The Nightingale

Directed By Jennifer Kent

Starring – Aisling Franciosi, Sam Claflin, Baykali Ganambarr

The Plot – Set at the turn of the 19th century, the film follows Clare (Franciosi), a 21-year-old native Irish wife and mother held captive beyond her 7-year sentence, desperate to be free of her obsessed master, British lieutenant Hawkins (Claflin). Clare’s husband Aidan (Michael Sheasby) intervenes with devastating consequences for all. When British authorities fail to deliver justice, Clare pursues Hawkins, who leaves his post suddenly to secure a captaincy up north. Unfamiliar with the Tasmanian wilderness she enlists the help of an orphaned Aboriginal tracker Billy (Ganambarr). Marked by their traumas, the two fight to overcome their distrust and prejudices against the backdrop of Australia’s infamous ‘Black War’.

Rated R for strong violent and disturbing content including rape, adult language throughout, and brief sexuality

POSITIVES

– Kent’s vantage point. As a director, Jennifer is quickly earning herself the reputation as a hypnotist, not just for the mesmerizing spell that she commands over the audience, but also for the psychosis that she delves into in getting understand the very pulse of these characters. In this regard, the decision to once again write and direct this film is one that pays off immensely for the way she uses the camera to comprehend human emotion in a way that very few films articulate. With the mostly claustrophobic shot composition, Kent’s unflinching documentation of the face, and all of the weight that is carried through the eyes of the soul, further fleshes out the gut-wrenching nature of the mature content, offering us no chance to turn away from anything other than the registry of emotions that washes over our characters like a current from the sea.

– Transgressive subject matter. This film is not for the faint of heart, as there are multiple examples of female rape, slavery, and the overall handing down of violence, which test audiences who consider themselves brave enough to endure it. Even for a cinephile like me, there are scenes in the film that tested my commitment to it, saved only by the artistry used that makes these conflicts as tasteful as can be. It helps that Kent doesn’t show anything too extreme with the camera, leaving much to be interpreted from audience minds that no horror film can ever touch in terms of scarring material. But the issues enclosed all work for how they’re distributed throughout the film, and even more so, they ring true in a current era where the cycles of these sick matters still resonate now more than ever, giving the film a ringing social endorsement that will appeal more to females and minorities more than any other moviegoer.

– An inside look. Perhaps the most rewarding aspect of the film is the immersion into the human psyche that comes at the hands of grief, torturous abuse, and taking a life. This is where Kent stands out above the rest in terms of her power with the pen, as there are many fantastical sequences that depict the weight given to these matters, outlining what little chance there is for mental escape for the remainder of this prisonous life. “The Nightingale” more than any other film I’ve seen in recent memory channels this isolation in a way that makes the decision that comes with it one of great responsibility, and this in turn gives extreme value to the many lives that are taken throughout the film, proving them to be something so much more than a convenient body count. They haunt our protagonist like an endearing spirit, and it’s one that haunts her time of rest with nightmarish visuals as a constant reminder that comes with irresponsibly taking a life.

– Minimal music. Kent makes the decision for very little musical incorporation throughout the film, choosing instead to remain within the heat of the environment, which the only constant is unpredictability. What music that is supplanted is sung by Franciosi, an actress with no big mainstream experience with music, yet one who triggers the heartbeat of the audience with every emotional current that she flushes over them with. Her lyrics are those of Irish folk tales, and her presence over the performance reflects everything she is currently dealing with at that particular time. It’s wise to keep music quite limited throughout the film, not only for our suspense, which feels like it is constantly gripped tight in the palm of Kent, but also to leave this time period piece feeling as dated as possible, with as few current day production interjections as possible.

– Aboriginal awareness. Taking time from its revenge narrative, the film has a surprisingly educated look inside the lives of Tasmanian Aboriginals, who were subject to animalistic manners of living due to the rich and powerful. What’s cool about this inclusion is that the members themselves are speaking Palawa Kani, a near extinct language by today’s standards, that has never been spoken in a mainstream motion picture to date. Kent has certainly done her studying for the culture thoroughly, and given them ample time within the screenplay to authenticate the look, sound, and feel accordingly, preserving these dangerously gifted warriors valuably, that still exist in small numbers to this day.

– Strong production values. Post production is reserved in the cases that further enhances authentication within the environment of the picture. This comes in the form of flawless costume design, a domination of natural lighting for the film’s cinematography, and articulate sound mixing that surrounds our characters like a soundtrack for nature isolation. There isn’t a single aspect with the work behind the scenes that breaks investment within the particular time frame, and this attention to consistency grants the movie a transcending value that Kent attains without another big budget studio investment ($2 million). For the love of God, Hollywood, give this woman a budget that she deserves. It would be cool to see what she could do with an unlimited resource, even though parts of me loves that she remains faithful to her independent cinematic values.

– Three award-worthy performances. The entire casting is completely perfect, with not a single complaint for the actors young or old, but for my money, the work of Franciosi, Ganambarr, and Claflin are works of emotional and physical wonder. Claflin easily gives his best performance to date as the film’s antagonist, a man as reckless and uncaring as anyone you have seen on-screen this year. He’s a real son-of-a-bitch, and Sam’s ability to experiment in a character so unlike anything he has done yet is something that makes you completely detest him. First time big screen actor Baykali Ganambarr offers complexity in a character with a difficulty to trust that is understandably so, but his unraveling throughout the picture is one that gives way to a free spirit that is almost animalistic transformative. His developing friendship with Franciosi drove the movie for me, and preserved a natural bond that is earned with every environment that the two endure. Speaking of Franciosi, WOW!!!! For what Kent did inspiring Essie Davis in “The Babadook”, she should be given equal respect for the psychological sting that is Aisling Franciosi. The best actors say so much in their facial registries, and even before she speaks the vengeful and grieving pulse of her voice, Franciosi’s Clare transfers that anxiety and traumatic dealings perfectly in her heart-breaking facial registries. Franciosi is a storm that levels everyone and everything in her way, and even an hour after seeing the film, the wrenching level of time dedicated to her crumbling psyche brings forth a protagonist who is, above all else, human.

– Speaking of human characters, I love that measures taken in attacks from the characters in the movie feel as spontaneously natural as could be expected from these very grounded people. Above all else, they make mistakes. They do things that we the audience in our comfy chairs would consider stupid, but I found it quite refreshing for how matters beyond their control couldn’t be calculated. This not only gives the film an air of unpredictability to it, but also made the characters and bonds that I previously mentioned feel more earned than a conventional screenplay ever could. Give me a movie where the protagonists go through hell, and I will further invest and respect in the complications associated with establishing something as miniscule as food for the uphill climb that went into finally attaining it.

– The ending. I’ve heard many people complaining that the climax of this film was anti-climatic and feels unresolved, and to them I ask, what movie were you watching? Not only did this film satisfy me cathartically for the mental and physical struggles of the characters, but the final shot combines beauty and spirituality in a way that fully realizes the struggle of the long and enduring journey of the characters who are caught in the heat of the moment. The resolution is sudden, sure, but so is revenge. People need to realize that real life doesn’t involve this big magnified production with orchestral rumblings to sell itself. The magnitude of the situation isn’t realized until it is nearly an afterthought, and the manner associated within the values of friendship presented the only feel-good aspect that I had throughout a movie that rattles you with constant intensity.

NEGATIVES

– A bit too long. For my money, I would shave twenty minutes off of this movie during the late scenes of the second act, which would require you to lose nothing from this picture. Some scenes with the antagonists repeat around this time, as well as some scenes with our protagonists not feeling especially important to what transpires, and it all results in pacing that will create more obstacles than necessary with the audience, if you’re not fully invested into the dynamics of these characters. Make this film just under two hours, and the inevitability of confrontation will feel that much more urgent with this path growing smaller.

My Grade: 9/10 or A

Midsommar

Directed By Ari Aster

Starring – Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor, William Jackson Harper

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

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

POSITIVES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NEGATIVES

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

My Grade: 9/10 or A

The Last Black Man In San Francisco

Directed By Joe Talbot

Starring – Jimmie Fails, Jonathan Majors, Danny Glover

The Plot – A young man (Fails) searches for home in the changing city that seems to have left him behind.

Rated R for adult language, brief nudity and drug use

POSITIVES

– Absorbing setting. It’s clear that the very pulse of San Francisco radiates beautifully throughout the vibrant textures and intrusive sound design that only a man of the Golden Gate could materialize, giving us an immersive experience of cinema that very few other films have captured this year. San Francisco is simply inescapable. Proof of this exists in the many times its imposing stature and toxic environments come into frame during moments of self-reflection for Jimmie, a constant reminder of blunt force to interrupt the fantasy that plays so vividly in his head at all times. At first, hearing much of the passing crowds annoyed me, but I soon took great pleasure in a presentation that soaks in so much about the experience, and Talbot, like Majors creative writing character, uses inspiration from all around to paint an abstraction that pierces through its use of systematic racism and cultural segregation.

– What it says. On the surface level, this is a social commentary about gentrification and all of its seedy intentions, but digging further into the material, the film actually has equally as much to say about the objects in our lives that define us in unhealthy enveloping. Fails is very much a character at the crossroads of many decisions to come for the rest of his life, and in doing so finds great difficulty in being able to constantly ignore what is consistently knocking him down, and it outlines an overall feeling with minorities in an ever-changing city that unabashedly depicts the storm of resistance that meets them each time they get two steps ahead in life. The material is truly moving without ever feeling angry, and the profound nature in which each of these reveals are presented allows the audience to come to grasp the intention of the situation without the scene ever beating it over our heads in obviousness.

– Breathtaking photography. Talbot is a legend of the lens in only his first feature film directing effort, and his alluring compositions and choreographed variety of angles and abstractions pulls plenty from a story that obviously lands so sensitively to his heart. The contrast in claustrophobic shots for other filming locations is intentional, if only to balance them with these wide angle lucid depictions inside the dream home in the story, which has it presented as a dream of sorts. In addition to this, there are many risks taken within camera movement scenes involving characters walking in and out of frame, shots where we’re slowly trailing buses, and especially sequences involving Jimmie skateboarding. The movements not only feel so fluid to mimic the movement being depicted in frame, but the still-frame work of whatever is being used to articulate these never miss a beat to what’s progressing in frame. It would be easy for sequences like this to come off as jarring or visually incoherent, but the confidence of the capture expresses a sheer professional behind the lens, making this a film that is equally beautiful as it is soundly impactful.

– Exposition brilliance. Much of the information we’re fed throughout the film feels honestly earned and patiently developed, thanks to a series of supporting characters weaving in and out of the story to add strokes of clarity to what has already transpired off-screen in the past of Jimmie and his family. In this regard, the leaps of dialogue don’t feel like actual scenes, but rather a rich authenticism of conversations that naturally materialize, and if you aren’t paying attention you could miss something that sheds more light on the darkness of obscurity that Jimmie initially early on in the film feels saddled with. Through the many changing dynamics, we get a fully fleshed outline of the character that better articulates his range of motions and intentional impulses that can otherwise feel spontaneous in the wrong eyes.

– Perfect cast. Fails himself has lived this story in real life, so how could there ever be an actor who could better capture the essence of longing so fruitfully as this man does with a story so near and dear to his heart? There are definitely those moments of long-winded anguish that unfurl from his tired demeanor, but for my money it was Jimmie’s childlike eyes of optimism that lit up when he saw an opportunity that truly established this man having emotional balance and control over a scene that some experienced actors don’t gain in a lifetime of work. There’s a presence in him that you constantly look to after something good or bad has materialized, and Fails influence is felt consistently, even in scenes when he isn’t present on camera. Likewise, Jonathan Majors is also award deserving, playing Jimmie’s best friend with a nervous tick of creativity for the art that flows around him from life. The dynamic between these two characters was a constant warm blanket that garnered feelings of a love story that is purely and professionally platonic, and you feel the bond in friendship that resonates between them every time one of them is faced with adversity, where the other picks up the slack. In addition to this, there are also memorable cameos from Danny Glover, Tichina Arnold, Mike Epps, and Finn Wittrock as this real estate agent with his own seedy intentions. It levels out one of the more well-rounded casts of 2019, and brings forth not one lone weak link on an overall spectrum.

– A24. This studio once again hits it out of the park with another sentimental think-piece that really resonated with me for its dramatic undertow. Coming from someone who moved out of their childhood home when they were nine-years-old, I found myself relating to the character in a way who obsesses over something that they can no longer control. When I started driving, I found myself parked in front of that old house for long spans of time, dreaming about the time when I could buy it once more, so for the film to bring forth these scenes of wonderment from Jimmie’s perspective, really brought forth a sense of appreciation to a simpler time, and wanting to hold on to the days when everything felt in place. After the accomplishment that was “A Ghost Story”, A24 lands itself another equally skin-piercing somber that grabs ahold of sentimentality, and doesn’t let go. I’m finding myself more and more in their list of films, and connecting with audiences is something this film has no difficulty in attaining the more it chooses to tackle life’s biggest personal obstacles.

– Adam Newport-Berra’s ringing cinematography. There’s so much to unload here, but I would like to focus on the city and the house itself. On the former, Adam casually involves fog to feed into the poisoned chemicals and dirty waters that surround the city because of atomic testing that took place during the World Wars, and it cements this feeling of inevitable dread and doom that outlines much of the film’s material about gentrification that something deeper is going on here that meets the eye. It takes something as simple as fog, and gives it an ominous outline full of uncertainty and mystery that speaks volumes to the city’s current facelift. As for the house, when Jimmie and Montgomery are inside, we get a lot of warm feelings from this golden shine that fills the room. Berra champions in this visual feeling of a home being established despite not much being actually in it, hinting at a feeling of home being what you make of it as the film persists. When the duo aren’t inside, there’s a lot of bland, callous white resistance being emitted from its lack of identifiable features, which take a lifetime of memories, and wipe them away in a matter of minutes.

– Tonally encompassing. It’s remarkable that a film so deeply rooted in important social issues is presented with an inordinate amount of comedy early on in the film. The film has no reservations about bringing out the occasional smile or giggle in terms of awkwardness for seeing much of the city’s current patrons who have otherwise been deemed acceptable because of their upper class incomes. It’s strangely poetic in a way that gives a voice and attention to much of the characters within the city itself, proving that no place feels just one way emotionally, and I think “The Last Black Man In San Francisco” is that rare breed of film that doesn’t abide by having to be one consistent feeling overall because of such. It helps that every importantly dramatic impact lands effectively despite this contrast, but never does the tonal progression feel broken because of it.

– Audio goosebumps. With Emile Mosseri’s stirring musical score that combines thunderous orchestral power volume with a jazzy undertone flavor, the film becomes a feast for the senses, mirroring the beats of the central protagonist accordingly with all of its despair. Mosseri’s slice of humble pie is cut with the sharpest of knives that pierces our souls in a way that makes you a resident of the city, and long for the days of yesterday for this place, that fed more into the values of America being a place where you can be and do anything you want. Second only to Nicholas Britell’s somber stirring in “If Beale Street Could Talk”, Emile is definitely in good company with his string of scintillating selections that feel like a poem to a forgotten city without the words to make it ever so obvious.

NEGATIVES

– Despite me enjoying so much of the gimmick within the exposition, there were questions unanswered in this film that became a bigger nag within me the longer the film progressed. For one, we never learn how Jimmie’s family lost the house to begin with. There are some implications regarding his Dad being involved in some get rich quick schemes, but nothing of proof to solidify the claims, especially considering this family isn’t the most honest in terms of their pasts. The other thing involved Jimmie’s motivations for the house itself. We could piece together that it means so much to him because of it coming from a simpler time full of warm family memories, but there’s never a scene involving Jimmie where he lays out why it means so much to him, and that’s a bit troubling for someone like me who highly values those moments of clarity within a tortured soul. Especially considering where the film goes in the third act, a scene involving Jimmie spilling his feelings felt instead like a deleted DVD extra, and left me scratching my head for important subplot aspects that certainly deserved some time within the two hour time frame.

My Grade: 9/10 or A

Rocketman

Directed By Dexter Fletcher

Starring – Taron Egerton, Richard Madden, Bryce Dallas Howard

The Plot – A musical fantasy about the fantastical human story of Elton John’s (Egerton) breakthrough years.

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

POSITIVES

– British led cast. Everyone here is on their marks in providing depth to their respective character’s, as well as instilling a sense of value and weight within the story that makes them vital as supporting cast, but it’s clearly the tour-de-force performance by Egerton that everyone will be raving about minutes after they see it. This is not an impression of Elton John, this is Elton John. Taron gives his best performance to date, transforming the look and sound of his familiarity to compliment that of the imposing figure who he’s taking on, and there’s much eye-opening to be complimented about his work in the film. For one, he does all of his own singing, a feat that until the movie ended I had no idea about. While obviously not as strong or passionate as John behind the mic, Egerton has clearly done his homework, establishing the line of variety in genre offerings from John’s catalogue of music that changed with the scenery of pre and post disco influence. In addition to this, Egerton’s psychological delve is one that captures the energy, love, loneliness, and despair of the singer through some of his biggest triumphs and darkest disasters, and Taron’s timely grip on the pulse of the ever-changing dynamic of the character is one that feels earned brilliantly with the tides of the script.

– Breathtaking production value. This is where the film separates itself from other biopics of the genre, as the look and feel of “Rocketman” was made for the big screen. What allows it to spare itself from feelings of TV-movie-of-the-week budget is in the immense scale of choreographed-led musical numbers, practical precision in make-up designs, vibrant boisterousness of costume design, and a feast for fantasy that blurs the line of reality and imagination seamlessly. If every musical biopic had this level of focus and budget expressiveness, then we would be able to emit the fun from all of the raw energy contained inside, but Fletcher knows that John’s story certainly isn’t a cheap one to tell, and it leads to a barrage of lucid surrealism that benefits from the drug-fueled intensity of the cocaine age.

– R-rating. I still don’t comprehend how “Bohemian Rhapsody” could even imagine telling Freddie Mercury’s life story with the limitations set by its studio and the PG-13 tag it was given, but the decision here to travel the adult route with its material pays off in spades for the way it can properly articulate the meat of its material. From the carelessness of Elton’s diverse sex life, to the abuse of illegal drugs and narcotics, to the rapid-fire fury of the English dialogue, everything is covered in vivid detail, giving audiences a no-apologies depiction of a heralded figure for better or worse, and it gave me great appreciation for the screenplay to use Elton’s biggest negatives to craft an enveloping layer of indulgence for the audience, as well as a dramatic layering to the story, which feels far from topical. Nothing ever feels overdone or desperate to fill an R-rating quota, and it keeps the air of honesty to Elton’s engagements on display in the exact manner they took place.

– Wide range of story. As to where most musical biopics only cover a brief sampling of the artist’s fame, “Rocketman” has an appreciation for everything Elton John, as well as Reginald Dwight. Kicking off during his early days as a kid in dealing with two mentally abusive parents, the film eventually takes us through the entire first half of Elton’s immense 40 year career, before settling down during the days in rehab that eventually changed his life for the better. This seems like a lot to cover in nearly two hours of film, but what’s remarkably shocking is how the film gives ample time to each important chapter without alienating the fluidity of pacing that is nearly always smooth in transition. Beyond this, the storytelling tool in narration is one that I found to be very clever, not only for the way it is set-up in the opening scene of the movie, but also for the way it evolves in diminishing wardrobe with every beat of the story. It gives food for thought in the stripped down nature of John starting and ending his career as Reginald, and comforting us with a blanket of clarity as he finally feels comfortable being the man he was born to be.

– Meaning behind the soundtrack. The film has no shortage of Elton favorites to choose from, conjuring up around twenty-five favorites from the musician that take us through the roller-coaster momentum in his trysts with fame, but there’s something more elusive to the way that each song and sequence transition, proving that Elton always used life as a means, and music as a therapy to bind the two world’s. Films make many mistakes in this aspect, because they often depict a popular song being made in the most topically obvious and unintelligent demeanor, but the almost freestyle effort of song writing that John displays feels replicated from the previous scene in a way that naturally harvests from a tortured soul. It was in this area where I learned the most about John that I didn’t previously know before the film, and helps cement an audible reflection to what’s transpiring inside of Elton.

– Passage of time. I hate to bring this film up again, but my biggest problem with “Bohemian Rhapsody” is how it mutilated important dates and events in Freddie’s life for the shaping of the film, but “Rocketman” gives an alluring and poetic design behind the way it collides with the sands of time. No dates or text is featured throughout the film, and even more shocking, huge amounts of time will pass not only for us the audience, but also for John, which results in him feeling like Rip Van Winkle, in that he just woke up from a ten year nap. What’s so cinematically appropriate for this direction is it captures the fragility and sacrifices paid not only to immersing in the live fast lifestyle that booze, drugs, and depression can form, but also in the routine of being a rockstar, which is anything but appealing by this film’s standards. We the audience are merely left to establish a time frame from iconic Elton fashions, as well as the look and feel of the world that changes around him with nuanced subtlty. It proves that the when isn’t nearly as important as the who or the why, and allows us to get lost in the devil of the details instead.

– Backdrop special effects. This is all done on green-screen, but you would never know it because of the impeccable technology associated with visual time travel in the same vein as Marvel’s ability to de-age a particular actor. This gives us time to soak in the glitz and glamor of the Hollywood specter, as the world famous Troubadour bar becomes youthful again, complete with posters in the windows which are no longer present, and an architecture design that reminds people that the location grew just like Elton did once the two were married in rock and roll on that legendary night in August 1970. If this is the direction that production teams are taking us, then soon there won’t be any need for on-site shooting, and while there is an element of tragedy to that circumstance, the believability and texture shading of flawless computer generation will at least help trim production budgets accordingly, all the while articulating past ages in a way that feels far beyond a visual gimmick.

– Juggling of tones. I wasn’t surprised in how much comedy filled the script, but what did surprise me was the landing power of such witty banter all the while the sting of dramatic elements were being felt. These two co-exist simultaneously through Reginald’s loveless home life, to his questioned sexuality in his later years, to the single most romantic non-sexual friendship between Elton and lyricist Bernie Taupin, and what’s more important is that neither are compromised because of the other’s influence on the dynamic of a particular scene. This film took me on an emotional registry of laughter, fear, curiosity, and sadness for the evolution of the story, proving that it would rather appeal to a broader spectrum of audience tastes rather than cater to the limitations and cliches of one respective field.

– Fletcher steals the light. This is the very same director who finished “Bohemian Rhapsody” (There I go again) from the disastrous production that hindered it to finishing as just a decent final product, but with “Rocketman” it’s a fresh and complete start for the man at the wheel. What we learn from his stroke is that he values the human side of the heralded superstar, carving out a helping of audience investment that keeps us glued to the unfolding drama and tension within Elton’s life that is more urgent because of that focus. Likewise, the influential photography breathes a light of audience connection that features John singing to us the audience, instead of the grand scale that we have come to expect in cinematic musicals. It cements a feeling of professionalism and on-screen presence in rendered style that garners a developing visionary in Hollywood, thanks in whole to commanding the stories of two of music’s biggest icons.

NEGATIVES

– Technical inconsistencies. This brought forth two noticeable problems, with the first dealing with the uninspiring levels of cinematography established in interior office scenes. The coloring scheme and textures establish a level of generated lighting that does nothing to compliment the appeal of the scene. Likewise, a continued problem for Fletcher’s editing team remains prominent in this film, as the editing is far too choppy during scenes involving two character’s. It made for some highly distracting scenes during moments of heartfelt resonance, which deemed it necessary to show us the same line of dialogue in as many as three different angles for what I guess is towards the better of understanding the essence of the conversation? Either way, less anxiousness in illustrating these casual scenes.

My Grade: 9/10 or A-

Avengers: Endgame

Directed By Joe and Anthony Russo

Starring – Robert Downey Jr, Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth

The Plot – After the devastating events of “Avengers: Infinity War”, the universe is in ruins. With the help of remaining allies, the Avengers assemble once more in order to undo Thanos’ (Josh Brolin) actions and restore order to the universe.

Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and some adult language

POSITIVES

– The evolution of the superhero genre. What the Russo brothers have done here is astonishing. Over the course of eleven years and twenty-two different films, they have helped mature these movies into something that, despite the abnormal feats and character’s, feels very fleshed out and human in its communication to the audience who have remained faithful to them, and none of this more evident than in “Endgame”. This is very much a film that is visually and narratively adult in the way its masterful approaches transcends the genre, and above all else gives us a great technical MOVIE above everything else. It is cerebral, transfixing, profound, and most importantly consequential in helping to keep the weight in stakes higher than it’s ever felt. Considering some of us have quite literally grown up with these films, it’s therapeutic to see that evolution transpired on-screen, and it helps establish “Endgame” as the perfect emphasis on eleven years of continuity, that will most likely never be matched or topped again.

– Happy to be wrong. My biggest fear after “Infinity War” was a clean and convenient fix that would leave our team virtually un-phased from their conflict with Thanos, and thankfully this isn’t the case, as the stakes remain very much gripped with the direction of the Russo’s constant reminder of their powerful antagonist. I won’t spoil anything, but I was left very satisfied with the way Marvel allowed themselves closure on certain characters, all the while teasing the next phase with some fresh faces. It leaves a permanent mark, for better or worse, on this group of superheroes that will keep them from ever forgetting what was lost in the dreaded Infinity War, and keep us as an audience on the edge of anxiety, as unpredictability has finally come into focus in a world that feels as dangerous and unpredictable as our own. It proves that not everything can ever be the same again, and that the fragility of livelihood is something we should cherish each and every day in our lives.

– Fine balance of dramatic and humorous elements. The very amount of laughable moments from richly ironic dialogue, as well as timely physical humor, made for a nice release after the draining that was “Infinity War”, and established early on that this is a return to form for the airy atmospheres that we’ve come to know from Avengers movies. That’s not to say that there aren’t gut-punches in the film, as the entire first act resonates ever so loudly in all of its depressing imagery and newfound disposition’s that the group find themselves on for the first time. What’s vitally important is that neither direction oversteps its boundaries towards the other, and allows enough careful articulation in each to take audiences on a roller-coaster of emotional response like only a flashy, frenzied superhero film can offer. Very few films this year have mastered one or the other, but the testament to the Russo’s brilliance is how they manage to juggle each without it ever compromising the integrity of one or the other, in turn establishing a hybrid subgenre of action, drama, and comedy that perfectly capture the atmosphere of page-turning graphic novels in all of their intrigue.

– Crisp action sequences. This certainly isn’t a film that is overwhelmed with action set pieces, in fact, the near three hour runtime allows enough pacing in anticipation that when it finally does come full circle, we are treated to enough visual fireworks that explode at just the right moment with our patience. The fight choreography is sharp as a tack, with two sides emulating a physical chess match with each move serving value in the fight for control. The editing is precise, instilling enough speed between actors without an over-abundance of them testing our stomach’s. And the variety in camera angles serves well in the battle of telegraphing for the audience, which can sometimes struggle with an area that should be the easiest aspect. Likewise, the set pieces spare no expense, and leave a barrage of debris and smoke flying at the screen that would allow me to recommend audiences spending a little more for the 3D, which has to be completely out of this world.

– Is it worth three hours? This was the biggest concern heading into the film, and for a majority of the scenes I can say that an inflated runtime is definitely needed considering the wide range of character’s and subplots that all need resolved by film’s end. What impressed me was how this film paid ample respect to each respective film franchise, and gave them the kind of closure that you never expect to see in a world run by money and greed, which constantly ask for the next unnecessary installment. As for pacing, with the exception of the first act, which takes slightly more time than I would like in setting up where this chapter is headed, I remained firmly invested for a majority of this film, and only checked my watch once, when the final battle concluded, serving as a testament to the story’s impression on me. There was never a period where I was bored with the movie, and more importantly, the scope involved in the immensity of the script practically demands that this film be treated as anything other than a conventional episodic Marvel installment, granting necessity to the rarity of this lengthy investment.

– Hidden narrative. Marvel apparently does know how to craft a trailer, as the sudden appearance of this plot took shape about thirty minutes into the movie, and remained intact for the better part of the next two hours. It sort of becomes this heist movie, with the remaining Avengers going after something, but not exactly the what or who that you’re thinking of while reading this. What this does is create some unexpected dream conflicts that would usually be impossible, but here are given life in a way that establishes fun, urgency, and most importantly: a underlying layer of tragedy hidden just beneath the surface. When this direction started, I felt that it overlooked a few more important aspects from what “Infinity War” gave us, but as time progressed I found myself feeling less alienated, and more giving in to this refreshing turn that was unlike anything I’ve experienced in the M.C.U to this point, and gave layers to events in the past Avengers timeline that we thought was dead and buried until now.

– The great Alan Silvestri. Music is usually the underlying poke or prod to an audience’s emotional interpretation. It can be manipulative if done wrong, but the work Silvestri has done in this film, as well as the other Avengers films, shouldn’t be underscored when surfing for proper emotional atonement. In “Endgame” Alan takes us through a triumphant nightmare, full of longing and despair, and combining them with the bombastic orchestral accompaniment that echoes in consistency with that of the single biggest war sequence that you have ever seen in film. In a sense, Alan feels like the often overlooked Avenger, but this critic deems him a necessity for the way his absorbing tones feel like an audibly reflective mirror on sometimes cryptic character’s, and if you feel yourself with any kind of goosebumps throughout the film, you will more than likely thank the talented cast, but you should DEFINITELY thank a composer with an immense responsibility of scoring the single biggest movie in pop culture history.

– Speaking of performances, most of the cast hits again in channeling enough heart and endless charisma for their respective character’s, which makes their fantasy interactions with one another all the more of a blessing. There’s still problems, most notably in the work of Brie Larson as Carol Danvers, which continues to feel like the furthest thing from human that Marvel has ever channeled. But the positives are aplenty, as Downey, Evans, and surprisingly Jeremy Renner steal the show. For the first two, it’s the expected command of leadership and bravado that etch out the perfect two protagonist’s for this gifted army, and preserve the level of commitment that each of them have given in their seventh and sixth films respectively. For Downey’s Stark, it’s that fearful and traumatic nuance that gives the film layers that was only hinted at in “Iron Man 3”, and given legs to grow here with timely adversity. However, Renner stole the show for me, as this rogue assassin who is hellbent on avenging what he lost in the finger-snap heard around the world. Clint Barton has always been my favorite Avenger, and “Endgame” feels like the lost opportunity that we finally get to see what he can do front-and-center, and he never disappoints. Barton’s rage and unshaken focus are depicted in ways that we’ve never before seen, and it sheds the shield and allows him to don a side of dangerousness that we’ve never seen from Nick Fury’s secret weapon, leaving me all the more desperate for a Hawkeye movie that should’ve already happened.

– Peak special effects. This is as good as money can buy in 2019, as the combination of aging, de-aging, green-screen digitalization, and capture motion technology, transcend what we see and believe as real, and leaves us astonished at how seamlessly it all fits into the frame of live action realism. Marvel has once again taken actors who are aged in current day, and instilled youth into them to make us feel like they were recruited at the prime of their acting careers to shoot for a film that wouldn’t see the light of day for another thirty-five years. Likewise, the capture motion of Mark Ruffalo giving The Hulk a more distinguished feature for the actor who is living and breathing inside, is a reflection of just how far special effects have come, especially since Edward Norton’s delve inside looked anything but believable in the 2008 Hulk film. Ruffalo can move and interact without his depiction feeling distorted or enhanced, and the familiarity of Mark’s more obvious features is reflected in a way that makes his transformation feel like a legitimate actor under make-up and prosthetics kind of performance, which in turn helps better register when something hurts him. It envelopes a complex inspiration of artifical generation that puppeteers time in a way that we as humans simply shouldn’t be able to, and stands as the measuring stick for technical achievements, which will no doubt win the Oscar that it should’ve had with “Infinity War”.

NEGATIVES

– Problems with a gimmick. I wish I could elaborate more, but it would be a spoiler. Instead I will say that some of the laws and rules established within Ant-Man in particularly doesn’t make sense, and when we are given an explanation for it, the film just kind of winks and nods towards past films in pop culture that also had a similar problem with this aspect, without giving us an answer that ties it all together. That’s all I’m going to say. Literally anything would ruin this movie for you guys, and I’m not about that.

My Grade: 9/10 or A

Climax

Directed By Gaspar Noe

Starring – Sofia Boutella, Romain Guillermic, Souhelia Yacoub

The Plot – In the mid 1990’s, 20 French urban dancers join together for a three-day rehearsal in a closed-down boarding school located at the heart of a forest to share one last dance. They then make one last party around a large sangria bowl. Quickly, the atmosphere becomes charged and a strange madness will seize them the whole night. If it seems obvious to them that they have been drugged, they neither know by who nor why. And it’s soon impossible for them to resist to their neuroses and psychoses, numbed by the hypnotic and the increasing electric rhythm of the music. While some feel in paradise, most of them plunge into hell.

Rated R for disturbing content involving a combination of drug use, violent behavior and strong sexuality, and for adult language and some graphic nudity

POSITIVES

– The perfect introduction. Noe understands that the way we open a film is vitally important to the kind of undertaking that audiences will endure throughout, and there’s no better example than the first five to ten minutes of this film, in which we see each member of the dance team being asked questions about past drug use, as well as suppressed fears, which will inevitably come into play later. Aside from this, the intro transcends what is playing out on screen by what we can identify in the depiction of the television itself that tells us all we need to understand about Noe’s influences in crafting such a unique vision. Video tapes of “Suspiria”, “Possession”, and “Zombie” are just a couple of the familiar titles that popped out at me, and when blended together made for quite the carnage concoction nightmare that Gaspar dishes out to his audience, as an absorbing student of the genre game.

– Gaspar’s one of a kind command in movement behind the lens. As was the case with his breakout smash “Enter The Void”, Noe again instills a sense of cerebral movement and conscience behind the unorthodox directions and angles that allow him to immerse us further in the dynamics of the characters and conversations that eventually come into play with the eventual dissention that comes into focus later on. As to where most film movements go front-to-back and side-to-side, Noe shifts under the characters, horizontally, upside down, and his signature go-to: above them, in order to breed unnerving atmosphere that articulately channels the surreal reality of drug-induced paranoia. It all adds up to a presentation that exceeds the limits of two-dimension cinematography, all to give the visual direction a heart-beating presence of its own in capturing the escalation and intensity of each respective situation.

– Long take photography. Another familiar trope in Noe’s filmography is the use of minimal edits that would otherwise take away from the dramatic tension of the scene or the performances themselves, and “Climax” is certainly the same in this category. For example, the opening ten minutes is a one take, choreographed dance routine, full of swaying dancers moving in and out of frame with these risky moves that could easily miscue or stumble at any moment. Because these are long take scenes, it’s a testament not only to Goe’s confidence in his actors, but also in the developing chemistry between them, for working together as one cohesive unit throughout the five weeks of filming. Likewise, there are several long takes throughout the film, some manipulated and some not, that follow different characters in and out of frame, to cover every corner of the tension growing within. I always give extra points to a director who transcends conventional storytelling edits in favor of these long-winded deliveries of dialogue and interaction that further invest you in the escalation of the madness.

– Committed performances from an immensely gifted ensemble cast. Both physical and emotional acting is to be credited here, as not only are these actors synthetically channeling familiar behaviors and transformations while being under the influence of psychadelic drugs, but also their bodily contortions vividly give off the impression of unforeseen entity possession. What’s incredible is that we as an audience never see any example of what they are tripping out to in their minds, but thanks to Noe’s risky decisions to allow the actors to interpret and manage their own trips, it is something that visually channels the blending of anxiety, panic, and paranoia respectively. It’s one of those examples where if I learned that this cast really was under the influence to properly convey the magnitude of their performances, then I would believe it without question. They truly are THAT believable.

– Humanity grounded dialogue. “Climax” was written from a five page script that Noe decided to keep limited because he wanted the conversations and interactions to feel realistic in terms of what young adults actually talk about. For a majority of it, it’s sex of course, but in a certain few characters, particularly in a brother and sister duo and two childhood best friends, we hear of their ambitions and American dreams associated with joining the group. It builds to the inevitability of confronting what would otherwise be passing mentions in a throwaway conversation, and what’s important is that its mention never feels obvious in the way it is withdrawn by us the audience. This is very much a fine representation of post-teenage interaction in the mid 90’s (The film is set in 1996), and allows this film once more to feel like a documentary instead of a feature motion picture for the form of grounded reality in conversation, that doesn’t have to appeal to coincidence or obviousness like other exposition-heavy screenplays.

– Closed-off setting. “Climax” entirely takes place during a freak snowstorm, at this French dance school, during the heart of a decade where technological advances of the modern age don’t exist. What this does is keeps the tension building inside of this no escape, no remorse, story setting to the point of suffocating levels of pressure that only further amplify the fears of being betrayed by someone amongst them. What’s vitally important is that not only is this a big place, full of endless neon colored hallways and bedroom sanctimonies, but the camera’s fluid movements that I mentioned earlier, possess an amazing responsibility in documenting these possibilities, so that us the audience can interpret a character’s direction long before we actually see it. We saw what a particular setting can do for a dance horror film like “Suspiria”, and “Climax” is certainly no different in this regard, combining dread, isolation, and growing anxiety to further enhance the claustrophobia that has damned everyone inside.

– Remixing drug interpretation. It’s refreshingly responsible to see a movie made in 2019 that accurately depicts the consequences associated with psychadelic drugs, and why the use of them is anything but a good time. Anymore it seems that drugs in cinema are a way to further enhance the comical aspect of a flat script, or serve as a convenient plot device in a film that overlooks the lasting effects of such toxins as an afterthought. The presence of these inclusions are everywhere throughout this film, never allowing you a second to free yourself from their confines, and constantly feeding into the thought process that the shield of protection gone from logical people, who lose their identities, is something we can neither control nor contain when it comes to the backlash. Films like these, while extreme in what becomes of their dreary isolation, is something that I believe should be shown to impressionable youths, who could be headed down one dark path if only for the lack of information that particular person receives before doing something that’s deemed “Cool” or “Edgy” by the wrong crowd.

– Above all, a solid dance film. These kind of movies are rarely my thing, but once in a while you will see precise dance choreography and amplifying intensity in a group’s chemistry that will make it impossible not to indulge in. Aside from the detailed introduction dance, which is unlike anything I’ve ever seen in terms of continuity, the interpretive solo dances by these flexibly gifted contortionists were something that astounded me, and reminded me just how far the dancing world has become with a new generation of dancers, who will stop at nothing to invest their bodies into surreal circumstance. The dancing in the film is sinisterly hypnotic, made even more effective when you consider that subliminally they are being controlled by something far greater than them, and it sort of feeds more into the scares of the movie when you consider that the car is running, but no one is truly behind the wheel of control.

– Entrancing presentation in production choices. Everything here is firing on all cylinders. From the neon variety of lighting effects, to the sharp sizzle of musical editing incorporated to these dance scenes, to mental heavy sound mixing, which constantly holds a presence throughout, this film is a theatrical experience that should definitely be seen on the biggest screen if only you can’t make it to a theater to check it out. This is French extremism at its finest, preserving every productional aspect to feed into the rising anxiety of the movie that we can pick up on even while sitting in the comforts of our own home. The constant Electronic Dance Music soundtrack that plays throughout constantly helps elevate the tone, and the echoing distance given to a young character’s screaming panic induced the kind of ringing nightmares that are often overlooked in the tools of tactful sound manipulating. To summarize it in whole, it’s a powerful sensory experience even if the moods you’re feeling are uncomfortable.

NEGATIVES

– Two small nitpicks. My problems with the film are miniscule at best, and I would give this film a 9.5 out of 10 if I were still giving halves, but it is what it is. One problem I had dealt with particular choices made by one character who isn’t under the influence of the drug in the same way everyone else is. I can’t comprehend for a second why this person would do the things that eventually lead to her mental breakdown, and it’s made even more complicated by the fact that we receive so little character exposition or interaction with her up to this point. My second problem is a technical matter that bothered me personally, but probably wouldn’t to the conventional moviegoer. When two characters are conversing, the editing will briefly fade to black and then kick back on with the same two characters. I have two problems with this: the first, is that if the movie is conveying the passage of time, it should use quick cuts instead of fades to black, and two, why even have an edit for a film so engaged in long takes? If it’s cutting to the same two characters, it feels like a noticeable unnecessary distraction to pad out the conversation that makes me question the improv capabilities of the two actors in frame.

My Grade: 9/10 or A

Inception

Directed By Christopher Nolan

Starring – Leonardo Dicaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page

The Plot – Dom Cobb (Dicaprio) is a skilled thief, the absolute best in the dangerous art of extraction, stealing valuable secrets from deep within the subconscious during the dream state, when the mind is at its most vulnerable. Cobb’s rare ability has made him a coveted player in this treacherous new world of corporate espionage, but it has also made him an international fugitive and cost him everything he has ever loved. Now Cobb is being offered a chance at redemption. One last job could give him his life back but only if he can accomplish the impossible – inception. Instead of the perfect heist, Cobb and his team of specialists have to pull off the reverse: their task is not to steal an idea but to plant one. If they succeed, it could be the perfect crime. But no amount of careful planning or expertise can prepare the team for the dangerous enemy that seems to predict their every move. An enemy that only Cobb could have seen coming.

Rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and action throughout

POSITIVES

– One of a kind direction. Before “Inception”, Christopher Nolan already carved his name out as one of the best directors of the current era, but after the distinct imprint that he left on this picture, he became one of the greatest minds of all time, challenging the audience in ways that films often don’t anymore. This is very much a passion project for Nolan, whose pictures envelope the very best in all areas of the technical spectrum, and are only surpassed by a script that is the epitome of a game of mental chess. This film is the very definition of expedition, treating us to an idea that geographically feels galaxies away, yet in reality is something that we ourselves can reach out and touch, and it’s because of this quality that the science fiction in a film feels possible for once, because it is grounded in such reality.

– Art imitating life. Nolan based the roles of the Inception team similar to roles that are used in craft filmmaking, with Cobb being the director, Arthur being the producer, Ariadne being the production designer, Eames being the actor, Saito being the studio, and Fischer being the audience. What this does is mold a team-based exercise for the movie out of something that Nolan knows best, giving what I interpreted as an immersion into the mind of a literary and visual genius. In addition to this, the initials of each character spell out a bigger message to the audience at home. D(om), R(obert), E(ames), A(rthur), M(al), S(aito), P(eter), A(riadne), Y(usef) = Dreams Pay.

– Best of both worlds. There is this prejudice in Hollywood that big budget Summer blockbusters can’t be intelligent and poignant, but “Inception” was really the film that changed this dimming perspective. Combining a monstrous budget of 160 million dollars with a script so expansive in material that it took ten whole years to write, made for the rare breed of Summer releases that challenge the audience in ways that disaster films and monster movies simply never could, and man did it pay off. Every time I watch this movie, I learn something entirely new about it, and it’s in those clever nuances that have since become known as Easter eggs where the film has tremendous value as a two-and-a-half hour film that you actually yearn to watch again and again. As far as heist films go, it is easily the most challenging and most evocative that I have ever seen.

– Sight and sound. There are no shortage of achievements when discussing this film, but the exceptional perfection that is the rumbling texture of the film’s sound mixing, as well as the practical-dominated work of visual effects serve as the strongest duo, for far greater reason than it taking the Oscar in both respective categories. The movie’s audio thrives as this building ball of momentum, constantly mimicking that of the intensity in dream conflicts that builds to a satisfying blow-off without ever decreasing the urgency in the atmosphere. Everything introduced into the dream is always enveloped by this emphasis that engages you with its presence, and it’s even more incredible when you consider that most of the jaw-dropping visuals we’re seeing are done with limited- to-no computer generation. It’s a technical marvel that sheds light on the tremendous confidence that Nolan had in his crew in depicting this world that looks very similar, but feels eerily foreign to our own laws of gravity.

– Tremendous world building. While I do have a problem with some of the inconsistencies of the rules established that I will get to later, you can’t deny that this idea within these dream worlds were treated as so much more than just table dressing to the film’s essential plot. The film takes valuable screen time in explaining the rules, ideas, and consequences within this state of sleep that give it this rich sense of originality when compared to anything else in film history. Likewise, the set designs and backdrops feel vastly different in channeling the deeper levels of tranquility that the team invades, so as not to feel redundantly confusing to the audience keeping score at home. Also, the fine tuning of superb editing allows for great visual definition when it comes to each ever-changing layer of the dream, and kept things from ever feeling convoluted in a film where it easily could’ve been. This is editing that is visually telling us as many as four different stories at once, and never lost its location for the story along the way.

– Hans Zimmer’s best musical score to date. Zimmer has always been one of my personal favorite composers, but the work done here is exceptionally breathtaking in the way it takes command of these impactful sequences. Hans not only treats us to a fine variety of eclectic compositions, but his dedicated influence through a majority of this picture prove that he is working overtime when actors need a break from the frame. The music very rarely ever leaves the picture completely, and Hans even manages to save the best for last, as “Time”, a somberly building track that plays during the film’s emotional finale, may just be my single favorite piece of music not only by Zimmer, but by any composer in any film ever.

– Collective ensemble. I’ve read a lot of disdain for the performances in the film feeling wooden, but to me this couldn’t be further from the truth, as Dicaprio’s Cobb channels a lot of anger and grief in the valuable things lost that I felt his addiction to the past to induce shivers each time he comes at a crossroads to let them go. In addition to this, the banter and engagement of these top notch actors constantly keep things fresh because of their differences in dynamic, especially that of Levitt and Hardy, who feel like they have a complicated past between them that have left them uneasy towards one another. My favorite scenes really are just the ones when these characters interact with one another, proving that if personalities and presence are strong enough, you can’t get enough of their influence on the picture.

– Absorbing cinematography. The shot composition and color illustration in the film serve so much more purpose here than to outline a beautifully intricate film, it also establishes versatility in complexion that mimics each room it invades. Pay close attention to the background lighting or color pallet in each scene, and you’ll get an undeniable sense of how something so distant plays such an unavoidable presence in the foreground. What made it a done deal for me is that the color correction never feels overwhelmingly artificial, instead endearing subtly in a sponge-like quality to harvest the artistic merit in each scene. For a film made in 2010, it could easily stand tall with the 4K definition of a 2019 film.

– That controversial ending. (Light SPOILERS) Like most artistically poignant films, this one has plenty of room for interpretation, during the film’s pivotal closing moments. Many people have their own take whether Cobb is indeed awake or not when he is reunited with his children. My personal take is that there is a wobble on the spinner right before the screen fades to black, therefore instilling the idea that this is the real world. I say this because in the dream world there never was one instance of this even slightly wobbling even a little bit, therefore he must be in the real world. Either way, I applaud Nolan for giving food for thought to the idea that there is no wrong answer, and that either ending could alter the feeling of the film and its characters conclusively. It proves that endings don’t always need clarity to hit you the hardest emotionally, and if done right they can leave plenty of room for incorporated fan feelings, because after all, that is why movies are made in the first place.

NEGATIVES

– Inconsistencies with the rules. Some of the glaring problems upon my recent watch involved a few things that crossed my mind as being false, based on the established rules. The first is with the Limbo stage of the dream itself. If Limbo is indeed thought of as the point of no return, why is it so easy for Ariadne, Cobb, and Fischer to escape it by simply killing themselves in the dream? What about Cobb’s incarceration? How was he found guilty when he wasn’t even in the hotel that his wife jumped from? Doesn’t the hotel have cameras showing who went in and out of each room? Wouldn’t they have record of her checking into two different hotel rooms? It seems pretty clear cut to me. Finally are the audience conveniences that make absolutely zero sense in the context of the movie, but are there to forcefully teach the audience about the dream world. Why is Cobb even set up for a water kick when any kind of kick would work in waking him up? Why does it have to be water, and why not a mattress? How come the fall itself into the bathtub doesn’t wake Cobb? I’ll tell you why: So the movie can show water invading a dream. Once again, it only makes sense in the context of speaking to the audience. What about Cobb failing three different times during Saito’s test, and yet he still hires him anyway? What about Cobb’s kids being in America while he lives in other countries? Why not send the kids with Grandpa (Michael Caine) over to where Leo is, so they can be together? I could go into these things for years, but these were the ones that really bothered me.

My Grade: 9/10 or A-

If Beale Street Could Talk

Directed By Barry Jenkins

Starring – Kiki Layne, Stephan James, Regina King

The Plot – Set in early 1970s Harlem, the film is a timeless and moving love story of both a couple’s unbreakable bond and the African-American family’s empowering embrace, as told through the eyes of 19-year-old Tish Rivers (Layne). A daughter and wife-to-be, Tish vividly recalls the passion, respect and trust that have connected her and her artist fiancé Alonzo Hunt, who goes by the nickname Fonny (James). Friends since childhood, the devoted couple dream of a future together but their plans are derailed when Fonny is arrested for a crime he did not commit.

Rated R for adult language and some sexual material

 

POSITIVES

– Jenkins’ impeccable influence in black cinema. What I find so refreshing and commanding about Barry’s touches as a storyteller is in the ability to finely illustrate characters of color in a way that renders them every bit as human as they are relatable. A lesser director neglects to stray far from the confines of subliminal stereotyping, but the people in Barry’s films are enriched with a level of respect and class that sadly black cinema just doesn’t capitalize on enough, and this in turn allows you to comprehend not only the nuance of every character’s personality, but the mentality of what makes each of them vibrantly tick.

– In addition to what I just mentioned the film offers mind-blowing and exceptionally eye-opening commentary on black experiences inside and out of the judicial system. What’s impressive is that it often does this in deep-focus conversation instead of showing us front-and-center, preparing us for what’s to inevitably come thanks to this informative foreshadowing. I was also painted with these strokes of helplessness, paranoia, and especially longing, that made the material blossom with self-indulgence. This is a film tnat takes place in the 70’s, but the contrasts and poignancy to the kind of injustices still going on in our own world in 2019 highlight an unnerving feeling that I simply couldn’t escape, nor did I feel that the audience ever should. It’s moving material to say the least, and offers an underlying pressure boiling beneath this nourishing love story.

– Competency in juggling dual-narratives. The storytelling in “Beale Street” is somewhat a linear structure, in that it is being told in a straight line, however there are actually two different time periods, before and after Fonny’s arrest, that the film simultaneously captures. What’s important is that there is plenty of time distance between both arcs, giving them narrative importance in keeping up the consistency of the pacing. One or two scenes do feel briefly repetitive, but there’s nothing inside that I would ever cut or trim, as I feel like just under two hours was the proper time allowance for this film to thrive on.

– Above and beyond artistic merit. This is a BEAUTIFUL film, complimented by an expansive set of shot composition photography and dreamy cinematography by frequent Jenkins collaborator James Laxton that offer enough experimentation and capture to constantly dazzle. During scenes of intimacy or reflection between our romantic leads, we are treated to POV slow-motion style depictions, with some of the strongest framing that I have ever seen. It gives the intimacy between them a feeling like nothing else exists in their world, as well as a vantage point in the scenery surrounding them that perfectly articulates the different worlds that their respective character’s come from. If you see this film for anything, see it for the images that solidify the team of Jenkins and Laxton as one of the best 1-2 visual combos since Villenueve and Deakins.

– The pulse of the neighborhood itself. This is really what I refer to when I mention that a setting is a respective character in a movie, as the very look and feel of this rapidly changing neighborhood really preserves the heartbeat of the many ideals and adversities locked inside. Throughout the film, we are treated to haunting visuals and unrelated stories from neighborhood citizens that conjure up a complete feeling of what it means to be settled here, and it’s in these feelings where the spirit of a proud but terrifying world reflects with each of them. Jenkins takes his time in capturing the polished colors and abandoned buildings of a once prestigious landscape, and really makes them pop against the ambitions of these two people who are now making a world for themselves.

– Immersive sound design. One thing that bothers me in films is when a scene takes place in what would otherwise be a noisy surrounding, and we only hear the conversation between the characters in our story. That couldn’t be further from what’s going on in “Beale Street”, as this place that is described early on as a noisy one perseveres with its own rhythmic shifts in traffic and population to constantly remind you of its presence. I would frequently close my eyes and let the narration of the characters tell me the story, and each time my imagination came to fruition because of these echoes in the atmosphere that only go away when a movie wants to be completely dishonest with itself and the world it creates. I give this film all of the respect in the world for bringing along the complete picture, and not just the things that are obvious.

– Nicholas Britell’s emotionally picturesque musical score. Britell is given vital free range here to play with feelings and nerves present in the film, and does so with such attention to character atmosphere that really takes us the viewer on a roller-coaster of free range emotion, through the ups and downs of this shaken family. There are many excellent musical takes from the film, but the one that has been on repeat coming through my speakers since I saw the film is “Agape”, a three minute tender sentiment that captures so much of the hope and fireworks associated with falling in love for the first time. I have attached it next to the trailer, up top. The relationship between jazz and classical music thrive in complexity from the different styles of technique pumped into each, and that’s never more prominent than its inclusion into the airy worlds that Jenkins manufactures.

– All of the performances are also well-timed and essential to the importance of scenes, but for my money it’s Layne and King who steal the show. Layne’s got the kind of eyes that weaken you in the knees, and continuously transfer her feeling of emotional registry long before she ever says a word. As for King, it’s a return to form for an entirely underrated actress, who here serves as the glue that bonds this family from falling apart. King gives us no shortage of long-winded dialogue deliveries, and the fire that captures the love she has for those important to her is admirable and conveying in the importance of a Mother’s touch on any family. I hope they both receive Oscar nominations, as the film would lose a lot of its luster without the perfect casting of each.

– My favorite scene. Amazingly enough, the scene that stuck with me the most throughout the film doesn’t have a single character, nor a line of dialogue spoken. It takes place with one of Fonny’s incomplete wood carvings, and the camera continuously revolves around it, illuminated by warm, golden lighting, and to me represented Fonny, in that it and Fonny both have the potential to be something whole and complete. It’s one of these genius moments that cement Jenkins as a genius, but also the importance of hope, which feels like it’s slipping the longer the film goes on. Take time to appreciate scenes like these, because often directors are trying to convey something to us that is anything but beautifully decorated table dressing.

NEGATIVES

– There’s very little to complain about in this film, but small things distracted me from an otherwise perfect presentation. The first is in two big name cameos that lessen the impact of fresh-faced atmosphere from the picture. My problem is that these two are not only obvious, but a bit cartoonish because of the roles they portray, and it just didn’t sit well when everyone else is portrayed and grounded in such realism. The other problem I had is in the film’s attitude lacking the kind of urgency that was so prominent in the novel. While I was firmly invested in Fonny’s on-going trial, the lack of a scene depicting how much prison is changing him could’ve done so much in capturing the essence of time.

My Grade – 9/10 or A-

Vice

Directed By Adam McKay

Starring – Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Steve Carell

The Plot – The story of Dick Cheney (Bale), an unassuming bureaucratic Washington insider, who quietly wielded immense power as Vice President to George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell), reshaping the country and the globe in ways that we still feel today.

Rated R for adult language and some violent images

POSITIVES

– Political commentary of the finest kind. “Vice” is certainly no love-letter to Dick Cheney, nor is it a pulling of the lever execution for what some call the worst thing to happen to the White House. This is a film that lays out all of the facts, for better or worse, allowing the audience to soak everything in with regards to the first man who really re-defined what it means to be a Vice President. Nobody believed for a second that Bush was ever the maker of moves behind his desk, and because of McKay’s air of truth to his story that doesn’t cater to either of the political agendas, we come to understand just how deep Dick’s influence lay with the surrounding courts, parties, and offices in and surrounding Washington D.C. Because of the immense level of detail and information, even someone as politically interested as I am found this movie to be a novel of knowledge that is translated completely to the big screen.

– Perfect tone of atmosphere. McKay’s impeccable direction is only surpassed by his sharp tongue wit of screenwriting that perfectly encapsulates the absurdity of the events being played out before us. Because this is real life, the only way to approach it is to expose it for the hilarity of the situation, and Adam’s precise timing with sarcasm, as well as his tools for the trade technically (more on this in a minute), give a surprisingly feel-good time to such terrible American events that would otherwise leave a rock in your system. It’s a rare look inside of the over-the-top villain we all love to hate in movies, but this time it’s real life, and that is what makes most of the material astonishing in how it’s supplanted.

– Text book editing and technical merit with the film’s presentation. McKay uses plenty of at-the-time references in pop culture, as well as subtle metaphorical digs to expose character’s seedy ambitions. More than that however, the editing of pasted-in stock footage serves as a look inside the mentality of a politician, teaching us that when the light is on, danger lurks. Some examples are that of a fishing pole reeling in its catch to emulate that of Cheney’s sell to Bush to become his Vice President, as well as predators in the jungle who snatch their prey, echoing that of the government monopoly that allowed Dick to quite literally corner every angle of the game. In addition to these marvelous techniques, the film’s credits play with still nearly an hour-and-a-half left in the film, and the intention is something so magnificently brilliant that I just can’t give it away here.

– Best ensemble cast of 2018. Not only do these not feel like spirited impressions, but each of the big name actors lose themselves whole to the characters they portray, giving me several moments during the film when I had to remind myself who played them. None of this is more evident than that of Bale in the title role. Christian has already won the Oscar, he just doesn’t know it yet, or maybe he does. Maybe it’s his confidence that allowed him to emulate Dick’s very speech patters, to his quivering lip, to even the way the man walks. Every year there’s always that one transformational performance that drops your jaw in how creepily concise it is, and Bale’s storied career will always come back to this heralded revelation, no matter what the man does for the rest of his life. Amy Adams is also brilliant as Lynne, Dick’s longtime significant other. Beyond being just an arm piece for our main character, Adams proves early on that behind every powerful man there’s an even more powerful woman, outlining Lynne as someone who picked up the slack when Dick couldn’t because of failing health concerns. Steve Carell, Sam Rockwell, Lily Rabe, and even Tyler Perry also bring their best to their respective characters, immersing themselves in such a way that removes doubt of familiarity from these accomplished actors and brings light to just the character gracing us with their presence on our screens for one more day.

– A greater understanding. One of my favorite aspects with “The Big Short” was how it related the housing and stock market terminology and structure with these creative instances of celebrities translating them for a wider audience. Something similar is done here, and once again it doesn’t feel dumbed down or catering with its inclusion. One such instance this time involves a restaurant dinner scene with Dick and pals reading from a menu that has some honest-but-appalling bureaucratic descriptions. It’s something that once again caters to the sarcasm of the humor level, all the while providing us information to actually give us a candid look inside of the moves being made in the ivory tower.

– Surprises with the pacing. I simply couldn’t believe that just over two hours had passed in watching this film, as the rapid fire developments and variety of material constantly kept the film interesting, and more importantly: elevated. What I mean by this is the stakes continue to rise higher, until this feels like no one will get out alive, and by that point the devastating blow can come from any direction that has long since been set up. This all keeps the film moving along smoothly, avoiding the hiccup of a first act that sometimes feels a bit scatter-brained and disjointed in picking up proper momentum. But once the familiar administration comes into play, it makes up for those forgetful first 30 minutes in spades, taking the audience through an education lesson on those we invest our trust in every day.

– A wide spanning of Dick’s entire life and career. If you’re someone like me who loves when a story doesn’t just begin and end on the meat of the material, you’ll enjoy “Vice”. The film begins in Wyoming, where Dick and Lynne meet, fall in love, and begin their push to make something of themselves. It’s funny when you consider the most influential V.P of all time began as a way to impress his wife, but that’s what we get here, and it’s in that unabashed ambition where we get a protagonist who we can sink our teeth into and possibly give us the only time when we the average people can relate to someone so obstructed by opportunity. Far beyond this though, it goes through the highs and lows of his life accordingly, never leaving out one event in the unconventional rags-to-riches story that is promised.

– Brilliant gimmick with the narrator. I again cannot spoil this intelligent aspect of the movie, but I can say that Jessie Plemons voices and appears on screen several times as the narrator to Cheney’s story. What is his connection to Dick, Lynne, or anyone associated with them? That is where the true element of surprise takes form, making for one of the more shockingly fitting twists that I have seen in quite some time. I’m not someone who particularly enjoys narrators or narration in a movie, as I feel it often takes away from the immersion of the story itself, but I can promise you that it’s all building to something devilishly constructed, and may be the single greatest metaphor for McKay’s style of diabolical cynicism that tends to be a character in all of his films.

– Flawless make-up and prosthetics. When a film has over two hours to work with, the make-up team can properly span the aging process fruitfully, and that is what we get here with Dick’s familiar balding grey hair and wrinkled face. When the film begins, we still see Bale because it’s basically just him with a little weight gained on, but as the story expands through different decades, the aging feels every bit as timely as it does transformative, diminishing Bale trademarks in favor of this conjuring of the former Vice President. The make-up itself feels believable and never too over-the-top to turn aging into a cinematic gimmick.

NEGATIVES

– Sometimes during the film, it feels like important details are missing from anyone who isn’t Dick, and that void leaves exposition holes as big as the sun. One such instance involves W’s rise to power from being a fall-down drunk college boy. One second he’s insulted by everyone in the Republican party, then the next scene he’s running for president. What’s missing that evolved him as a front runner? This isn’t the only time the movie treats us like we should already know these details, skimming over the evolution of the world outside of its central protagonist. It might be acceptable to some people because this movie isn’t about them, but I think Bush’s story plays as prominently for Cheney’s opportunistic persona if we know all of the facts of his road as well. They are conjoined for the rest of their time on Earth, so why does the movie try to distance them as much as possible?

My Grade: 9/10 or A

The Favourite

Directed By Yorgos Lanthimos

Starring – Olivia Colman, Emma Stone, Rachel Weisz

The Plot – Early 18th century. England is at war with the French. Nevertheless, duck racing and pineapple eating are thriving. A frail Queen Anne (Colman) occupies the throne and her close friend Lady Sarah (Weisz) governs the country in her stead while tending to Anne’s ill health and mercurial temper. When a new servant Abigail (Stone) arrives, her charm endears her to Sarah. Sarah takes Abigail under her wing and Abigail sees a chance at a return to her aristocratic roots. As the politics of war become quite time consuming for Sarah, Abigail steps into the breach to fill in as the Queen’s companion. Their burgeoning friendship gives her a chance to fulfill her ambitions and she will not let woman, man, politics or rabbit stand in her way.

Rated R for strong sexual content, nudity and adult language

POSITIVES

– A trio of award worthy performances. Most films are fortunate enough to contain one breakthrough performance that earns its film recognition, in the form of word of mouth, but “The Favourite” is fortunate enough to have three, a testament to Lanthimos’ tight grip on his characters. Colman adds enough dimension and complexity to this Queen that reaches much further than her being just another spoiled recluse of royalty. There’s an air of sadness and loneliness to her that makes her engaging, despite her endless riches that no audience can relate to. Weisz also marvels as this sternly plotting right hand woman to the Queen’s operations. She does so with very little physical interaction and no yelling during her long-winded threats, and it’s all capped off by Rachel’s cold measuring stare that lets you know an idea is always brewing behind this exterior. The show stealer for me however, is definitely Emma Stone, channeling a transformative performance that adds yet another layer to the young starlet. Abigail knows how to get what she wants, and her sponge-like perception to soak up the boundaries in every situation is what makes her every bit as cunning and deceptive as her counterparts in power.

– The fine use of natural lighting throughout the picture. Aside from Yorgos’ expected cold, greying cinematography that feels more appropriate than ever during 18th century England, the presentational aspect of dimmed lighting and lustrous shadows provides much artistic integrity to the creativity in every shot. This unflinching darkness enveloping these auburn reds and sunlight orange tapestries tend to follow these character for the entirety of the film, visually conveying the ulterior motives behind every act of kindness that only serve as table dressing. This decision articulately channels the cold and insensitive surroundings of the immense mansion, and gives way to filters of colorful expression that never compromise the focus of any shot.

– Lanthimos, the master magician of the lens. In his previous films “The Lobster” and “The Killing of a Sacred Deer”, Yorgos used unorthodox camera angles and gimmicks to emit this layer of unsettling atmosphere that really allows the audience to immerse themselves in the interpretation, and we thankfully have more of the same here. Particularly in the use of fish-eye lens, the occasional inclusion feels foreign to the rest of its visual counterparts, allowing us these moments of valued focus to soak up the ever-changing scenery. Aside from this, Yorgos’ movements of the camera are always smooth and patient, never settling for handheld camera work that would otherwise distract from the artistic integrity of the portrait being painted before us. This tells me that this is a man who knows the best bang in every aspect of shooting a film, and “The Favourite” is easily his most technically ambitious film to date.

– A sensational game of cat-and-mouse. The rivalry between Abigail and Sarah in the film is easily the sell of it all for anyone who has seen the trailers, and it more than delivers on its pitch thanks to a combination of unpredictability and consequence that constantly raises the stakes. This provides plenty of examples of psychological and physical displays of power between them, and the film is wise enough to constantly keep them leveled evenly, so as not to sway the audience’s decision for who the Queen is better off with, one way or the other. There are many times during the film when the balance of power switches and unforgivable actions takeover, and it forced me to switch my opinion several times for these two dueling dames, providing emphasis for a circumstance so complex.

– Chapter title screens. The entirety of the 115 minute film is divided into these eight devilishly delicious sections, each numbered by Roman numerals, and supplanted with a pulled cryptic quote from somewhere in the film’s dialogue. Many films have been doing the storybook approach lately, but why it works so well for this story in particular is the ambiguity and double meaning of the quotes themselves, to constantly keep you guessing in terms of where this story will take us. There is nothing mentioned in text that ever remotely serves as a revealing spoiler, preserving the quality to constantly keep us guessing while giving importance to the value of episodic storytelling.

– Accuracy in wardrobe and costume design. Mark my words, “The Favourite” will earn an Oscar nomination in the wardrobe department, and the reason for this is the collection of rich Bohemian gowns and expressive makeup design that durably channel the era of England that it’s depicting. With a series of elegant dinner parties and Parlament courts under the roof of this royal mansion of frequent guests, we learn that no cent is spared in the fashion sense of production design, and more importantly it all stays consistent with the respective time period (Take notes “Robin Hood”).

– One thing that I love about Lanthimos’ tones in his films is his ability to channel this comfortable blend between comedy and drama that breeds a subgenre of its own. Considering the shocking and dramatic pull of the material inside of these twists and turns, I wasn’t expecting to laugh half as much as I did. This dry, caustic kind of wit is made for someone like me, who has always seen the charm in English humor that is otherwise considered strange to my territory. The expressionless deliveries of some of these lines occasionally require double takes to let the punchline reach the heights of the quiet surrounding it, and the lunacy of royalty while eating and dancing is more than approached on to give ridiculous emphasis to something that should otherwise be considered prestigious.

– Johnnie Burn and William Lyons riveting use of classical music. There’s a strong compromise here of soft time-honored pieces combined with modern day production quality that gives new life to the music that adorns the film, and makes for a racketing of tension to flow freely into each scene. There is one such number that got a bit derivative for how long its same three tones are repeated throughout the scene, but everything else is delivered with such thunderous volume and echo to make it feel like the music plays throughout the house, instead of just accompanied in post production incorporation.

– Thought-provoking in the way it incorporates provocative subject matter with historical figures of yesterday. I don’t want to give too much away, but a revelation about the Queen happens thirty minutes into the film, and changes the complexion of this cousin rivalry moving forward. What I liked about this aspect was how it’s approached in terms of its shock factor towards its delicate time period, acting as a sort of weakness for her character during a time period when such personal ideals were anything but progressive. Where it crosses over to psychological for me is thinking about the possibility that many royal figures were just like Anne in this movie, in that they died with their own kind of secrets in their minds.

NEGATIVES

– For my money, the film feels slightly uneven after the incredible pacing and blow-for-blow battle for leverage during the first half of the movie. Once this angle runs out of gas, the second half, and more particularly the third act, is left to close things up in ways that don’t feel satisfying, conclusive to the progression of the narrative itself, nor believable for the Queen considering what we’ve been taught about her. I understand the point of the film’s closing shot intention accurately enough, but it loses so much steam by the redundancy of the final act that you wish it would just cut to the chase already. It stretches out for what feels like miles, and serves as the only point during the film when I wasn’t having a blast.

My Grade: 9/10 or A-

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Directed By Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, Rodney Rothman

Starring – Shameik Moore, Jake Johnson, Hailee Steinfeld

The Plot – Miles Morales (Moore) comes across the long-dead Peter Parker (Johnson). This Peter Parker is not from his world though; he’s from somewhere else in the multiverse. With Parker’s guidance, Miles will become Spider-Man: and through that he will become part of the ever-expanding ‘Spider-Verse’.

Rated PG for frenetic sequences of animated action violence, thematic elements, and mild adult language

POSITIVES

– Comic book magazine come to life. There have been films classified as a comic book movie endlessly before, but “Into the Spider-Verse” is the rare exception that actually lives and breathes by this definition. Aside from the breathtaking cinematography that literally transfers the backdrops and landscapes of the comic book accordingly, the movie also brings with it some unique traits in personality that sets it above its kin of the genre. As an animator turned director, Persichetti instills on-screen text that reacts to sounds, on-screen text boxes that serve as the narrator inside of Morales’s mind, three-cut perspectives that radiate that side-by-side feel of a comic book dynamic, and of course the wind range of animation from each respective Spider-Man in the film, that cohesively bonds to feel smoothly in the same film or in this case universe.

– Entrancing visuals in animation. Everything from the variety of ever-changing set designs, including but not limited to a cyberpunk inspired 2018 New York, to the texture of the animation itself, feels every bit as authentic as it does transcendent of the screen, carving out that layer of comic book euphoria that takes precise expertise to competently master it. Sometimes the animation feels straining, like watching a 3D movie without the glasses, but it’s all intentional, as it echoes the vibes perfectly of comic book pages that sometimes lose a little bit of that focus in being the victim of a copy of a copy. But when it’s smooth in depiction, “Into the Spider-Verse” is not only the most beautiful comic book movie of all time, but easily the most beautifully textured film of the year for the knockout presentation that constantly raises the bar with each passing minute.

– Transformative voice acting from a well rounded cast. Shameik Moore is brilliant as the film’s central protagonist, vocalizing the combination of immaturity, fear, and daring nature that we’ve come to expect in the character, from Miles big screen debut. Moore himself is 23 years old, but excels because of a softer and gentler side to vocalizing that easily allows him to immerse himself in this teenage nerd of sorts. Likewise, Nicolas Cage is delightfully meditated as my favorite Spider-Man offering: Spider-Man Noir. His voice is unmistakable, but the smooth deliveries in the manner that only Cage can deliver makes him perfect for the role, and carves out a second animated role of the year (Teen Titans Go To The Movies) that should provide a rebirth for one of America’s most celebrated actors. Jake Johsnon steals the show as Peter Parker, and does so by giving us an older, depressed side to Peter that movie fans aren’t used to seeing. Johnson’s dry delivery and constant undercutting of Miles made for some of my favorite exchanges of the movie, and carved out a dynamic in chemistry between them that had me begging for more films between just these two characters.

– Like most Spider-Man movies, there is a twist midway through the film, and it couldn’t have come at a better time. Between weak underwriting of the antagonists, as well as a story that was starting to lose steam, this reveal comes and sort of adds fuel to Miles’s fire, serving as the catalyst to motivate him to become who he’s destined to be. This twist actually did throw me off, and reminded me repeatedly of the one thing that comic books do better than telvision shows or movies, and that is the capability to make something so small feel so devastating to everyone enveloped in the unraveling narrative.

– Thunderous sound design. Although the narration deliveries are a bit mumbled and hard to hear throughout the film, the rumbling intensity of character perspectives allowed the audience several takes to investing themselves into the shoes of the character. One such example is early on in the film during a ride to school between Miles and his father, and we are treated to the faint sounds of cars whizzing by. Sounds small in effect, but I can’t tell you how many movies bumble this sound design repeatedly, taking something so honest as influence of environment and wiping it away to constantly remind us of studio interference. This of course isn’t the only aspect of this impactful sound scheme throughout, but just an example of how much time and effort went in to establishing an environment and seeing it all the way through to the finish line of the scene’s progression.

– Patience in storytelling. What I appreciate about the story inside is that it never feels rushed or forced to approach the same kind of familiar tropes that so many of these films are about. As much as this is a coming of age story for Miles, it’s also a family drama, and the elements of both of these slow cook, giving time to each to boil to the top once they’ve reached their respective intensities. Likewise, I also appreciated Miles growing into his capabilities as Spider-Man, instead of being great at them right away. This drives me nuts constantly in Spider-Man films because no one should be able to master these gifts without practice, and Morales’s story finally gives us insight, as well as concentration into the one who accepts these responsibilities.

– Doesn’t try to be something that it’s not with time allowance. So many superhero films are encroaching on that two-and-a-half hour mark with very little reason, but “Into the Spider-Verse” stays confidently firm at 108 minutes because that is how much story it has to tell. Because of this, the pacing feels smooth, never giving us an obvious moment of downtime or lag to the progression of the movie, nor the bottling of momentum that never manages to lose even a single drop. I was very much consistently invested in this story and characters, and this feeling gave off the impression that I was being re-introduced to the superhero genre all over again.

– The more you know. The film will appeal to fans young and old of Spider-Man all the same, but if you have followed this legendary character with more dedication, you will be rewarded for your years and dollars invested. Throughout the film, we are treated to an endless offering of inside character jokes, surprising cameo appearances, and a post credits scene that pokes fun at a certain meme that is all the talk of the comic book community. Aside from this, the humor is above average, and more importantly does so by providing observation at the honest, awkward moments of life, instead of catering to a set-up and delivery that can otherwise grow tiresome.

– Thrilling action sequences and set pieces that add to the intensity of the scene. Much of the fresh consistency comes from the variety of villains that adorn the film, but two sequences in particular stood out as fantasy in possibility that remind us why animated is the way to go for comic book lore. One such scene takes place with Peter and Miles swinging throughout the woods of what feels like an endless forest, giving us several intelligent uses of the web that a city setting just can’t accommodate, and the other is the film’s climax fight high above the city limits, at crossroads of the many universes we’ve been told about. Both of these scenes are great for their super quick arsenals of choreography that exchange like dance partners, but the true beauty and consequences of the latter gave us a finale with a familiar antagonist that fully realizes the Miles transformation.

NEGATIVES

– For my money, I could’ve used more development in the relationship between Uncle Aaron (Voiced by Mahershala Ali) and Miles. We’re constantly told what Aaron means to Miles, but rarely shown it, and I could’ve used a few more scenes to flesh out and truly feel the drama of something that goes down between them. Even if this is nit-picking at this point, this stands out like a sore thumb as the film’s most noticeable weakness, and I could’ve used a couple more scenes to magnify Aaron’s importance to the script and give the movie enough reason to reach for that two hour runtime.

My Grade: 9/10 or A

Green Book

Directed By Peter Farrelly

Starring – Viggo Mortensen, Mahershala Ali, Linda Cardellini

The Plot – When Tony Lip (Mortensen), a bouncer from an Italian-American neighborhood in the Bronx, is hired to drive Dr. Don Shirley (Ali), a world-class Black pianist, on a concert tour from Manhattan to the Deep South, they must rely on “The Green Book” to guide them to the few establishments that were then safe for African-Americans. Confronted with racism, danger-as well as unexpected humanity and humor-they are forced to set aside differences to survive and thrive on the journey of a lifetime.

Rated PG-13 for thematic content, adult language including racial epithets, smoking, some violence and suggestive material

POSITIVES

– The powerful dynamic between the two leads that keeps your attention throughout the film. There are very few scenes when Mortensen and Ali aren’t sharing the screen together, and that dependency speaks volumes to the confidence that the script writers had on their unshakeable chemistry, which is appealing in any and every way you can imagine. Besides their impeccably witty banter that I couldn’t get enough of, and firm grasp that each actor had on their character, the duo each do a positive service to the other, like how Tony breaks down decades old levels of racism in how he was brought up, and Don adapts to the cultures and experiences that have eluded him in his classical music upbringing. Each character opens up the eyes to the other, and it’s refreshing to see two older male leads who work better as a team than they do solely.

– Speaking of those two men, the performances from them are more than deserving of Oscar consideration, and consistently keep pace with each character’s evolution. For Mortensen’s Tony, he’s every bit naive as he is disgusting, and it’s in the unabashed nature of the latter that keeps the former in the range of childhood innocence. He says some pretty offensive things, but you get the feeling that he doesn’t know any better, and Viggo’s charisma is constantly on display. For Don, it’s a classier side of Ali that we unfortunately haven’t seen until now. Mahershala keeps Don bottled up for most of the movie, restrained by the confines of countrywide racism and isolation, as a result of his astonishing talents. Ali continues to build lengthy presence on screen, and his designation as the straight man to Tony’s mayhem never limits him to playing second fiddle.

– In seeing the trailers, I designated this as just another road trip film, with sprinkles of racist tribulations thrown in, and I couldn’t have been more wrong in that assumption. Sure, the elements of that subgenre are certainly there, but they’re only an outline to cater to a much bigger picture. The film’s meaty material guides us through elements of racial stereotypes, police brutality, and obviously the cultural divide between the north and south. This film takes on so many subplots, and yet it succeeds at stirring the pot of conversation in every single one of them. Eventually, it even evolves into one hell of a Christmas movie, during the emotionally stirring third act that warmed my heart in ways that only the Christmas classics have done. I haven’t felt this emotionally satisfied from a film in quite some time, and its important subject matter makes it very time appropriate for our particular age.

– Unorthodox introduction. There are no opening credits or title card in the film. This is done as a way to immerse audiences into the action of the opening scene, and ultimately makes them forget that they’re watching a film. I would like to see more movies taking creative stances like this one, as I feel too much is hung on the conventional introductions that have otherwise become stale in films. With more emphasis on the transcendence of real life, the film can blend into the real story taking place at hand. Beyond this, some of the real life Vallelonga family members are extras during family dinner scenes.

– Peter Farrelly’s strongest work to date. Yes, it’s the same guy who wrote the ear jizz scene in “There’s Something About Mary”, but this is Peter’s welcoming parade into the world of compelling drama and hearty lessons, that audiences can take home with them. What’s most impressive is Farrelly’s ability to incorporate the same kind of comedic material that exists in his previous movies, and balances it with the dramatic pulse in material that adorns the film, and none of it ever misses a step. This keeps the optimism firmly in the air of a consistent tone for the film, and it’s an example that no director in Hollywood should ever be written off before the project is finished.

– The look and feel of 1962 is represented fruitfully with an earnestness to captures that radiates. There wasn’t a single aspect of the vintage automobiles, three piece suits, or throwback hotel interiors that didn’t sync up, and it’s great to see a film that captures the beats of its respective era by properly channeling the vibes of everything prominently familiar about it. Visually, this is an America we’re no longer accustomed to, and it gives food for thought for the picket fences format, in that the most disturbing things are happening in the most ideal looking backdrops.

– We’ve seen this kind of story before, but what transcends the material of the cliches within this screenplay, is the poignancy of it being based on a true story. These were two men who remained best friends until their dying days, only months apart from each other, and the film does a strong enough job of juggling the expectations of a real life story with the entertainment value of a screenplay, only changing about the story what wouldn’t have otherwise translated well on-screen. It’s also got great adaptability as a crossover favorite for mainstream audiences, highlighting a similar track to some recent best picture winners that previously started off as just independent buzzworthy cinema.

– Contrary to what you’re seeing on-screen, Mahershala Ali does not play the piano, but the film does a great enough job in camera manipulation and sound editing to properly attain this believability. Kris Bowers, the film’s musical composer, doubles as Ali in his piano sequences, and in particularly hand close-ups that attain the movements of a reputable pianist superbly. When Ali is obviously in frame, the audio from the piano is muted and replaced with Bowers masterful work, carving out times when I really did question whether Ali took classes as a pianist, leading up to the film.

– One aspect that a lot of road trip movies forget about is properly channeling the distance in miles to properly articulate the distance from home, and thankfully “Green Book” doesn’t fall under this same spell. In addition to its over two hour run time, the majority of which is spent on the road, the film takes us through a variety of landscapes and cultures to echo that of the melting pot known as America. This is a film that takes its time in illustrating the perils of isolation on the road, making the months feel like years, and the appreciation of things absent from sight that much more meaningful once the reunion takes center stage.

NEGATIVES

– There’s a subplot twist that happens with Shirley’s character midway through the film, that I wish the movie would’ve further elaborated on. In addition to people’s prejudice against him as an African American man, this would’ve only further enhanced the fight against that hatred, and for a scene that changes much about the way we view Shirley, it’s quickly disposed of, to never be mentioned again. This is the one example when a character needed further fleshed out. I could’ve also used more time devoted to Shirley’s estranged brother, who is occasionally brought up to represent Don’s loneliness.

My Grade: 9/10 or A