Hustlers

Directed By Lorene Scafaria

Starring – Jennifer Lopez, Constance Wu, Julia Stiles

The Plot – Inspired by the viral New York Magazine article, the film follows a crew of savvy former strip club employees who band together to turn the tables on their Wall Street clients.

Rated R for pervasive sexual material, drug content, adult language and nudity

POSITIVES

– Cross brand appeal. “Hustlers” is the perfect date movie, in that it offers plenty for both sides of the gender coin to thoroughly invest in. For the ladies, it’s a story of female empowerment, and lashing back against a system and its corrupt brokers, for the roles they played on nearly bringing our society down whole. For the guys, it’s obviously the benefit of seeing so many beautiful women showing off their stage presence, balancing sexy and classy handedly with very little nudity shown throughout the picture. This aspect got my foot in the door, but as the film continued, I found myself further investing in the beats and conflicts of the characters, putting to bed any pre-conceived notions about me supposedly knowing what kind of movie I was getting myself into.

– Storm of Scafaria. It’s perfect that this film is held together by female hands because in addition to battling back against stereotypes for the depicted career choice, at its core it’s really a story of female control, and the consequences that this plays on male masculinity. Lorene is brilliant in getting to know her characters first, but it’s her presentation that truly grips this story into unconventional methods, often feeling like the female “Wolf of Wall Street” for all of the depth contained inside. There’s also a devilishly delicious amount of humor that compliments the dramatic elements superbly, and rides the waves of sharp shift effortlessly because someone as capable as Lorene emits irony in these extraordinary situations. This is a director who understands the psychology of being a mother, a friend, a provider, and even a fighter, and it’s in those many molds where she grants us one of the more compelling outlines for female conflicts than we’re typically used to, establishing these protagonists as the shade of grey between good and bad.

– Moral compass. One of the things concerning me about this film heading into it was how much compassion I would have for a group as dirty as the men they deceive, and thankfully the movie is responsible enough not to invest enough stock in one side or the other. Yes, you may feel inspired by the stand these women take against their suitors, but the screenplay presents us more than enough examples of what they’re doing being wrong, complete with a few of the ladies even questioning if they’ve crossed a line that they will never get back to. This gives the characters more of a human element than I was remotely expecting, and doesn’t feel like the events in the film are being sugar-coated for the convenience of buying them unearned empathy. A lot of wrong takes place during “Hustlers”, but the attention given to consequences and moments of self-clarity prove that it’s teaching a greater lesson than a get rich quick scheme, it’s really carving out a cautionary tale for taking life into your own hands.

– Ladies night. Everyone minus maybe Cardi B hits the mark brilliantly here, but it’s especially Lopez and Wu who easily steal the show. The most time is definitely dedicated to their characters, but Wu’s fiery emotional registry combined with Lopez’ guidance over her learning ladies reminds you that there’s no place you’d rather be. This is easily Jennifer’s best performance to date, and I say that because of the control she exerts over the attention of each scene, as well as the jaw-dropping impressive feats that she masters physically in such shape-shifting stage sequences. Even after a couple of decades of captivating us on-screen with her endless beauty, J-Lo proves that it’s her gravity over dramatic tension that proves she’s much more than a pretty face. Her and Wu are giving everything to their respective roles, and it’s the dynamic established early with a pivotal coat-sharing scene that perfectly sets the stage for the bond that develops between them.

– Style AND substance. Beneath this real life story that is playing out before our very eyes, we are treated to these mesmerizing sequences of flare being played out, bringing us wholeheartedly into the wild nightlife of a strip club and all of its seedy patrons. The neon lighting is a must for the kind of visual hypnosis that the ladies have over their prey, and the handheld camera compositions allow us to follow them every step of the journey, from pregame warm-ups to sales interactions with customers. Scafaria adds a touch of class and trance to the underbelly of New York nightlife, even preserving her nudity deposits during the moments when their inclusion doesn’t dominate or take away the focus of the scene. Ironically enough, there are two scenes involving nudity, and one is male nudity. Take from that what you will.

– The music. Completely brilliant choice of songs, as well as articulation in incorporation to make the music serve a storytelling gimmick of its own. On-stage, the song, dance, and essence of the environment play out seamlessly together, cementing an artistic consistency that fires on all cylinders. Off stage is where the real magic happens however, as the topical nature of a cohesive soundtrack adds a touch of humor and relevancy to what is being discussed by our characters in the foreground. For instance, there’s a scene where Wu’s grandmother discusses meeting Frankie Valli, and sure enough playing in the background is “Rag Doll” by the very same artist. This is far from the only example of this brilliance, but I would rather not spoil the charm and cerebral nature of its intention any further than I already have.

– Sound enhancements. During the third act, there are these measures taken during interview scenes that prove Scafaria has complete control over her story. It comes in the form of audible tweaks that will leave the audience wondering if the theater they watch it in is having technical difficulties, but actually its use plays perfectly into what is transpiring within the heat of the scene. One character shuts off a recorder, and suddenly we can’t hear the dialogue that is being exchanged between them, giving us a full immersion into the recorder serving as the gimmick that we are hearing played out in real time. Another example muffles a microphone during a sting being orchestrated, and it establishes another level of scene transformation that I never truly thought about prior to this movie. From this point forward, I will be looking for this in every movie where a character carries a mini microphone with them. Truly marvelous.

NEGATIVES

– Abrupt pacing. Easily the biggest problem that this film faces is the fact that it should’ve been longer. I say this especially during the first act of the movie because so many elements of dramatic tension are compartmentalized and rushed, leading to diminished returns later on when a scene reaches for them. The second half of the movie definitely slows it down more satisfyingly, but there are still angles within the holes being filled in with the investigation that don’t feel fully rendered, leaving us with a neat and tidy explanation of a real life story where there’s definitely more to it, especially since I’ve read the article that the movie is based on. If this film lands around two hours, it can take its time with more of highs, which would further flesh out the tragedy of the lows, and allow us the audience to see the stark contrasts in both extremes.

– Plot device. The central character in the film is Constance Wu, who is being interviewed by Stiles’ reporter character to detail all of the events of her time with Jennifer Lopez’ character. My problem with this angle are some conversations and events that take place without Wu’s character ever being present at the scene. Because the film uses Wu as a storytelling device, we rely on her to present us all of the facts, but anyone with half a brain could sniff out the logic that persists in events transpiring where she is nowhere to be found. This did at least inspire me to seek out the real story for myself, but establishes a theory that the film would work better if Stiles was interviewing every girl involved in the scam, for the sake of our believability. That way, the events would seem pieced together by four different voices, instead of one whose knowledge can only be justified by everyone telling her every single word and every single action after it happened?

– Cardi B. This easily feels like a written-in cameo at the last minute, as the dialogue and movements of the character feel unlike any other one within the confines of the film. Her line reads would be blamed entirely on her lack of character transformative acting, but the lines themselves are tacky and cliche’d to the point of feeling like lyrics from one of her songs. In addition to this, her lack of screen time in only three scenes throughout the film gives us this unshakeable feeling that her name was put on the poster to manipulate her fans into thinking that this was her first big screen role, and while that sentiment is true to a degree, it’s such a minimally diminishing role that she might as well be one of the many background dancers who don’t mumble a single line of dialogue throughout the film. At least then her tongue constantly hanging out wouldn’t have a soundtrack to accommodate it.

My Grade: 7/10 or B-

The Kitchen

Directed By Andrea Berloff

Starring – Melissa McCarthy, Tiffany Haddish, Elisabeth Moss

The Plot – The wives of New York gangsters in Hell’s Kitchen in the 1970s continue to operate their husbands’ rackets after they’re locked up in prison.

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

POSITIVES

– Star-studded cast. Give credit to this trio of ladies, because they are making casserole out of dogshit. McCarthy, Haddish, and especially Moss are a continuous presence in front of the camera, and offer a combination of delightful exchanges between them, as well as the opportunity in portraying a role that is against type for them, was something that gave dimensions to these usually iconic comic faces. The best for me is easily Moss, who endures loneliness, everyday abuse, and a complete character transformation that stood as the only protagonist who I found myself getting behind for support. On the opposite of that, it’s not that McCarthy and Haddish’s characters are detestable, but rather the film gives them no ounce of empathy to make you truly invest in the predicament’s of their characters, and soon it becomes two seasoned veterans of acting who are emoting through these average human beings, who don’t offer a shred of relatability to bring out the indulgence in their character’s. Aside from this, surprising cameo appearances from Common, Bryan D’Arcy James, Margo Martindale, and the loose cannon rumblings of Domhnall Gleeson round out a production of big names, who colorfully express themselves within arguably the single most dangerous place in America during the 1970’s.

– Hard R rating. What I commend this film for is it doesn’t beat around the bush in its violence or graphic material, cutting straight to the pulse of the streets for better or worse to the integrity of the environment. Some of the deaths in the movie were so blunt and unapologetic that it felt conventional for the time period, etching out a level of brutal honesty that most films try to glamorize for the sake of pleasing a rating that accomodates more audiences. In addition to this, the language authentically replicates the mob mentality, complete with four letter words and stern threats throughout that serve as the only framing device where it feels like the script immersed itself as so much more than an entertaining film.

– Female empowerment. Even with a script that does little favors in getting to know and justify the actions of our female dominated cast, the angle of being a metaphor for female inspiration is one that takes some unusual turns. It turns out that anything men can do, women can do more gruesome, especially in the instant of Moss’ character working closely with Gleeson to dispose of a body. In addition to this, each of the three women strive to overcome someone who works to keep them reserved in their role as an obeying housewife, transforming themselves in the face of adversity as this trio of terror who keep moving through the punches of adaptability. This is certainly the easiest aspect that the film could’ve attained, but it’s nice to know that it doesn’t lose its charms anywhere in the sea of male faces that could’ve easily overstepped their boundaries where the film didn’t sell it that way.

NEGATIVES

– Fumbling direction. It’s clearly evident that this is a first time effort behind the directing chair for Berloff, because nearly everything is disappointing in her visual flare for the drama that practically removes itself from this story. From her disjointed level of storytelling, to her rushed character development and sloppily rushed pacing for the story, to the complete lack of conscience associated with the editing, that leaves it feeling episodic by its brunt dissection, this is a presentation that almost immediately takes you out of it from the first scene, and leaves you feeling so dejected from the lack of adversity that makes it easier for these ladies to takeover with very little speed bumps. On top of all of this, the inspiration given to these performances make it feel like a paycheck film, and one that shouldn’t be associated with something so vital to a female director directing a female empowerment film.

– Lack of believability. This film has no time to slow itself down and set the stage for the events that lands responsibility at these ladies feet practically overnight. Especially considering that this is 1978 in Hell’s Kitchen, New York, the lack of male dispute towards a female takeover is something that I grew more concerned with the longer the movie progressed, and in terms of a story of adversity, this one has practically none of it. These dangerous male mobsters sit back because business is good, and we’re supposed to believe that there isn’t a single bone of machismo beneath their gruff exteriors, leading to dangerous home lives where a fine level of suspense could easily be developed. No mob movie should ever showcase a takeover being this easy, but “The Kitchen” proves that the only heat coming from it is the momentum that slowly omits itself with each passing scene.

– Tonally inbalanced. Being that this is actually a comic book movie, it’s no surprise that there is an element of comic timing to off-set the seriousness of graphic material that paints itself throughout the film. The problem is the level of organic that these compromising tones don’t competently balance, leading to an environmental capacity which is every bit as forced humorously as it is compromising to the true urgency of the situation. A couple of laughs here and there are fine to cool off these very surreal deaths being shown to us, but too much can leave it searching for an identity, and in this case one it never finds. The cheesy dialogue also does it no favors in capturing an essence of vulnerability within the characters, and outside of McCarthy, the ladies never feel the weight of the circumstances that they’ve drawn to them within the heat of the neighborhood, thanks to their newfound inheritance of power.

– As a period piece. While mostly cohesive with that of the essence of 1978, there’s no sense of alluring style or compelling cinematography to truly sell the dated visuals as something entrancing. There’s never any effort made to transform the neighborhood into the proper day and age, where the barrage of signs and product placement find weight in a particular age of era. Beyond this, the only time when the script tries to establish itself in its designated year is during a bar scene involving some super sloppy sound mixing, which elaborates on the most basic of conversations involving Reggie Jackson and the New York Yankees. This is definitely a conversation that could and did exist in 1978, but the most obvious in terms of story location. It underwhelms at the one thing nearly every period piece today radiates with, and never duplicates the comic book appeal that comes with splashes of vibrant colors.

– Montage game. This is two reviews in a row where valued exposition is cashed in for musical montages, which visually rush us through a story that would better be served living through the events themselves. If done once or twice, fine, but this film has no fewer than five musical montages, complete with 70’s rock tracks which manipulate the audience into feeling like they are fine with such an abrupt shredding. In my opinion, this film never had a chance to succeed if it wasn’t interested in telling a complex story for at least two hours, and through a series of montages with a show rather than tell mentality, we get a taste for the juicy parts of the film which could’ve better progressed the pace of the events naturally, giving us characters and situations that feel grown rather than topical.

– Strange storytelling methods. There’s a lot to unload here, but I will keep it brief to limit spoilers. Two major things that bothered me about the script were the introduction of Gleeson’s character, as well as a second act twist, which limits the appeal that the story was going for in two such instances. For the former, the manner in which his character is introduced not only undermined his introduction, but also the scenario that was taking place in the heat of the moment. It felt like they were going for something with dramatic pull, but neither ever attributed to such an obvious direction competently. In terms of the second act twist, there was no set-up to it at all. It’s a surprise that nobody was wondering about, which comes out of nowhere and sells itself as a twist just because. Most of this goes back to the first time director being a reputable screenplay writer all of her life, not understanding how to telegraph the impacts of these scenarios in a visual capacity, taking something that looked good on paper, yet translated terribly in uninspired execution.

– Unnatural story pacing. This is within the story itself, and not the run time of the film overall. The husbands are given a three year sentence early on in the movie, and literally three scenes later (I’m not kidding), a whole year has passed in storyboard movements. If this wasn’t mentioned from Moss’ character, I would’ve never known this at all, and the lack of digestion for time that the film so ruthlessly ignores would make it feel like everything inside takes place within a matter of days. This is as disorienting of a watch as I have seen in 2019, and if the husband’s time was anything like the passing of time that takes place in this movie, then consider it was the easiest time that any criminal has ever endured.

My Grade: 3/10 or F

Cold Pursuit

Directed By Hans Petter Moland

Starring – Liam Neeson, Emmy Rossum, Laura Dern

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

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

POSITIVES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NEGATIVES

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

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

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

My Grade: 7/10 or B

The Mule

Directed By Clint Eastwood

Starring – Clint Eastwood, Bradley Cooper, Michael Pena

The Plot – Earl Stone (Eastwood), a man in his 80s who is broke, alone, and facing foreclosure of his business when he is offered a job that simply requires him to drive. Easy enough, but, unbeknownst to Earl, he’s just signed on as a drug courier for a Mexican cartel. He does well, so well, in fact, that his cargo increases exponentially, and Earl is assigned a handler. But he isn’t the only one keeping tabs on Earl; the mysterious new drug mule has also hit the radar of hard-charging DEA agent Colin Bates (Cooper). And even as his money problems become a thing of the past, Earl’s past mistakes start to weigh heavily on him, and it’s uncertain if he’ll have time to right those wrongs before law enforcement, or the cartel’s enforcers, catch up to him.

Rated R for adult language throughout and brief sexuality/nudity

POSITIVES

– Great responsibility towards the outlook of Earl as a person. One of the things that worried me during the trailers was the film trying to cast Earl under this light of heroic happenstance that was easily relatable to anyone watching, and while the film certainly gives its central protagonist a lot of unapologetic personality, he is anything but honorable when you consider the things he puts above those who love him unconditionally, as well as some of his unabashed speech patterns that carve out a borderline racist. Especially is the case with Eastwood serving as the director and star of the movie, it gives him great selflessness to take this character in the direction that mirrors that of his real life counterpart.

– A hidden secret. It’s quite intelligent and even remotely poetic that Clint uses his own real life daughter Alison in the role of his on-screen daughter Iris. While the film somewhat drops the ball on this element of the film creatively (More on that later), there’s no mistaking that the fire and chemistry that harvests between them makes for some truly gut-wrenching scenes of dramatic entanglement. I love when a director isn’t afraid to blend the worlds of life and film accordingly, and this instance gives the movie the kind of subtle creative nuance needed to bring out the best in scenes of importance.

– Poignant approach on the value and appreciation of family. There’s nothing subtle about this element even if you’ve seen the trailers, but the underlying value of what grows beneath the phrasing as the story transpires is something that adds great depth and personal identity far beyond that of words uttered in a trailer. No matter how successful Earl is, he can’t escape the magnitude of what he gave up in life to follow his careers, and there’s strong representation with this feeling in a majority of the film being spent with Earl, alone, staring out a window, being isolated from the surrounding world, with all he has to show for his choices. Hard hitting material indeed.

– Eastwood and Cooper carve out two respectably complex characters for completely different reasons. Aside from the film measuring them as equals in terms of importance to the story, each of them are easy to marvel at for how they remarkably play against type roles than they’re used to. For Clint, it’s being depicted as this weakling of sorts, being pushed around by those of higher rank in the cartel, leaving him often the victim instead of the power player we’re used to. For Cooper, he portrays this no-nonsense FBI type that he only hinted at in “American Hustle”, and manages to grip onto with much more confidence in this film. While the film features other big names like Dianne Wiest, Laurence Fishbourne, Michael Pena, and Andy Garcia, it is the work of Eastwood and Cooper presenting us a fresh side of two reputable careers that really keeps their cat-and-mouse game fresh throughout.

– Exceptional photography of the open road. Some of the wide angle lens shots in the film are breathtaking, proving Eastwood has merit when it comes to establishing a setting and vibe comfortably, all the while visually narrating us through Earl’s many journeys. The winding road shots put us right in the frame of mind of Earl without feeling like too obvious of a gimmick, and the in-depth look at some Midwest American landscapes contains food-for-thought in the film’s valued depiction of an old soul in an ever-changing society.

NEGATIVES

– Strange social commentary. As is the case with all Eastwood directed films, he deems it necessary to take big amounts of minutes out of the film to discuss matters that are on his mind, that mean nothing to the context of the script. For “The Mule”, it’s poking fun at gay relations, certain words being offensive for minorities, and the difficulty associated with using the internet. Each of these aspects literally come out of nowhere when they’re brought to light, and end up feeling like a series of great debates started by your grandfather. Ya know, the one who never admits when he’s wrong and refuses to grow with the progressing world around him. They are all matters that are never required in the film, and only make Clint himself look like a senile spud, whose filter probably should’ve been left on.

– Sloppy editing transitions. You have to look a little more carefully for this one, but late in the first act there are some horrendous editing sequences with Earl interacting with his newfound employers that feel like a first time job opportunity for someone fresh out of film school. I say this because the continuity of characters in frame is every bit as poorly telegraphed as the variety in angles displayed from scene-to-scene of focus on Earl. What I mean by this is that he will be itching his head in one scene, while pointing at his watch in the very next cut. Teleporting in place is an aspect I never imagined with a film like this, but due to some uninspired cuts in the film, we make the impossible possible.

– Strays too far from the family narrative. There’s a period of around forty minutes in the middle of the film where Earl’s family isn’t seen or heard from amidst all of this unraveling chaos, and this has tremendous impact on the dramatic pull of the movie that feels non-existent. Without Earl saving his money for a greater cause, his intentions feel selfish, leaving nothing of focus for the character hanging in the balance for us to understand his motives. Aside from this, it gives us nothing of breather between the fight for power of the dry driving sequences of Earl singing and the pulse-setting thrill of FBI strategy that are the constant back-and-forth of this grounded screenplay.

– Tonally bankrupt. If you watched the deceitful trailers for “The Mule”, you’ll be excited to see an edge-of-the-seat dramatic thriller with all of the possibilities and none of the predictability. Sadly, this film is anything but, as Eastwood’s direction instead chooses to make 80% of this movie a comedy of all things, leaving any kind of intensity for the vulnerability of drug trafficking on the editing room floor. While the comedy is effective at more times than once, I never wanted to watch this movie to laugh, I wanted to see a cross-country chase with the elements of a western subtly nuanced beneath, but unfortunately Eastwood’s fumbling focus leaves this story feeling miles from its destination. Likewise, the trailer also gives away what few moments of tension the film artfully crafts for itself, showing us the steak before the sizzle that easily goes cold because of the familiarity we are patiently expecting.

– Anti-climatic ending. The most important scene in any film is the closing moments that remind you of the greatness you just experienced, and leaves us with the extra emphasis of driving the intention of its material home. “The Mule” doesn’t have this, in fact its final moments are so remarkably underwhelming and ineffective that the music doesn’t start for five seconds after the credits show, so as to say that even the film crew were expecting more. The only emphasis this ending provided me was an outline for the single biggest disappointment of the Winter movie season, as I was anticipating this film almost more than any other, but was left feeling the wear and tear of a film that felt like a million miles.

My Grade: 5/10 or D

White Boy Rick

Directed by Yenn Demange

Starring – Matthew McConaughey, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Richie Merritt

The Plot – Set in 1984 Detroit at the height of the crack epidemic and the War on Drugs, the film is based on the moving true story of a blue-collar father (McConaughey) and his teenage son, Rick Wershe (Merritt), who became an undercover police informant and later a drug dealer, before he was abandoned by his handlers and sentenced to life in prison.

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

POSITIVES

– Articulate production value in its respective decade setting. Considering I searched far and wide for something in the film to stand out as illegitimate of its 80’s establishment, the film does a solid job of echoing the very fashion trends and automobiles that were prominent in the Ford city. The males don flashy leisure suits of all shapes and color, but it’s in the furry jackets with gang surroundings where we get perhaps our most vivid take on the defining decade. These were very much the members only jackets of their time, long before it was only acceptable for a woman to wear fur.

– Variation in soundtrack that authentically represents the changing of the guard. For the first half of the movie, we’re treated to several tracks of Motown favorites, but as the film persists it’s the overtaking of rhymes and rhythm that distinguishes the change of voice within the streets. What this does is audibly represent Detroit’s transformative period from doo-wop to hip-hop colorfully enough in a way that echoes the very increase of violence and tension that we’re treated to from our character engagements.

– Presence behind the lens. There’s much to credit in Tat Radcliffe’s impeccable cinematography that unintentionally brings to life the beauty of the slums, but it would be nothing without the inclusion of Andrew Amine’s daring movements that really brings us along into this world of drug and weapon trafficking. The long takes are very persistent, studying the ever-changing locations and situations long enough to get a vibe for its danger and elegance alike, and the revolving shots that surround our cast give off the impression of life constantly moving around them with little reluctance.

– Dedication to Rick Junior. It would certainly be easy for this movie to overlook the importance of this being the youth’s story, especially with the big A-list names that more than make-up the celebrated cast inside, but Demange’s desire to see this as Ricky’s coming of age story is one that I greatly commend the movie for, in that he is the line between law and family that influence his every move as the glue between both. Mconaughey gets top billing, but the film’s unshakeable faith in keeping the focus on his kin is a decision that isn’t always easy, but one that pays off in spades for the integrity of the title and the story that never feels distracted.

– Without the family element, all else would fail. Because of the continued desire of Ricky to put his family back together, the film takes on a much more sentimental direction than I was rightfully expecting, proving itself as so much more than just another infiltration or get-rich-quick film that are currently all the rage in the drama category. In particular, it’s the bittersweet finale of a gut-punching third act that proves how much the dramatic pull was earned throughout, so much so that your heart is engaged in seeing this family outrun the live-fast lifestyle and setting that constantly surrounds them.

– Strong performances all around. What a breakthrough for Merritt, who manages roughly 90% of this movie’s story on his own. As Rick Jr, Merritt leaves enough divide in naive adolescence and street-smart hustle to represent how fast this youth is forced to adapt and grow-up to the ever-changing neighborhood around him. On top of that, the casting director couldn’t have chosen a more identical actor to play the real life figure. McConaughey gives another gripping dedicated turn as this father of two, who is trying to change himself for the better during a time when his kids are changing for the worst. Matthew emotes so much love and torture for the way he looks at his blood, and you start to really understand how vulnerable a parent’s responsibility really is, especially when their voice only goes as a far as the door their children go out to enter the world. Bel Powley was also a scene-stealer as Rick’s daughter, who herself has her own personal demons that she’s running from. This girl commands attention every time she enters the screen, and my heart ached for the decisions she made that cost her so much time along the way.

– Seedy setting. I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for films that are set in the Motor City, and thankfully ‘White Boy Rick’ doesn’t squander the opportunity at some layered atmosphere that fill in the blanks of the imagery that surround it. Rick’s Detroit stage in the 80’s is one that still feels optimistic enough in the lurid seduction of neon lights and post-disco skating rinks, but it’s in the arrival of a cold, despairing Winter where the air of optimism quickly fades to grey, giving way to a chillingly numbing dose of reality that the characters simply can’t run from.

NEGATIVES

– Treads, but never fully walks through the poignant debate of guns versus drugs, as well as the corruption of the American judicial system. On the former, there’s a brief scene in the film where the father and son discuss their mutual poisons being unleashed onto the community, and what the real difference is between either. Unfortunately, the scene quickly and unfortunately evolves into something of bigger physical magnitude, and we’re left without a conscience for a movie that so desperately needed one. As for the law itself, it never feels like a big enough presence on the screenplay, disappearing halfway through the movie for a long period of time.

– Feels like scenes are missing. Rick moves in with his grandpa immediately after doing something terribly wrong to him? The mentioning of dad’s roommate girlfriend, despite us never seeing or meeting her? The formation of Rick’s gang and how he even met them? These are just a couple of examples of scenes during the movie that came out of nowhere, and feel like they constantly did a disservice to editing that was otherwise on-point for holding down the consistency of storytelling. These examples give off the feeling that this 106 minute movie could easily have a two-and-a-half hour director’s cut lying around somewhere.

– Questionable time transformations. While I mentioned earlier that the music, wardrobe, and production are spot-on for their respective era, the lack of attention to physical character progression is something that deeply troubled me. This film goes through four years of story, and in that time father, son, daughter, nor anyone ever change hairstyles or facial growth, or really anything to articulately translate the many lapses in time. It’s this kind of thing that constantly takes me out of a story, and is the easiest thing to clear up in terms of continuity.

7/10

Peppermint

Directed by Pierre Morel

Starring – Jennifer Garner, John Gallagher Jr, John Ortiz

The Plot – Tells the story of young mother Riley North (Garner) who awakens from a coma after her husband and daughter are killed in a brutal attack on the family. When the system frustratingly shields the murderers from justice, Riley sets out to transform herself from citizen to urban guerilla. Channeling her frustration into personal motivation, she spends years in hiding honing her mind, body and spirit to become an unstoppable force — eluding the underworld, the LAPD and the FBI; as she methodically delivers her personal brand of justice.

Rated R for strong violence and adult language throughout

POSITIVES

– Wrong Place, Right girl. Garner once again gives a stimulating performance, this time as a gang-fighting vigilante, with a lot of pain from her tortured past. In living up to the bill, Jennifer showcases Riley’s transformation as one that clearly divides the two sides of her life, before and after the murders, giving the character the perfect confliction within herself that still yearns to love and be loved. The problem is never Garner in the slightest, but rather the film’s stumbling direction, that sadly once again doesn’t live up to its end of the agreement, in the same way 2004’s ‘Elektra’ nearly ruined her career.

– This is a solid hard-R rating, and those are the kind of stances unfortunately missing from today’s action genre scene. ‘Peppermint’ is anything but sweet, and its visceral carnage candy is the kind that will resonate with audiences, for its combination of fast-paced fight choreography and impactful gun violence that never disappoint. In this regard, ‘Peppermint’ is a homage to mid 90’s shoot-em-up’s that reminded us of the high stakes that our characters so enthusiastically engage in. It feels comfortable in its skin, and there’s something that I respect about that.

NEGATIVES

– This is a film that could’ve greatly benefited from a better editor. Scenes feel like they’re missing between supposed breathing periods of the story, pasting together two scenes that bring to light the problems without allowing time in between. Riley feels like she literally flies across town with impossible speed, characters meet their fates from one scene to the next without much explanation, and the action sequences themselves sometimes feel far too choppy, especially when combined with claustrophobia in location that has it lacking detection.

– Strange effect choices. No film should ever be compared to ‘Suicide Squad’, let alone in this example, but ‘Peppermint’ brings throughout a visually forced exposition that is every bit as unappealing to the eye as it is unnecessary to character psychology. The things the film is telling us aren’t exactly groundbreaking, and the snap-cut instances of their inclusion constantly reminded me of the Joker introduction scene from the film I mentioned earlier, with characters (Including Riley herself) popping in and out of frame like a disappearing trick.

– Offensive pacing. While the film never lagged for me in a 95 minute runtime, the story progression is an entirely different story. The film’s halves are uneven, with the second half feeling like it is constantly speeding towards a red light, and this handicaps the films in many ways. For one, we are told more than shown of the deaths that matter to us. Considering the first half of the film builds up a few characters in particular who hurt Riley, it feels like a betryal that we never get to see her revenge game realized against them. One scene has three victims hung up high on a ferris wheel, and I’m curious how this was even possible by Riley alone?? Then there’s Riley’s backstory when she vanishes for five years. Talking about this time and not showing it is a GREAT misjustice because it is in those scenes where we can gain great believability in Riley’s transformation. It’s the worst kind of slop, and proves the screenwriter didn’t care enough to stack the momentum to the film’s favor. Beyond this, the film overall lacks great urgency for how easy Riley is slicing through this Los Angeles gang like knife through butter. Pacing that is too quick can greatly hinder what’s memorable about a film, and that is what you have here.

– Three different endings. If this film ends in the first or even the second scene that feels like it is wrapping things up, then I would’ve been able to commend it for the bravery and sacrifice of believing in a cause, but unfortunately that isn’t the case here. Not only does this movie sequel bait for a second chapter that will undoubtedly never happen, but it buys its way out in the easiest of escapes, making the touching scenes before it that much more pointless because of it. There’s also a third act twist, which is easily predictable for the lack of exposition given to the antagonists in earlier scenes. The reason I was able to call it out is because the film spends a little too much time with a certain character who has minimal interaction with Riley, setting up an inevitable confrontation between them that can’t come quick enough.

– A Fox News wet dream. It’s great that even during a pivotal time when gun violence in schools is all the craze, there are still movies that have an unflattering agenda to sell. I have no problem with guns being used in action films, in fact they’re basically required, but the film’s lack of responsibility that comes with picking one up is something that still greatly troubles me. Guns look cool in movies, so youths are that much more inspired to pick one up, proving that two wrongs by characters does indeed make a right. If this isn’t enough, the antagonists are of course entirely one-dimensional Mexican characters, and given an immense amount of facial tattoos that make them conveniently easy to recognize in a line-up. I’m certain that movies don’t come on after Hannity, but I believe ‘Peppermint’ might be the first.

– Same old same. You don’t have to look far for Punisher style vigilante movies over the last ten years. Hell, after March’s ‘Death Wish’, this is the second one this year with an identical premise and progression. Riley even dons a bullet-proof vest to her wardrobe that makes a die-hard Punisher fan like me yawn with displeasure. What’s troubling about this is ‘Peppermint’ never does anything to break itself away from the pack, feeling like a greatest hits or tropes and cliches for the subgenre that we mark off like a virtual checklist the longer the film goes on. Even if you haven’t seen ‘Peppermint’, you really have. It’s derivative of movies that did it better, and did it first.

– The name Peppermint itself is such a terrible title for this movie, because its usage in the film is minimal at best. Her daughter sells Thin Mint Girl Scout cookies and indulges in peppermint ice cream before the incident, and apparently this was enough to justify the title of the movie. While it has nothing to do with the film itself, a title can articulately set the mood for what a new viewer is getting themselves into. Just imagine if ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ was called Soapstone, for the material Andy carves the chess pieces out of. It’s stretching at the very least, and is a terrible one word representation for everything that follows.

– Spends far too much time with the lawful supporting cast than it does with the leading lady. This might be the biggest offense of all, because Garner feels like a supporting character in her own movie. Instead of trying to piece together Riley’s fragile psyche and taking time to value her interaction with the surrounding homeless residents who view her as an angel, we instead get this boring, by-the-books investigation that is only highlighting what we’ve visually been watching.

2/10

Kin

Directed by Jonathan and Josh Baker

Starring – Myles Truitt, Dennis Quaid, James Franco

The Plot – The story of an unexpected hero destined for greatness. Chased by a vengeful criminal (Franco), the feds and a gang of otherworldly soldiers,? a recently released ex-con Jimmy (Jack Reynor) and his adopted teenage brother Eli (Myles Truitt) are forced to go on the run with a weapon of mysterious origin as their only protection.

Rated PG-13 for gun violence and intense action, suggestive material, adult language, thematic elements and drinking

POSITIVES

– When this film focuses on the brotherly element being the forefront for the story, it’s surprisingly a lot of fun. For my benefit, the time when this is a road trip movie that pays homage to the grown up children’s movies of the late 80’s/early 90’s it works the best, and makes the most sense to the film’s title that articulates how the only thing these brothers have in this world are each other.

– Perfect film location. This film takes place in Detroit, Michigan, a city that is no stranger to the live fast style that many youths grow up with, and that concept in establishing the stage emphasizes why these characters have fallen on such hard times in each of their respective lives. For Eli, being a youth in this geography leaves him with little hope at a positive future, and it’s only until Jimmy comes back in his life where he realizes he’s not alone in the effects that this place has had on both of them.

– Tightly shot action sequences. Perhaps the biggest surprise to ‘Kin’ is that it is filmed competently enough, bringing a wide range of angle accessibility, as well as impact in devastation that makes its weight feel believable. The shot composition is versatile in its documentation of the fast firepower that comes in its direction, but thanks to the lack of shaking camera effects and average spring of cuts in between that feels nice on the eyes, we never miss any of the carnage.

– Performances over characters. This is a prime example of when a script does no favors for outlining exposition of each character, so the talented cast must go into business for themselves. Surprisingly, this is Truitt’s first feature length film, bringing with him a lot of heartache and isolation in Eli that would otherwise be mulled over in the establishing introductions. Reynor does wonders as the single dumbest character that I have seen in 2018. Thankfully, even though this character angered me on several occasions, for the selfish choices he makes, his chemistry with Truitt moves this film miles, and much of the dramatic pulse weighs heavily on their interaction with one another. I also can’t forget to mention Franco as the film’s gun-toting antagonist. James has played a villain character before, but never as energetic or as impulsive as he does with this opportunity. When you get a chance to urinate on a gas station floor, you call James Franco. He is Mister Dependable in that regards.

NEGATIVES

– Terminator Part duh? I don’t want to channel what thought process the Baker brothers were conjuring up when they wrote ‘Kin’, but I can bet it was within days of watching the Terminator franchise. Not only are plot points touched on from this respective influence, but scenes are completely played out action for action, and it’s in that obvious influence where this film constantly struggles to find a voice of its own.

– Convoluted third act dooms this one completely. For my money, the science fiction element is what dooms this film, because it’s in that where you start to see how shoe-horned this idea is with its minimal time allowance. The scenes with the gun constantly feel like they serve as a reminder that this element is still there in the film, waiting to jump in, and it picks the final ten minutes of the movie to transform what realism and grounded actions it took in the previous 80 minutes of the film to compromise it for some details that come completely out of left field.

– Indecisions doom what could’ve been. Simply put, this film tries to move in too many directions for it to ever work out to its benefit. Of the subgenres that I counted in this movie, it’s a road movie, a family drama, a violent crime shoot-em-up, and an offbeat science fiction thriller. It’s a virtual tug-of-war for creative control, and all of its disjointed pieces never form together to make one creatively cohesive project, choosing instead to throw a bunch of ideas at the wall to see what sticks. As it turns out, little does.

– Questionable cameo. In addition to everything else wrong with the film’s final ten minutes, the surprise reveal of a certain celebrity made me scratch my head for how little this person has to do. If you pay close attention to the credits at the beginning of the film, you can figure it out pretty easily, but it’s obvious that this actor wanted very little to do on-screen with this film, because they are visually represented for a matter of five minutes. Why not introduce them early on for more celebrity firepower? See my theory two sentences ago.

– Limited by its rating. Besides the fact that I still wonder what age group this film is geared towards, I scratch my head even more at the scenes that can’t be fully attained by such a tight rating from the academy. There’s a strip club scene with the dancers wearing jean shorts, gun violence that shows limited penetration and absolutely zero blood, and curse words that were obviously edited out post production with terrible A.D.R. This continues the realization that this film had zero confidence in the original vision that it had for itself, choosing instead to cross promote itself to anyone that would bite.

– Questions I have. As a nod to how much this film couldn’t explain in logic, I have gathered a couple of questions for the Baker Brothers that maybe they can someday answer. Minor spoilers ahead. Why would Taylor (Franco), a gang leader in Detroit, agree to arrange for Jimmy’s in-prison protection for sixty grand, not demand any of the money until he serves a full sentence, and then wonder why he can’t pay him when he gets out of prison? Why would a murder in Detroit turn up on a news broadcast in Nevada? Why is Carrie Coon given second-billing for the eight valuable minutes of screen time that was completely forgettable? Where the hell is Sulaco County in Nevada? and finally how did a team leave behind a gun so important, in a place where literally anyone could get it? Couldn’t they have just left it in Eli’s bag or house, or something more available to the one party?

4/10

The Happytime Murders

Directed by Brian Henson

Starring – Melissa McCarthy, Elizabeth Banks, Maya Rudolph

The Plot – A murder mystery set in a world where humans and puppets co-exist, but puppets are viewed as second-class citizens. When the puppet cast of an ’80s children’s TV show begins to get murdered one by one, a former cop (McCarthy), who has since become a private eye, takes on the case.

Rated R for strong crude and sexual content and adult language throughout, and some drug material

POSITIVES

– This is a funny movie without question. Whether it’s the practical sight gags of two puppets having sex, or the witty banter of McCarthy and her Private Investigator partner, somewhere some way this film is going to make you laugh, and its consistency rate is one that certainly warrants you the ability to give it a chance. My problems with the material itself, I will get to later, but you will have to have lockjaw to escape this film without falling under its spell a time or two.

– Superb cast all around. McCarthy never feels too good or famous for the material, instead having the time of her life playing against manufactured character properties while investing every bit of her body into each scene. The real movie-stealer though, is Bill Baretta (Perfect name) as the film’s central protagonist puppet. Baretta is famous as a voice actor, working with Henson properties in the recent Muppet movies, as well as a decades long career that translates his versatility in vocal range. Here, he voices three different characters, all of which sound different and delivery, but all of which hit their marks with the kind of precision of guidance that a film like this requires. Baretta’s raspy delivery is perfect for a crime noir story of this magnitude, and the chemistry between he and McCarthy transcends the hollow property that his voice is reduced to.

– Hard-hitting fight sequences. Considering the production is working with puppets, it’s incredible to see the tricks that they do in camera angles and editing to make this flow so smoothly. Most of the time, you get puppet movements in movies that feel uninspiring, lacking believability that they move without human interaction, but in ‘The Happytime Murders’ every movement responds well enough so that the puppet characters echo off of their human counterparts with little to no resistance, making for fast-paced action that rarely relents.

– No matter how you feel about the film after you see it, please make sure you stay for the credits, as there’s a brief making-of montage that colorfully illustrates how the puppet effects worked. What’s so captivating about this, is that it’s mostly green-screen digitalization that impacts why this was the perfect place and perfect time for a film like this. As to where the film fell by the wayside by the third act, I could definitely watch two hours of production features for an ensemble team who kept such a tight grip on creativity.

NEGATIVES

– Fails as a crime noir story as a whole. This is a film that is every bit predictably bland as it is compromising to its own gimmick, and both of those make the introductory intention to cast this film alongside a classic like ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit’ that much more depleting when compared to a film that came out thirty years ago. There’s no style to compliment the gritty nature of the street game, and my ability to figure out the murderer in the opening ten minutes made me feel like I was constantly waiting for the movie to play catch-up. Even more disappointing, the film forgets about this noir style of audible narration midway through the movie.

– There are absolutely no established rules for the puppets and what counts as a vital blow. In one scene, a character is taking several punches by a human biker gang and saying that he can’t feel them because he’s virtually a soft pillow, then in the next scene he’s near death because of a gunshot wound. You can’t do one without the other, so which is it? These characters don’t have organs, yet McCarthy’s character was saved early in her career because she has a puppet liver. Also, where do puppets come from? Are they stitched? Are they born? I know it’s pointless to argue about the rules in a puppet movie, but the film’s repeated contradictions are simply too frequent to ignore.

– Repetition in material. Once you get over the giggles of seeing a puppet curse, take drugs, and have sex, you start to understand how limited this movie’s appeal truly is. Smart writing to me should work whether the characters are human or not, and there’s no way that this juvenile material would have the same effect in a film entirely with human characters. As I mentioned earlier, I did laugh quite a few times at it, but that’s mostly in the third act when the basis of the material is still very fresh. After twenty minutes, you’ll be screaming enough is enough.

– Sloppy third act. Not only does the film reveal the murderer far too early, with nearly thirty minutes left, but it also reverts to improv humor of the worst kind from two of its female leads. McCarthy and Rudolph are the culprits, and because they’ve been in every other movie together we must have an out-of-place scene between them despite their characters having no interaction up to this point, where the material stretches as long as the pacing does. Once the mystery is revealed, we should theoretically wrap the movie up, but the storytelling is still piling miles of unnecessary exposition down our throats, making the final act of the film an arduous race to the finish line.

– Nothing subversive at play here. As to where a film like ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit’ was intelligent enough to articulate the underlying issue of cop/minority relations, ‘The Happytime Murders’ has nothing remotely thoughtful to grab onto. This film is based purely for shock factor, nothing more. It’s lacking in a deeper motion to prove that it is something entirely different than the shock-and-awe factor that is plastered all over the trailers.

– As someone who understands the impact that puppets can have on immersing people into a particular world, it’s slightly surprising that a Henson directed this. The production quality is cheap, the puppets lack any kind of eye-catching detail, and the presentation never lifts itself from this stilted quality that limits it at every turn. This is great for a short film or a limited Youtube series, but as a feature film the benefits rarely materialize, making for a sit that is every bit as frustrating as it is boring.

4/10

Billionaire Boys Club

Directed by James Cox

Starring – Ansel Elgort, Taron Egerton, Kevin Spacey

The Plot – A modern day remake of the 1987 film by the same name, the film is about A group of wealthy boys in Los Angeles during the early 1980s, who establish a ‘get-rich-quick’ scam that turns deadly.

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

POSITIVES

– If there’s any reason to see this film, it’s for Spacey’s energetic delivery as the film’s most experienced con-man. While it definitely makes me shudder to say anything complimentary of Kevin, it goes without saying that this film is enhanced whenever he enters the room, and flounders whenever he disappears. As for the rest, Elgort is terribly miscast, Egerton is failing at his best Leonardo Dicaprio impression, and Emma Roberts is completely phoning in what little material the script has for her.

– Hip 80’s soundtrack. ‘Only You’ by Yazoo is one of my personal favorite new wave favorites, but when it is presented on the same collection with Talking Heads ‘This Must Be the Place’, as well as ‘Let’s Dance’ by David Bowie, you have one of the very best assorted soundtracks in 2018. I couldn’t wait to hear what popped up next, and it’s clear that music has a very pivotal place in Cox re-imagining of this world.

– No expense spared on production aspects. The fashion trends, cars, and neon landscapes do an excellent job of elevating the important details, both big and small, giving life to the pulse of Los Angeles terrifically. This at least allowed the time period of the story to thrive visually, while almost every other aspect of the movie never lived up.

– Informative, tightly-edited 80’s montage sequences that translate the very vibe of the times. If the feature film world falters for Cox eventually, he has a place in visual storytelling in the eye of documentaries, because these instances are magnetic.

NEGATIVES

– As an adaptation of the real life events, this barely scratches the surface. The film greatly lacks the attention that is needed in depicting the transformation of Joe’s character over time with the influence of corporate greed, and truly makes him a roarschach test when it comes to gauging his reactions to the inevitable downturn that his company takes. Beyond this, subplots and character habits feel like they come out of nowhere, making this feel like a film that is cut in half, with the deleted half catering to those important bits of information.

– Doesn’t bother with backstory or character development, breezing through the first act like an afterthought. Most importantly, the friendship between Joe and Dean never feels fleshed out enough, leaving a vital bond to the story on the cutting room floor. Because of such, the third act greatly lacks the kind of impact that it so desperately yearned for.

– Tries to capitalize on the exuberance and seediness with greed that a film like ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’ tapped into effortlessly. There are plenty of instances when this feels like the Redbox version of such mentioned feats, even so much as mirroring much of Wolf’s first act scenes and situations beat-for-beat, but continuously lacking the appeal in intimate details necessary to engage the audience in its schemes. Because of this, nothing in the film ever felt believable or gripping to me, and constantly gave me the overwhelming feeling that I was one-up on the intelligence factor over investors of the 80’s.

– Undercooked love interest in the film. Because every film in 2018 requires a love story, we get one here as well, and it lacks the chemistry and conviction between Elgort and Roberts for audiences to believe it. As opposed to the lack of time devoted to the friendship of Elgort and Egerton, the love subplot is given plenty of time to prosper, but simmers because of the lack of bond that never develops with time.

– Pointless voice-over narration. It is (Once again) pointless in its usage, and more importantly adds nothing to the storytelling that we as an audience can’t already interpret. You could literally close your eyes and just listen to the obvious narration, and you will have a clear vision for what is transpiring on-screen. As if you needed another reason to not watch this film.

– Abrupt, un-satisfying ending. It feels like the film is just getting going when it’s ready to say goodbye, and it makes the mistake where it tells but doesn’t show what happens to those guilty of everything that takes place in the film. The most fascinating angles of this story are those that take place off-screen, and it’s the final nail in the coffin for a story that was told so much better on a 45 minute Youtube documentary that I watched before it.

4/10

BlacKKKlansman

Directed by Spike Lee

Starring – John David Washington, Adam Driver, Topher Grace

The Plot – It’s the early 1970s, and Ron Stallworth (Washington) is the first African-American detective to serve in the Colorado Springs Police Department. Determined to make a name for himself, Stallworth bravely sets out on a dangerous mission: infiltrate and expose the Ku Klux Klan. The young detective soon recruits a more seasoned colleague, Flip Zimmerman (Driver), into the undercover investigation of a lifetime. Together, they team up to take down the extremist hate group as the organization aims to sanitize its violent rhetoric to appeal to the mainstream.

Rated R for adult language throughout, including racial epithets, and for disturbing/violent material and some sexual references

POSITIVES

– One of my favorite aspects of film is how it has this overwhelming power to push this string of emotions out of you, and ‘BlacKKKlansman’ is certainly no stranger to this. I can’t recall the last time when a film has made me this angry and disappointed in our nation from refusing to learn from our torturous past. Lee conducts this on-screen story that takes place in the 70’s, all the while offering the modern day comparisons of the incidents that happened in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017, and the resemblance between the K.K.K and the so-called “White freedom chasers” is uncanny. The final moments of the film are a stern warning to the kind of impacts inequality and racism continue to cast great urgency on our own society.

– As a director, Spike is still one of the master experimentalists, carving out a combination of crooked,, unorthodox personal still frames and slow character pans that both pay homage to the 70’s Blacksploitation films that have left an obvious impact on his style. Because of this, the immersion into this particular time frame feels rich in authentication, and layered to the tee in complex filmmaking.

– Much of the humor in the film works because of the absurdity of the situation that would otherwise make you want to scream. As a screenwriter, Lee knows when to pace these valued moments of positive release out, conserving them between scenes that blur the line of reality vividly with vicious surrealism. One such example is the big two hour payoff that this film continuously builds towards, and it makes for one stunning moment of reality that forces the world of one character to come crumbling down.

– Plenty to provide from a dominantly fresh-faced cast. The work of the two male leads in Washington and Driver definitely made the movie for me, both offering an equally poignant approach to infiltrating two different gangs that ironically are similar for an array of ways, as well as preserving this chemistry of brotherhood that we’re treated to, the deeper it goes. For Washington, his borderline arrogance due to his constant naive demeanor is one that builds and burns bridges within the police force, but it was Driver’s constantly raising stakes in this purely evil assembly of middle aged white men that brought this film the real conflict. Driver’s character, a Jewish descendent, deals with standing against his family traditions, transforming him into this Klansman that challenges him ideally and morally. Topher Grace is also surprisingly smooth as David Duke, bringing a different take on such a monstrous personality that otherwise gets you to comprehend how easy it is to fall for his sinister pitch.

– There’s always that one scene that stands out in a Spike Lee movie more than the others, and the trophy here definitely goes to the history lesson that visually depicts the birth of the Klan. Without spoiling much, there’s this side-by-side comparison shot that very much shows the impact of the Klan’s pride in consequence to that of the African-American’s well being. It’s riveting to say the least, and serves as a reminder that our history has treaded through some very shallow waters.

– Perhaps Lee’s greatest triumph is the film is that he marries the relationship between anger and intensity with the restraint that he’s usually known to hold in visual poetry of editing. Why it works so wonderfully here is that those gentle brushes continuously build until the bigger picture of displeasure is seen in its completion, and it’s never preachy like Lee has been known to be, because the very proof is in the pudding that he dishes out.

– Despite the many themes that the film covers, the tonal balance is well maintained throughout. As is the case with other racially uneasy movies this year like ‘Sorry To Bother You’ and ‘Blindspotting’, this one feels capable of transitioning through each of those valued tiers of material seamlessly. Perhaps you can blame that on the two hour run time that the film harbors, but I believe it is Lee’s constriction to this being a true story that doesn’t allow him to get too fantastical with it. This keeps the film and its respectable material very grounded, leaving our teeth firmly gripped into the message at hand.

– While ‘BlacKKKlansman’ isn’t my favorite Lee film, I can value it as arguably his most important to date. This feels like Lee at his most focused, and a lot of that can be contributed to a career that has spanned 21 feature length films all leading to the kind of media attention that this film and respected director has gathered. It proves that in the clutch Lee can deliver in the most provocative of ways, and that the line between satire and reality is blurring with each passing day of social injustice.

NEGATIVES

– While I more than admire the film’s stance against racism and objectifying how wrong it truly is, Lee’s morals still feel a bit outdated due to the way his antagonists AND protagonists bash the gay community with their version of the N-word repeatedly. This can be contributed to the 70’s setting, but when you’re speaking to a 2018 audience, it blurs the line of right and wrong viciously, conjuring an air of hypocritical stance that the characters become saddled with.

– The romantic subplot in the film felt so forced and underdeveloped in what the film required from it. Particularly late in the third act, the film relies on this angle to play a pivotal role in Stallworth’s urgency and vulnerability, and yet it simply isn’t anything close to that level, besides the increasing racial tension that the whole film is about. With the exception of one brief scene where Stallworth and Patrice (Played by the beautiful Laura Harrier) discuss 70’s Blacksploitation heroes, it goes relatively unheard of for the better part of 45 minutes, and it’s the one glaring flaw from this otherwise well-maintained film.

8/10

The Equalizer 2

Directed by Antoine Fuqua

Starring – Denzel Washington, Pedro Pascal, Bill Pullman

The Plot – Robert McCall (Washington) serves an unflinching justice for the exploited and oppressed, but how far will he go when that is someone he loves?

Rated R for brutal violence throughout, adult language, and some drug content

POSITIVES

– If there is one aspect that this film does far superior than that of the original installment, it’s in the presence of its valuable R-rating that it uses so viciously. The fight sequences are quick with movements, but more importantly they never look away from the slice-and-dice damage that McCall delivers with such ferocity, giving us the kind of entertainment in violence that has felt watered down in the genre as of late.

– Improved character development. Not only does this film shed more light on Robert and his distant past, it also brings along the supporting cast in a way that their importance shines on the on-going narration. Melissa Leo’s character from the original movie, particularly is focused upon more, even if she suffers from the same minimal amount of time that the last movie gave her. The friendship between her and Washington on-screen certainly is evident, and gives the audience the perfect reason to get invested once that bond becomes tested. This gives the sequel a more personal approach than the original movie, that on a surface level was just McCall rescuing these tortured strangers.

– There are two interesting subplots fighting for time in the film, and while one initially feels less important because of its jumbled time investment when compared to the other, they both collide during the pivotal third act to reveal a dual value to the direction that is much needed. One of these involves the more homely side to Robert that we haven’t gotten to see up to this point, carving out a side as a guardian that he never got the chance to feel because of his wife’s untimely death. Could the pacing of the storytelling been done more fluidly between scene transitions? ABSOLUTELY. But once you see the disheveled pieces formed together, you start to appreciate the depth that this script entails.

– Washington continues to bring it as a godfather of action, instilling enough confidence and even animation to the character this time around that gives him unforeseen personality. Even at the age of 63, Denzel’s believability as a purveyor or justice works because of the poise and delivery that he commands over our attention, and ‘The Equalizer 2’ proves that the combination of he and Fuqua is as hard-hitting of a tag team as there is in Hollywood today. They both understand the character immensely, and play off the swagger of this skilled soldier without it feeling arrogant or brash for the camera.

– Very little lag time in between the two hour thrill ride. Part of my surprise with this film came when I checked my watch and discovered that I only had twenty minutes left in the movie, and I contribute that fluidity in pacing to the juggling act between those dual narratives that I mentioned earlier. Because of such, this film doesn’t stop reaching for the attention of us the audience, dazzling us with precise fight choreography storytelling unveils that are never few and far between.

– Cinematographer Oliver Wood’s impeccable movements behind the lens. Besides beautiful framing of scenes involving multiple characters in conversation, Wood’s greatest detail involves the panning motions that he instills upon swerving chase sequences, as well as moments of self-reflection for McCall’s cerebral qualities when cracking mysteries. Wood is certainly no stranger to action photography, most notably with brilliant work in ‘Jack Reacher’ and ‘The Bourne Movies’ that have carved out a presence behind the camera that speaks volumes to the atmosphere without ever settling for the gimmick of shaking camera effects.

NEGATIVES

– Most of my commentary for Fuqua as a director has been flawless to this point, so it greatly surprises me that his hand in this film feels shaky at best. Many details in the film make it feel like a different director is sitting in the chair, most notably the reversible aging process of Washington’s McCall, who not sports a full head of hair, to make him look twenty years younger. Beyond that, the lack of detail in character’s clothes and hair being dry through a hurricane sequence feels lazy for someone of his credibility.

– The subtlety and nuance of this film gets thrown out the window during the third act, when this big budget, poorly C.G infused hurricane sequence takes over. Not only does this feel terribly cliched when compared to the rest of this series, but it also marks some of the dumbest moves by antagonists that I’ve ever seen. I guess I can overlook a certain character giving away his position in a tower by shooting non-stop, but I absolutely cannot look past the stupidity of a character blowing himself up with a grenade in a room of running fans and dripping salt. My laughter during this scene stood out like a fart in a library, and completely took me out of feeling any kind of urgency or danger for McCall’s stacking odds.

– Speaking of antagonists, the film tries to play the head of this group off as a mystery figure, despite the fact that those of us who have paid attention have figured it out a half hour prior. Blame it on poor casting for a man who has a devious face, or blame it again on poor character direction by Fuqua, but either way the shifty eyes of a particular character made this reveal insanely obvious and gravely impatient when waiting for the movie to eventually catch up.

– Endless time filler that goes nowhere. There’s a ten minute introduction scene that feels tacked on to anything else that happens in the rest of the movie, an aging-quickly subplot involving an old man and an art portrait that dulls us fast, and a career of Lyft driving by McCall that doubles as his bat signal basically. My point is that even with the dual narrative that worked for me, there is still far too much dead weight on this film that could easily be trimmed to fit 100 minutes. As I mentioned earlier, the pacing never suffers, but it feels like details to a story that add up to little or nothing, then return me back to our regularly scheduled program.

6/10

Sicario: Day of the Soldado

Directed by Stefano Sollima

Starring – Benecio Del Toro, Josh Brolin, Isabela Moner

The Plot – In this sequel to the 2014 surprise hit, the series begins a new chapter. In the drug war, there are no rules–and as the cartels have begun trafficking terrorists across the US border, federal agent Matt Graver (Brolin) calls on the mysterious Alejandro (Del Toro), whose family was murdered by a cartel kingpin, to escalate the war in nefarious ways. Alejandro kidnaps the kingpin’s daughter (Moner) to inflame the conflict, but when the girl is seen as collateral damage, her fate will come between the two men as they question everything they are fighting for.

Rated R for strong violence, bloody imagery, and adult language

POSITIVES

– Even though the departures of Denis Vilenueve and Roger Deakins leave a lasting impact throughout the film, it is screenwriter Taylor Sheridan’s finest hour to prove just how important he is to this franchise. Sheridan still preserves that world where these grey shaded characters interact, bringing with them the kind of complexity necessary for audiences to question the social politics going on within our own world, but it’s in his reserved stance to make this installment more of strategic one, as opposed to the physicality that adorned the first film, one that carves out its own identity without relying too heavily on past success.

– Alejandro was definitely my favorite character from the first movie, and I was glad to see him get more exposition in this film that never felt forced or tacked on. Through many conversations and interactions with other characters, we start to put together more of an outline from Alejandro’s former life that makes you understand his motive for vengeance that much more, leaving what little compassion he has left fighting for air.

– The action sequences, while few and far between, once again brought with them a rush of adrenaline and realism that satisfied wonderfully in payoffs. Because you sometimes wait 30-40 minutes for one sequence to reach its boiling point, the bullet-riddled offense of these battle scenes surprise with just how quickly they change the atmosphere and overall urgency of what transpires.

– While none of the new additions to the cast did anything to leave a lasting impression with me, the work of Del Toro and Brolin once again command a presence over the screen that forces you to hang on to their every word. Brolin feels twice as menacing as he did in the first movie, racing against the clock and Washington to seek results, and Del Toro’s subdued yet confident capability over changing situations, makes him the perfect anti-hero to get behind, in a film that strongly lacks a typical protagonist lead.

– Besides Sheridan, the production is fortunate enough to maintain articulate music composer Hildur Guonadottir to the series. Hildur’s immense presence outlines every scene, orchestrating these dark, ominous, and often unnerving tones that repeat with volume the longer they go. It frequently feels like a poison that engulfs itself over the atmosphere within the film, carving out this seedy underground that is responsible for much of the world’s chess piece movements.

– One of the best first acts that I have seen from a movie all year. In bringing us back into the dangerous world of the Mexican cartel, we learn right away how dangerous and unforgiving such a lifestyle costs in paying the ultimate price. Aside from this, the initial reunion with Brolin and Del Toro’s characters are satisfying for completely different reasons, chalking up some rich dialogue between them that makes this reunion the blueprint for everything that follows that much more apparent.

NEGATIVES

– This film is the very definition of sequel building. The problem with that angle is that it neglects what can be made memorable about Day of the Soldado, instead catering to set-ups for a future installment that few will embrace without a strong second effort. The final twenty minutes in particular feel reduced to minimal movements because of where the film’s inevitable direction takes us to the finish line, leaving us with even less satisfaction than an original film that still managed to please despite how bleak its results were.

– One extremely glaring negative to Deakins handing over his duties as master of photography, is in the film’s obvious differences to how it establishes locations and atmospheric tension accordingly. As to where Deakins took his time with the angles and movements of the camera in the first film, so as to take everything in without ever letting a single second omit itself, Dariusz Wolski’s timing feels rushed and uncharasteristic for a film that visually carved out such a level of originality in the first movie. What this does is offer the audience little to chew on in terms of what we see in the backgrounds before the characters ever do.

– To me, much of the first Sicario never really feels like a movie, instead feeling like D.E.A footage that we’ve managed to stumble across. This is never the case for Day of the Soldado, as there are too many sequences of shootouts or kidnappings that take place in the heart of a big city during the daytime, where not a single patron in the streets stops to think twice about what is going down. One could say this speaks volumes to the kind of daily atmospheres in Mexico, but give me a break. This level of ignorance to not shoot a single reaction, constantly overwhelmed me with this inescapable feeling that this is a production, limiting my opportunities to immerse myself in the world depicted.

– There’s a subplot in the film involving a teenager who is being groomed to be a Sicario of his own. I understood completely Sheridan’s point with this angle, carving out the effects that war and the drug trade can have on a youth, but that doesn’t mean it was ever interesting when it took up precious screen time. You know these two plots will eventually converge at some point, but during the first hour of the film, this subplot involving this youth feels completely tacked-on from a completely different film all together, and it did a disservice to otherwise impeccable pacing that kept things moving fluently for two hours.

6/10