Actual consequences. One scene in particular really stuck with me in the change of pace that we’ve come to expect from superhero films and what we’re able to see in regards to victims. While there is still some imagination to be left to shadows and colored glass, we do see character’s flying out of windows, character’s heads being eaten, and complete destruction on a basis that we’re often not privy to. Part of this is on Sandberg himself, a usual horror director, who brings his sense of sadistic saturation to the film without it ever feeling tasteless or pushing the envelope. It establishes him as the perfect director for bringing reality to the superhero genre, and as to where a film like “Batman Vs Superman” will overlook the many casualties that throwing a monster into a nitroglycerine plant will cause, “Shazam!” embraces it, and reminds us that with great power comes dangerous consequences.

– Perfect last second stinger. I felt that the film ended in a perfect place after the conflict resolution, but there’s one last scene that began to worry me for its purpose until I saw the point. I won’t spoil anything, but the final line of dialogue mumbled during this major surprise that is at least creative for what it does or rather doesn’t show, made me laugh and feel excited at the same time, and really brings to life the reality of kids becoming their heroes that I mentioned earlier on. It’s such a well filmed, finely-timed scene, that ends the film on the highest possible note that it rightfully could, and is the perfect transition into some child-like drawings of familiar faces in the universe. Also, stay for a mid credits teaser that will pay off if you were paying attention during the first act.


– C.G restrictions. Some of this can be forgiven for budget limitations, but the rendering of monster supporting antagonists brought to light some less than stellar animations when compared to a live action backdrop. Particularly for me, it’s the total lack of mouth movement from those characters that not only made the graphics feel lifeless, but also made it distracting each and every time we have to cut back to which ever one is talking because we couldn’t possibly give them moving mouths in the first place. Likewise, Shazam’s effects of transformation and teleporting is cut and edited in a way that leaves far too much to the imagination in terms of what we’re actually seeing. Think when you see Superman flying and everything feels so seamless. That isn’t quite the case here, but it’s never so compromising that it soils the integrity of the film as a whole, just a few spare scenes that shake immersion.

– Third act problems. (SPOILERS) Two things bothered me about the film’s final battle that I couldn’t get over, regardless of padded exposition for it. One involves a convenient plot device for the antagonist that allows us to stop them. Not only is the way that our protagonists figure this out far fetched at best, but it also comes out of nowhere for the time when the film finally introduces us to this aspect. My second problem was a shark jumping moment, in which Shazam! shares his powers with other kids in his group home, and I have a problem with it because it breaks the rules that we’ve come to know. Early on, the film says that only one person has the strongest heart, and that person will become Shazam! complete with all of its powers. Now we’re supposed to believe there are six people with the strongest heart. Doesn’t really make it the strongest heart, does it? For my money, I wish it would’ve just been Shazam! overcoming the odds to defeat the opposition, even if it’s to say that family fighting together is a lot stronger. It’s a bit overdone on that narrative, and threw a little too much at the screen in the closing moments.

My Grade: 8/10 or B+ and my favorite film in the modern day D.E.C.U