The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part

Directed By Mike Mitchell

Starring – Chris Pratt, Elizabeth Banks, Will Arnett

The Plot – Reunites the heroes of Bricksburg in an all new action-packed adventure to save their beloved city. It’s been five years since everything was awesome and the citizens are now facing a huge new threat: LEGO DUPLO invaders from outer space, wrecking everything faster than it can be rebuilt. The battle to defeat the invaders and restore harmony to the LEGO universe will take Emmet (Pratt), Lucy (Banks), Batman (Will Arnett) and their friends to faraway, unexplored worlds, including a strange galaxy where everything is a musical. It will test their courage, creativity and Master Building skills, and reveal just how special they really are.

Rated PG for mild action and rude humor

POSITIVES

– Endless imaginative animation. Since this is a sequel, the stakes and production should be twice as strong, and thanks to a collection of immensely detailed Lego structures and a variety of ever-changing landscapes and scenery, the film’s digitalization refuses to ever grow stale, all the while raising the bar respectively between two different worlds, real life and Lego, that offer enough contrast in character movements to flesh out the rules and engagements of each atmosphere. The color scheme is vibrant in depiction, offering a cornicopia of colorful explosion to constantly hold the attention and amazement of each respective age group.

– Character cameos. The first Lego Movie brought us the introduction to one of my favorite Batman’s of all time, but it’s nothing compared to the intelligence instilled in how the sequel incorporates some familiar faces into the Lego Universe. I won’t spoil anything, but the one that steals the show easily for me is a 90’s action icon who pops up twice in extremely creative and humorous ways, that may or may not be his best performance in years. Aside from him, there are appearances with everyone from superheroes, to sports stars, to teen heartthrobs, and even an easily recognizable actress to play Will Ferrell’s wife, that is just too perfect not to capitalize on.

– A completely brand new earworm of a soundtrack. While nothing reaches the replay value or adventurous spirit of something like “Everything is Awesome”, the musical numbers in the film offer plenty of balance and eclectic instrument progression that will surely craft a favorite for everyone. For my money, it’s definitely the appropriately titled “This Song Will Get Stuck In Your Head”, a building stadium anthem that not only pokes fun at the repetition of chorus used in most modern day pop music, but also speaks volumes to the way a track will inflict pain no matter how bad we try to fight it. It’s the perfect cap on another collection of surefire favorites that won’t relent until they have been played in every family minivan cruising the world.

– The progression of the script. When the film started, the first act felt like a chore to get through, mainly because every scene during this time was given away in the overly-revealing trailer, leaving nothing but predictability in the way, but thankfully the rest of the film builds an intriguing triple-tiered narrative, all the while harvesting something truly conveying for our particular time in history for its heartfelt message. For the last hour of this film, this very much reached the level of the satire and sharp delivery of the first movie, allowing it to serve as that rare example where a movie progresses instead of regresses.

– What a cast. There is simply too much to cover here, but the double duty work of Chris Pratt, the brawn edginess of Elizabeth Banks, the sinister personality of Tiffany Haddish, and of course the dry narcissism of Will Arnett fire on all cylinders, giving us no shortage of vibrant personalities to bounce off of one another. This is an ensemble-first kind of film, in that the sum of its parts equally help boil the pot, and while no one truly loses the familiarity of their one-of-a-kind tones, the infectious energy delivered by some of the most hip actors working today is simply too enticing to ignore.

– Not afraid to get dark with its material. I love a movie that can grow with its following chapters, because this keeps things from getting stale or even far too similar to its predecessors, and in that regard we have a third act psyche-out that was every bit as terrifying for our favorite characters as it was transcendent in capturing the dire dread of the situation. Did I know what was coming during the psyche-out? Absolutely, but I commend a movie greatly for capturing the magnitude of the antagonist’s plan, even rivaling that of “Avengers: Infinity War” in terms of inescapable weight that registers hard with us the audience effectively.

– Actually feels like a sequel. Aside from the film connecting the events of Taco Tuesday to the now weathered and decay look inside of Bricksburg, the very twist associated with the ending of the first Lego Movie more than sets the ground for what we’re seeing transpire before us in this film. Because we know who and what is behind the miniature movements, we feel a need to better trace how all of this is possible, and while I do have more than a few problems with the logic design inside of the gimmick, which I will get to later, I will say that establishing this film as a compendium piece to its original chapter gives the series continuity that is sadly missing from a majority of episodic kids movies.

NEGATIVES

– The percentage of humor. The first Lego Movie was near perfect in this regard. In fact, it was so good with its comedy that the rapid fire delivery of hearty laughter forced me to miss some jokes because I was still laughing from the previous delivery. With this sequel, that sadly isn’t the case, as probably only 40% of the jokes pulled a chuckle out of me, and this is because the film so obviously caters more to a child demographic with this sequel. That is to be expected with a kids-first movie, but part of what I enjoyed so much about the first film is that it was something that kids and adults could take in and equally indulge in, as to where this film left me with a feeling that lacks the consistency or confidence of material that was literally everywhere in its previous chapter.

– Too many musical numbers. As I mentioned earlier, the musical force behind this film does remain faithful in giving audiences at least one more earworm in unlimited listens, but the pacing of the inclusions themselves could’ve used more restrain, particularly during that of the late second act, which fires off three different tracks in a matter of ten minutes. What’s even more discouraging is that not all of these songs are winners in progressing the plot, nor tickling the tummy of its audience, and instead the failures just feel like unnecessary padding in stretching this run time beyond where it needs to be.

– Twist inconsistencies. There’s many problems that I had with the twist revealed late in the first film that definitely doesn’t make sense here. SPOILERS AHEAD – For one, where do all of these character voices come from if they’re being moved and played for by children? If you don’t have a problem with this aspect, you should consider that Will Ferrell, who plays the father in this family, voices a Lego character in this universe, but apparently the other kids do not. Another problem takes place when the protagonist and antagonist have a fight under the washing machine minutes after the kids have put away their toys. The movements of these Lego characters would make us think that someone must be playing with them if they are moving during this confrontation, so I ask how this is possible in the first place?? If you think this was the only time that an inconsistency like this reared its ugly head, think again, as there were many scenes that simply don’t add up with the rules we’ve been told and run through. If this doesn’t bother you, fine, but you have to at least acknowledge that this movie doesn’t follow the rules that it has taken two movies to establish.

My Grade: 7/10 or B-

Stan & Ollie

Directed By Jon S. Baird

Starring – John C. Reilly, Steve Coogan, Shirley Henderson

The Plot – The true story of Hollywood’s greatest comedy double act, Laurel and Hardy, is brought to the big screen for the first time. Starring Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly as the inimitable movie icons, “Stan and Ollie” is the heart-warming story of what would become the pair’s triumphant farewell tour. With their golden era long behind them, the pair embark on a variety hall tour of Britain and Ireland. Despite the pressures of a hectic schedule, and with the support of their wives Lucille (Henderson) and Ida (Nina Arianda), a formidable double act in their own right, the pair’s love of performing, as well as for each other, endures as they secure their place in the hearts of their adoring public.

Rated PG for some adult language, and for smoking

POSITIVES

– Stage like presentation. The way that Baird frames this film is simply marvelous, combining the elements of the world that our title characters lived and breathed in, and incorporates them for us the audience to feel like we are embracing their show in the same way people did in the post Vaudeville era. The introduction text is complimented by a curtain in the background, feeding us exposition for the past between these two, and the backdrops and props are carved out in a way that echoes hollow interiors, making this all feel like a manipulated presentation for only our eyes.

– Candid reveals about the duo. Without question, my favorite aspect of this film is its approach to matters happening off-stage that equal or even surpass what their audiences perceived because of their stage show. As expected, the bond between them is tested and even strained because of decades on the road together, making their relationship feel like a marriage during confining times. In addition to this, there’s much focus on the significant others of the duo in how each of them unabashedly influence the decisions of their male suitors, providing a sort of fuel for the fire which led to the distance between them. The material nuances much more than the conventional entertainer biopic that we’ve become saddled with, and makes “Stan & Ollie” much more than a series of sight gags to tug at our funny bones.

– Speaking of humor, the dynamic in banter between Coogan and Reilly is fantastic in replicating the many routines that they made famous night after night. I am not a fan of Laurel and Hardy, nor am I a fan of slapstick humor on the whole, but the fine timing between these two simply couldn’t be ignored, and gave me a series of hearty laughs that solidified their impeccable chemistry. Even beyond the stage however, the banter between them in their daily lives felt like it’s serving a greater purpose in perfecting what they bring to their material. Some of my favorite parts of the film are just the small talk scenes between Coogan and Reilly that speaks volumes to two men being involved in the business for far too long.

– Transformative performances. It’s easy to brag about Reilly’s physical transformation here, as he dons a fat suit and multiple prosthetics to make this heralded figure come to life. However, it is Coogan for me who really stole the movie, in that it feels like the first time he has portrayed a character with heart and ambition simultaneously. Coogan channels the gentle side of Laurel that at times gives him the adolescent vibe, and when combined with Reilly’s gruff exterior, the two easily lose themselves in the mold of the characters, cementing my early favorite for perfect casting thus far in 2019. It’s awesome that both actors found their way out of the devastation that was “Holmes and Watson” and managed to get together once more without the confines of immature Will Ferrell comedy to hinder what they bring to the table.

– Choice of time period. Most biopics center around the time frame when an artist hits their prime and really makes it big, but “Stan and Ollie” takes place during those less-flattering years after the fame has worn off, and the two weathered veterans are forced to make some tough decisions moving forward. If you’re invested into the characters like I was, this will make for some truly compelling dramatic elements that come to fruition because of the introduction of some familiar immitators in duo stage shows that are making their mark at the exact same time. It all comes to a head during a post-show dinner gone wrong that vividly paints the picture for past discretions that have solidified their current stance towards one another.

– Manipulated long take sequences. This is especially prominent during the first act of the movie, in which we follow the two leads through a movie studio at the height of their stardom, and what this does is depict the change in the world of pop culture, which feels like it grows with or without the duo’s inclusion. While these of course aren’t one take scenes, the synching of masterful editing by Una Ni Dhonghaile, who did deserve Academy recognition, stitches it together in a way that completely holds your attention, and allows you to take in as much of this duo at their highest fame so that the images of their fall will feel that much more devastating because of it. Brilliant visual storytelling.

– A moving tribute. One unique take in the film involves the duo acting their way through a Robin Hood spoof film that Laurel wrote much of the material for, but sadly the duo never managed to make. The scenes themselves are funny, intelligent in material, and especially beautiful for the time period cinematography, and it crafts a ‘What if?’ element to the screenplay that even Laurel and Hardy themselves would appreciate for the revealing looking into what indeed could’ve been.

NEGATIVES

– Jagged flashback sequences. For my money, there’s not enough definition or subliminal differences in the flashback sequences to not confuse the audience when they appear. These scenes just incorporate themselves like the next scene of the on-going narrative, and forced me several times to stop and accurately define on my own what time period is front-and-center at that particular moment. Thankfully, there aren’t a lot of these instances in the film, as it stays mostly grounded in the current day narrative, but the few instances where it does overtake our story try to do it without text or aging differences from the actors, and it makes for sloppy transitions that feel like speed bumps to important exposition.

– Less than stellar musical choices. Rolfe Kent’s acompanyment here not only misses the mark in channeling the proper vibes in each scene, but it also wants so badly to spoon-feed emotional response down our throats in a way that removes any kind of artistic interpretation. The syrupy orchestral score often feels overwrought and extended, making for a score that feels bigger than where the reserved story takes us, and I wish the producers instead would’ve instead went for a more Vaudevilian-influenced approach in sound to properly replicate the tinge of the particular era.

– Errors….errors everywhere. This falls on the head of Baird, who should’ve used more focus in removing these items that completely ruined my investment into the proper era of film. The first is a modern Canadian flag with the maple leaf that wasn’t adopted until 1965. Likewise, a 50-star American flag that wasn’t adopted until 1960 is shown outside during the Savoy hotel introduction. Finally, a continuity error, in which Stan delivers some eggs to Hardy while he’s in bed. He lays them on the bed, and in the next scene, when Stan lays next to him, they have completely vanished without being moved. Small stuff? sure, but good production focus translates on-screen, and this one could’ve used attention for the things that are easy to reduce.

My Grade: 7/10 or B

The Kid Who Would Be King

Directed By Joe Cornish

Starring – Rebecca Ferguson, Louis Ashbourne Serkis, Patrick Stewart

The Plot – Old school magic meets the modern world in this epic adventure. Alex (Serkis) thinks he’s just another nobody, until he stumbles upon the mythical sword in the stone, Excalibur. Now, he must unite his friends and enemies into a band of knights and, together with the legendary wizard Merlin (Stewart), take on the wicked enchantress Morgana (Ferguson). With the future at stake, Alex must become the great leader he never dreamed he could be.

Rated PG for fantasy action violence, scary images, thematic elements including some bullying, and adult language

POSITIVES

– Respects the source material. Any time you make a modern day adaptation to something of historical significance, the translation is usually less than stellar. However, what is sure to surprise a few people is that this film is actually a sequel to the Merlin saga we’ve come to understand, therefore it still abides by the same rules and history that we’ve come to enjoy. In addition to this, the film does successfully serve as a welcoming introduction to anyone who doesn’t know a lot about the ages old folk tale, taking valued screen time not only in filling us in about these character’s defining conflicts, but also in the traveled road of the sword itself, which gives whoever holds it a preservation of power that helps bring along their transformation.

– The modern spin. I loved how the very outline of the story, characters, and moments from the tale are translated in a way that makes them feel relatable to modern times. I won’t spoil much, but take for instance Alex’s estranged father, who we’re told heroically fought off many demons in his life before he was able to be an influence in Alex’s life. However, as we come to learn, demons in this context represent personal demons, and the man was anything but heroic because of such. It’s things like these that really gave the film a clever backbone of creativity, all the while grounding the fairy tale in the kind of realities that tell the audience this is anything but make believe. Likewise, the decision to not date this film numerically is one that keeps it from feeling dated, all the while harvesting an air of familiarity to our own world with how the movie frequently highlights the world feeling worse than ever before because of its leaders. I’d make an America joke here, but frankly I’m too depressed.

– Fresh faced cast that I couldn’t get enough of. I didn’t recognize a single one of the five youths that make up these new knights of the round table, but each of them have bright futures ahead because of the way their confidence harvests in each of their performances. For my money, the show-stealers are Serkis (Andy’s son) as the title character, and especially Angus Imrie as young Merlin. Serkis shows a ton of dramatic depth to the unveiling psychological fragility of his character, and Imrie rivets with a combination of finely-timed comedy and energetic hand movements that lead to beneficial spells. Both of them are stars in the making, and captivate the attention of every scene of long-winded dialogue delivery that hints that this film is the first step in bigger, bolder careers.

– Rides the waves of tonal change smoothly. I was expecting a comedy after seeing the trailers for this film, and for the most part that is correct. What surprised me however, was the consistency of each joke landing for a kids movie. Especially during the first act, when the lunacy of this legendary sword shows up for some hilariously awkward situations. In addition to the humor however, the film succeeds in adventure, science fiction, and especially drama, harvesting some gut-punch scenes of character development once the truth comes to light. A film will usually fall apart when it tries to attempt too many changes in tone, but “The Kid Who Would Be King” reigns in royalty because it takes enough time to fully flesh out the directions of where it’s heading, and ultimately it leads to a roller-coaster of mixed emotions that will have you pulling back so much more than you were expecting.

– Electric Wave Bureau’s beautifully immersive musical score. This group have had success with films such as “Lucy”, “Broken”, and the Paddington series, to name a few, but the work done in this film is easily my favorite from them because of the control in sound mixing that makes us the audience reach for something faint in the distance. In my interpretation, the eclectic tones channel a lot of 80’s coming of age flicks, like “Stand By Me” or “The Goonies”, in that they exert enough danger in the wonderment of adventure that you sadly don’t hear much in today’s child movie landscapes. The music fits on the ideals of war and blossoming adolescence that aren’t two of the easiest things to blend together, but E.W.B’s complete score is a taste test of rich flavors and layers that will have you putting your ears before eyes to see what hints become prevalent to you.

– Passion of filmmaking instilled to a kids movie. It would be easy for this film to fail for the fact that it’s released in January, but the combination of shot selection, gorgeous cinematography from the mastermind Bill Pope, and intriguing character arcs, render this one a rare gem to the days when kids movies could be films that looked and felt like award worthy presentations. The detail here to its themes and inspiring message is something that I feel will leave a lasting imprint on the rapid fire list of releases that they endure each year. It’s the perfect introduction for any kid wanting to learn more about film, and seeing the kinds of artistic integrities that expands their horizons, and it’s in bringing along that adult filmmaking mentality to a kids genre where I have the deepest respect for this picture.

– Feels like there is actually weight and stakes to the movie. Part of what I miss in the movies from my childhood are those instances of fright or daring imagery that supply a ball of uneasiness in the pit of my stomach, and this film is an homage to exactly what I’m talking about. Aside from an antagonist who is visually and personally sinister, there’s much to the idea surrounding school bullying and where the evolves with the progression of the story. It’s one of those films where the kids feel alone and legitimately responsible for what transpires, proving age is only a number in the inspiration and ambition to grow into what you’re destined to become.

NEGATIVES

– Misuse of the antagonist character. I have been a fan of Rebecca Ferguson for a few years now, so when I heard she was cast as the film’s central evil enchantress, I looked forward to seeing a side to her acting that I haven’t been privy to before. First of all, Ferguson is NOT the problem. She gives her all in these deliciously devilish takes when she is front-and-center. The problem comes from the lack of energy and time dedicated to her character that make her motivation nothing more than just another villain. Even the confrontation itself comes and goes with very little struggle or psychology to its movements, and it ultimately drops the ball on a character who deserved to have more influence on this group banding together to stop her.

– A bit too long. Clocking in at nearly two hours long, the film does begin to test patience during the third act, in which there are two different final battles. The second confrontation that rendered the first completely pointless and worthy of being edited out, feels like the real ending. This is really the only script disagreement that I had during the film, as the second conflict is bigger, more visually indulgent, and goes on a bit longer. I think without that first battle, the film could’ve trimmed fifteen light and inconsequential minutes that would’ve done wonders in carrying audiences through the home stretch.

– Computer generated saturation. While the generated effects in the film do supplant enough weight and believable color filtering to where they stand out, the percentage of its use becomes too much by film’s end, ridding itself of what simplicity made the movie sweet in the first place. Even for the fantasy genre of film, its imaginary properties don’t theoretically blend well with the whole Arthur folklore, and felt like too much was being thrown at the screen during the most impactful of sequences.

My Grade: 7/10 or B-

Bird Box

Directed By Susanne Bier

Starring – Sandra Bullock, Trevante Rhodes, John Malkovich

The Plot – In the wake of an unknown global terror, a mother (Bullock) must find the strength to flee with her children down a treacherous river in search of safety. Due to unseen deadly forces, the perilous journey must be made blindly.

Rated R for violence, bloody images, adult language and brief sexuality

POSITIVES

– Kicks off right away. I love a film that wastes little time in getting the pulse of the action going, and the first fifteen minutes of “Bird Box” perfectly set the precedent for what’s to come in the following two hours. We are caught off-guard with the ensuing mayhem in the same way Malorie (Bullock) is, learning things as we go in this unpredictable circumstance. This momentum sticks around permanently throughout, making a challenging runtime feel like half of that because of constantly-evolving challenges and suffocating atmosphere that boil together to produce one electrifying experience.

– Non linear story that actually pleases. It’s a lost art anymore to piece together a story that adds anything of originality to its structure, but screenwriter Eric Heisserer does a solid job of constructing two respective timelines, one in current day and one five years prior, while instilling intrigue to both. What’s impressive is that each arc adds to the other, delivering a series of bombshell deliveries that make certain aspects about the opposite timeline come to light because of the important information. What’s valuable is that neither is more compelling or lagging, building two enthralling stories for the price of one.

– Performances. While I did have many problems with the characterization of the film, there’s a familiar face behind every corner that only adds to the big name atmosphere of the streaming presentation. There are many challengers in the way of Sandra’s domination of screen time, most notably in Malkovich’s stuffy snob, whose conservatism keeps him reserved on the front of human interaction, or in the continuation of “Moonlight’s” soft interior bad boy Trevante Rhodes, who acts as the protector of sorts to Bullock, but it always comes back to her. Bullock captivates the screen frequently, bringing a combination of on-call tears and Motherly instinct that make her an indulging protagonist. Most leads get stronger the more they’re tested, but Bullock’s Malorie feels grounded in reality, etching out a layer of vulnerability with the character that comes with parental instinct.

– Unavoidable weight and consequences. One thing often missing from post-apocalyptic movies is the air of permanence that elevate its conflict and illustrate a line of urgency that resonates with the audience. That’s never a problem here, as stakes are constantly raised between an adapting antagonist and an increasing body count that diminishes the hope of ever going back to the old ways. There is no quick and easy solution to the mayhem that persists throughout, and if a depressing story challenges you negatively, this isn’t the story for you.

– Decaying beauty in the film’s cinematography. Especially is the case during scenes on the river, there’s an overall greying tint and literal fog in the air that make for some exceptional scenes of transfixing focus amongst the gorgeous photography. Salvatore Totino brings with him the same textures and filters of somber ambiance that made his work on “Everest” one of that year’s best, and harvests a big screen level of toxicity in the air of post-apocalyptic backdrop that conjures a big screen stature for Netflix films.

– A gift of anxiety for all. This is one of the things that I hear most about the film, and after watching it I can say that the exhilaration of tense sequencing is clearly the strongest aspect of this film. Between a combination of finely documented camera work whose editing increases between each respective character in frame, and the powerful duo of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross once again providing gas for the proverbial fire, we get a collection of exchanges that constantly ratchet the tension and hang just perfect enough in air to amplify our intrigue without it ever carrying on for far too long. In addition, the periodic use of point-of-view camera work casts the audience in Bullock’s shoes, exerting that feeling of uneasiness that comes with being blindfolded against an adversary you’re so unfamiliar with. In general, there are very few films that can compete with “Bird Box” this year in terms of audience investment, and that constant elevation of the elements at play cook to make a boiling pot of nerves on the audience’s indulgence.

– Interpretive poignancy. As with any movie, there are tons of interpretations at a deeper meaning beneath the material, and “Bird Box” expanded my mind on a couple of self-observations that transcends the table dressing of the plot. SPOILERS AHEAD. The first is the entity’s lack of physicality on humans throughout the film, instead choosing to possess the ones that see so that they can hurt others. I interpreted this as the film believing that we the humans are the ones that are killing everything and everyone around us, and that we are the only ones capable of preserving our future as a race. The second one is really my opinion on the film as a whole. It’s about mental health and depression, and how we as a nation are blind to its effects. This not only explains the influence of suicide throughout the film, but also why it happens to random people instead of everyone, hinting that it can plague anyone at any time. Like I said, these are just my opinions on the material, and certainly nothing that’s concrete. I like a film that makes you think, and this one had no shortage of that.

NEGATIVES

– Thinly written characters. Outside of Bullock’s central protagonist, the film doesn’t waste any time donating exposition or backstory to the pasts of the group of eclectic survivors who surround her. This is probably why many of their deaths didn’t resonate any kind of emotional feeling from within me, and more than that creates an unintentional highlight of its own for who is expendable, based on the amount of screen time that each of them receive. Some characters die without little impact, some disappear to never show up again, and some I still don’t know the name to. May they rest in peace, forever nameless.

– Unanswered questions and plot holes. There were no shortage of times when I scratched my head at the lack of answers from a movie that clearly didn’t think things out all the way through. SPOILERS AHEAD How were they able to properly determine that sight was the cause of the mayhem? Why not breathing, or hearing? How do only a few people see the thing in an enormous crowd who are all looking in different directions? How did Malorie’s sister see it but she didn’t when they were in the same car, looking the exact same direction? How does a blindfold secure you, but seeing it on a surveillance camera doesn’t? It’s proven that this thing can kick down sturdy structures, so why does a house remain its weakness? It knows people are in there, so why isn’t this thing blowing this house down? What about animals? Why are they safe from seeing it? Wouldn’t there be more animals in the streets than humans if this were the case? During the GPS car scene, there isn’t a single flipped or turned car on the road that would block their path? GPS is never an exact science, so when it tells them to turn? How did the guy know EXACTLY when to turn? How was a guy the size that size able to sneak up on someone in the water? Especially considering the hearing sense of the trio should be at its peak with other senses diminished. These are just a few of the questions that I left the theater with, but I saved my real money for……….

– Lack of believability with the ending. SPOILERS. Why is a village of blind people the safe zone for Malorie and her family? What does them being safe have anything to do with her safety? How has this house stood for this long without some kind of conflict from the monster against it? How were all of them even able to get here? How will blind people defend themselves from someone getting in? It’s happened before, so it’s not crazy to think that it will happen again. Is an ending where the monster is still alive supposed to be satisfying? Are you the audience anymore relieved or confident because Malorie and her family reached this place? This is my problem when I think about the final moments to a story that was so edgy and unpredictable. It’s too neat and tidy to feel believable, and let a lot of momentum out of a film that was otherwise seductively suspenseful.

My Grade: 7/10 or B

Ben Is Back

Directed By Peter Hedges

Starring – Julia Roberts, Lucas Hedges, Courtney B. Vance

The Plot – Follows the charming yet troubled Ben Burns (Hedges), who returns home to his unsuspecting family one fateful Christmas Eve. Ben’s wary mother Holly Burns (Roberts) welcomes her beloved son’s return, but soon learns he is still very much in harm’s way. During the 24 hours that may change their lives forever, Holly must do everything in her power to avoid the family’s downfall.

Rated R for adult language throughout and some drug use

POSITIVES

– Stuart Dryburgh’s expressionist approach to the cold strokes of cinematography he’s painting. In setting this film in the countryside of New York, not only do we get the right kind of vibe and feel for the family atmosphere, complete with snowy and isolated setting, but we also get Stuart’s masterful greying color pallet that warms like a fog throughout the film. Beyond this presentation feeling unforgiving and shallow, you really conjure up the immense weight that lies on this family’s shoulders, and makes the past a very prominent character of its own for where the story currently stands.

– Detailed direction from Hedges that demands more of its audience. I appreciate any film where the small matters of a scene, or something that is taking place in the background, is more important than it comes across in real time, and that’s surely what we have here. Throughout the picture, we the audience are able to watch a scene play out and interpret it in our own ways, and it may be right or it may be wrong, but the point is that Hedges opens the door to discussion, periodically slipping you in further and further to the compelling nature of this slow-burn drama. Hedges has always been a director who refuses to spoon-fed his audience the details, and it’s more effective when the actors themselves can play out the intention of a scene without giving away the password that links it all together.

– Speaking of performances…. Roberts and Hedges give riveting and committed turns as their respective characters. Not that the supporting cast is particularly bad, but this is clearly a two person show, as the duo take us through enough fallen tears and repressed aggression about the torture they’ve endured to constantly command the stage. Roberts continues her legendary career without ever losing a step, and her greatest quality is in the undying love that she expresses constantly for the child who has given her no reason to. Hedges gives the best performance of his young career, serving as a very troubled and haunted protagonist by the decisions that have followed him repeatedly. The best parts of the film are definitely when these two share the screen with little distraction elsewhere, and I wouldn’t be surprised if both of them are in the conversation for academy recognition.

– Mother/Son dynamic. The biggest positive for me in terms of my enjoyment from this movie is definitely the relationship between protector and cub that is tested endlessly. If anything, this is a testament to a Mother’s will, reminding us that no matter what her love will pursue, and as the film evolves into that search mystery in the second half, the bond is illustrated in such a way that brings them closer with each startling revelation she learns about him. It makes me almost wish that this film was released on Mother’s Day weekend, as the film colorfully illustrates this important job without hesitation, providing a surefire must-see for Mothers everywhere. On a side note, it’s interesting and extremely rare that Hedges cast his own son in the title role, and I feel like this allows him to feel those impacts and tender moments more exclusively when it’s his own kin experiencing them first-hand.

– A candid look inside of life as an addict. There have been a few films that cover the topic of addiction amongst adolescence this year, but none with the kind of conviction and focus as that of “Ben Is Back”. Far beyond this documenting the shame and mistrust that Ben endures in being re-introduced to society, it’s also the little things like the way people look at him and follow him to the oddest corners that offer insight into the uphill climb that they will face every day for the rest of their lives. This side of the material gave Peter Hedges as a screenwriter a very psychological sense, and puts us the viewer in the shoes of them frequently to taste the very bitter taste of alienation that only they must endure.

– My favorite scene. There’s an instance early on in the first act, where Roberts runs into the doctor who prescribed Ben painkillers, thus enabling him into the world of drugs that have torn her family apart. It is every bit as therapeutic as it is blunt with honesty, as Holly utters the line “I hope you die a horrible death”, leaving to a shock not only on the face of the man she’s talking to, but also to the delight of the audience, who are still seeing these new sides to Roberts personality. It’s rare that we ever get a face for the problem, and that’s why I found this scene rewarding. It allows Roberts the chance to be that unspoken majority who have been affected by mis-prescribing, and give us a scene to vent said frustrations. Funny, menacing, and even poignant.

– Conventional but unpredictable. Despite the fact that other films have touched on these familiar instances before, there are enough twists and turns in the material to constantly keep the audience engaged in what’s transpiring. More than anything, it’s in the genre twist of the second act that elevates this film from a family drama to a midnight search party. What follows is a barrage of uncertainty and cat-and-mouse leverage between Mother and Son that plays wonderfully with the pacing of this 98 minute gut-wrenching.

NEGATIVES

– Pedestrian photography. Despite the cinematography in the movie looking so beautifully haunting and anything but transparent, the movement of the camera, as well as camera lens used for the picture are constantly distracting to the unfolding narrative. One such instance of the former is in a fight sequence that is sloppily telegraphed and thoroughly out of frame. This is Resident Evil levels of photography, and it’s disappointing to say the least considering everything else is top notch on the production value. On the lens switch, there’s this obvious texture change for certain scenes, one such involving a cell phone rendering, that feels completely foreign from the rest of the depictions. If a film has a valuable reason for doing this, it’s acceptable, but a change this different makes the transitions lacking syntheticism, and I think it’s a mistake to include them three times during the film.

– Honest criminals? One of my biggest problems with the character outlines of this film is this constant manipulation that these criminals being questioned give up valuable information on their dealer without hesitation. Keep in mind that this is just a Mother and Son asking these people these questions, and they repeatedly provide them the honest, correct answer neatly gift-wrapped. It’s not a big problem, it just doesn’t feel honest considering other scenes of questioning in movies often involve a struggle or a backlash of some kind that is never present once during the many scenes in this movie.

– One major problem. Miscommunication is the constant plague in a film that is fighting for frequent urgency. What little it does manage to emit is in the form of these misunderstandings between characters that could easily be trimmed in a world other than film. One such example takes place when Ben repeatedly tells his Mother that he’s in trouble, only for her to overlook it every single time. The ending scene as well could easily be fixed and suffer no worry if a character just takes the time to return a certain matter of importance to the family’s house, instead of leaving their location cryptic for them to worry. I’m sorry I can’t explain that better because it will give away the scene, but you’ll understand what I mean when you watch it.

My Grade: 7/10 or B-

Anna and the Apocalypse

Directed By John McPhail

Starring – Ella Hunt, Malcolm Cumming, Sarah Swire

The Plot – A zombie apocalypse threatens the sleepy town of Little Haven at Christmas, forcing Anna (Hunt) and her friends to fight, slash and sing their way to survival, facing the undead in a desperate race to reach their loved ones. But they soon discover that no one is safe in this new world, and with civilization falling apart around them, the only people they can truly rely on are each other.

Rated R for zombie violence and gore, adult language, and some sexual material

POSITIVES

– Sensational toe-tapping soundtrack. Since this is a musical above everything else, the music better be right on point, and thankfully the combination of Roddy Hart and Tommy Riley gift wrap us a series of spectacles that never trail on personality. The songs in the film are not only catchy, but lyrically cerebral in that they channel the pulse of the character’s inner thoughts at that particular moment. When the music is exceptional during a musical, it pushes a film that much further, and the quality of production and performance in favorite tracks of mine like “Break Away”, “Christmas Means Nothing Without You”, and “Soldier At War” all could easily be played on top 40 radio right now.

– Extremely likeable characters. Most of the reason for the enjoyment of these charming teenagers falls on the shoulders of the exceptionally talented musically trained actors who portray them, but I’d be doing a disservice if I didn’t mention how the film does a remarkable job of displaying their hopes and dreams. Hunt’s Anna is a dreamer we can embrace because we’ve all felt muddled in the shallow waters that we were born into, and seek new adventures somewhere just beyond the rainbow. But despite her name being in the title, this isn’t JUST Anna’s movie, as plenty of time is invested in her surrounding friends and family who the movie values equally. Even more so, the rest of the ensemble harvest a variety of personalities and demeanors about them that make you crave more of the delightful dynamic between them that hits its mark every time because of energetic chemistry.

– Stunning special effects work. It’s clear that the budget isn’t anything of blockbuster level here, as much of the zombie sequences limit the make-up’d actors in frame, however what little we do get provides enough bang for the buck in the areas of make up and prosthetics. None of the patterns of decomposition ever feel like they obviously repeat, nor do they struggle at capturing the scarring of blunt force trauma. On this subject, the film has no shortage of creative kills that surprisingly indulge us in the physical side of the red stuff, instead of computer animated like we’ve been trained to. This gives the film easily its biggest desire to be R-rated because the kills are performed in devastatingly invasive fashion, providing several scenes that will make you wince.

– Not afraid to take chances. Part of the thing that really floored me about the much more riveting third act of the movie is how it’s not afraid to put a price tag on any character who comes into frame. Without spoiling anything, I will say that it’s obvious not everyone makes it out alive here, but who we lose along the way will provide a couple of heartbreaking instances where it pleasantly tries to distance itself from the many survival films that came before it, and successfully so.

– Originality in lighting and set pieces. Without question, my single favorite aspect of the film is the presentation and backdrops that add a lot of fun to the technical aspects of the film. Despite being a brief 87 minute movie, the story takes us through a barrage of town landscapes and institutions like a bowling alley, a Christmas tree store, and of course the auditorium inside of the kid’s high school, and each of these presents a new series of adversities for our group of characters, allowing the ability to keep the action fresh in its creativity. In addition, each of these are highlighted by Christmas light style lighting that gives the scenes they accompany a distinct and familiar glow that effectively channels the Christmas season.

– Post credit animation sequence. Be sure to stay all the way through the closing credits, as we are treated to a few familiar scenes from the movie that are played out in zany animated textures. The animation used is almost pop-up style decor, all the while catering to familiar physical traits of the actors that close the gap between live action and animated renderings otherwise feeling so foreign. It serves as the perfect closed door on a movie that never struggled in capturing the fun and airy atmosphere that only a musical can provide.

– A breakthrough performance. Ella Hunt is no stranger to the silver screen, acting in over twenty films and TV shows to date, but it’s her work here that has allowed her to breakthrough the stratosphere to the other side of inevitable A-list names. As the title character, Hunt instills a combination of grief over the loss of her Mother, and ambition for something different to her predictable existence. Hunt’s angelically deep eyes and tomboy persona make her the kind of girl we all need in our lives, but it’s the transformation into this killing machine where it’s probably best we stay away. Well done Ella.

NEGATIVES

– One big disappointment. If I pointed to one thing weighing this movie down negatively it’s the undercooked humor that missed its mark nearly every time. I laughed twice during this movie, and I blame a lot of that on a film that so desperately wants to be “Shaun Of the Dead” without the confidence in material to understand its audience. I mention that movie because there are uncanny similarities in the two films, from something as small as zombie fake-outs in sound, to something big like near-identical humorous deaths. I wish the movie could’ve developed the humor muscle of the movie a bit tighter, as the lines intended to tickle fall flat at almost embarrassingly bad levels.

– No developed urgency. This of course changes during the pivotal third act, but so much of the film’s first two acts lack the kind of danger or devastation needed to understand the magnitude of this situation. This is where the musical designation might do harm in bringing together music and horror accordingly, as the tracks act as a pause button during the scenes of tension, feeling like an abused pause button by the characters that always allows them motivation in evening the odds. I could’ve used a death or two somewhere early on to keep these leads and the audience on their toes, but unfortunately you will be waiting until the final twenty minutes of the movie for things to get interesting.

– Hammered home final message. This is usually incorporated by spoon-fed narration that the film, nor us the audience need to understand the point, but here the producers of the film repeat a song from earlier on that is so clearly obvious that it made me angry for how little of confidence the crew had for me. The irony of the situation is satisfyingly evident without the assistance, and if they ended it just with that, the film could’ve bottled more of that positive energy that it couldn’t afford to give away.

My Grade: 7/10 or B-

Bumblebee

Directed By Travis Knight

Starring – Hailee Steinfeld, John Cena, Jorge Lendeborg Jr

The Plot – On the run in the year 1987, Bumblebee finds refuge in a junkyard in a small Californian beach town. Charlie (Steinfeld), on the cusp of turning 18 and trying to find her place in the world, discovers Bumblebee, battle-scarred and broken. When Charlie revives him, she quickly learns this is no ordinary, yellow VW bug.

Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi action violence

POSITIVES

– Most of the reason that this film works for me is in the dynamic between Charlie and Bumblebee that transcends the conventional film friendship. These are two outcasts who feel alone in the world they both inhabit, so when they do cross paths it allows each of them to open up and shine to their truest potential. Charlie in particular, is still reeling from the untimely death of her father, while B feels like a prisoner on his new home, so we invest in the friendship between them because in turn each one of them represents what the other is missing. Likewise, this dynamic is something that has been missing from this franchise for a long time, and Knight guides along a movie about relationships that just happen to be on the eve of this robotic day of justice.

– Personal touches on the bots. Knight’s beneficial detail is something that certainly didn’t go unnoticed by this critic, as he gives the robots a more relatable side to human emotion and interaction that sometimes felt strained in past editions. Bumblebee’s facial registries are more clearly defined in this film, emoting happiness, fear, sadness, and worry as well as any of the actors in the film. The fight scenes are also better choreographed and full of more hand-to-hand arsenal than we’ve seen, making for sequences when we telegraph the devastation in each and every blow.

– 80’s aesthetic. It makes sense that this film takes place in the 80’s because that is when the Transformers were brought to life, and its influence over this film is something that makes for some truly enjoyable occasions when it’s done right. One such example is in the subtleties of the housing designs, complete with shag carpet and wood paneling on the walls that remind audiences of the setting of their past accordingly. This angle did sometimes feel a bit too on the nose, like when the movie “The Breakfast Club” pops on the tube, or a box of Mr T cereal non-chalantly pops into frame, but overall I think it’s done with enough vibrancy that rarely takes the attention away from the characters and situations of the screenplay. Which leads to…..

– There’s actual consequences. People died in the other Transformers movies, but we rarely ever saw it. “Bumblebee”, despite its small scale on the number of bots that adorn the film, feels like the most dangerous of the series films because it’s never afraid to get its hands dirty. There are three human deaths in the movie that even I thought were a bit risky for youthful audiences, but I commend a movie for documenting the ferocity and dangerous demeanor of the Decepticons physically. Because of such, there’s a bit of uncertainty to a story that would otherwise be predictably cartoonish, and I welcomed this responsibly stern take on depicting the perils of war without flinching.

– Plenty of laughs for the whole family. In addition to the physical bodily humor that was depicted in the trailers for the film, there’s surprisingly no shortage of hearty laughs between the interaction of our two main characters. What’s even more important is that these instances of humor never soiled the heart or the integrity of the franchise, instead instilling these welcome moments of breath in between the carnage and devastation that were the majority of the movie. My favorite is definitely a car vandalization scene, in which B gets his first taste of revenge against an antagonist who clearly messed with the wrong girl.

– Appropriate run time. This might be the single most important aspect of the film, because the previous Transformers chapters felt like an eternity when I watched them. Clocking in at a respectable 109 minutes, “Bumblebee” carries with it the smooth pacing and frequent transitions to constantly keep the screenplay moving at a pleasurable stride, making it feel unlike anything before. There was never a moment in the film where it felt lagging or derivative of an earlier scene, and because of such, this will certainly be the first Transformers movie that I will have no problem watching again.

– My favorite soundtrack of 2018. This could easily fall into the category of 80’s touches, but I felt it required its own mention because of the impressive collection of assorted artists that will earn my first soundtrack purchase of the year. Some of my favorite tracks of the decade, like “Take on Me” by A-Ha, “I Know It’s Over” by The Smiths, or “Everybody Wants To Rule the World” by Tears For Fears, are just a few of the tasty grooves that shine in their respectable moments, signaling the end of a decade of music that some still argue as the very best that ever graced our speakers. While it’s the 80’s that shines for a majority, stay during the artistic post-film credit sequence for an uplifting track called “Back To Life” from the film’s leading lady Hailee Steinfeld. It proves there’s nothing she can’t do.

NEGATIVES

– One character doesn’t fit. I will probably be in the minority here, and I certainly have nothing against this actor, but I felt Lendeborg Jr’s character didn’t work in the dynamic chemistry of B and Charlie. This is especially the case considering where this forced romance to the plot ends up by film’s end. Not only this, but it kind of takes away from the aspect of Charlie feeling like a loner until she meets this one-of-a-kind robot who completely transforms her world. Do me a favor if you don’t believe me: take every situation that Lendeborg’s character is in, remove him, and see if it changes anything at all.

– Choppy editing. This is sadly still a problem in the franchise, and frankly it’s not the soul reason to blame for some sloppy action sequences. The camera angles themselves are certainly far too close on the immense size of these dueling bots, but too many cuts in the sequencing itself is the most obvious enemy that these big budget battles spoil. The special effects themselves look great in the film, so there’s absolutely no reason why we should be using this ploy that hides negatives so frequently. Everyone wants to be “Saving Private Ryan”, but sometimes less pageantry of the visuals is more.

– Too many endings. There’s a shot on the Golden Gate Bridge that was the perfect conclusion to this film, but sadly it’s ruined by an additional three scenes that frankly don’t add anything more of substance, and doesn’t allow us to hit the credits during the most impactful moment. More than anything, it’s to link itself to the other movies in ways that should go without saying, but I would prefer if a movie this special demolishes any roads that leads it to the awful Michael Bay directed movies that kidnapped a lot of adult’s childhoods.

My Grade: 7/10 or B-

Ralph Breaks the Internet

Directed By Phil Johnston and Rich Moore

Starring – John C Reilly, Sarah Silverman, Gal Gadot

The Plot – Taking place six years after saving the arcade from Turbo’s vengeance, the Sugar Rush arcade cabinet has broken, forcing Ralph (Reilly) and Vanellope (Silverman) to travel to the Internet via the newly-installed Wi-Fi router in Litwak’s Arcade to retrieve the piece capable of saving the game.

Rated PG for some action and rude humor

POSITIVES

– Artistic elevation of the new expanding world. As to where the first film riveted us with pixelated 8-bit goodness, with an air of modern rendering, this sequel as well captivates our imagination, depicting the internet as a creative backdrop to all of the world’s business. While probably not always true, the internet in the film is presented as this beautiful place that stretches as far as your vision can go, blending a strong combination of detailed layers and colorful textures, to make for a visual presentation that is second to none, in terms of animated properties this year. Likewise, the blending of old school hand-drawn animation for characters like Sonic the Hedgehog blend wonderfully with the modern day sheik of computer style animation, that make up a majority of characters within the film, and prove that this is a universe with all kind of shapes, colors, sizes, and even dimensions.

– That surprisingly responsible third act. While this film certainly isn’t stretching the boundaries of its PG rating of limitations, the script does take on enough dark and gritty themes to responsibly educate its youth demographic on the hazards of the internet, personal insecurities, and the rules of friendship. It’s in this poignant punch of material where the film’s tone ages gracefully, packing an unexpected psychological antagonist for the characters and film that I didn’t see coming, and one that proves Ralph can garner substance to go hand-in-hand with its captivating visual features.

– Strong ensemble voice work. Reilly and Silverman once again tap into a lot of raw energy and versatility in the stretching of their range capacity, but this time they’re asked to channel more of that impeccable rapport that made so much of the third act in the previous movie the film’s strong point. Thankfully, the consistency remains prominent, and the two pack a sweet punch combo of chemistry that will make you laugh, cry, or lose yourself to the way they live and breathe these animated properties. As for new additions, the work of Gadot as a badass street racer is one that carves out an unlikely outline for little girls who don’t fit into the Disney princess mold, and Taraji P Henson’s sassy familiarity is nearly unrecognizable as the blue-skinned, energetic Yes.

– Clever sight gags and dialogue quips that breathe intelligence. Where a film like this gets it right over a movie like “The Emoji Movie” is that it takes something as universal as the internet and carves out these ideas within the element that many can draw onto for how familiar it all feels. Some of the film’s best work in this regard engages in pop-up annoyances, auction bidding, and my personal favorite: the Disney expanding universe. On the latter, the interaction of superheroes and Star Wars characters makes for one of those once in a lifetime possibilities, but it’s the Disney princess’s themselves who steal the show, etching out a layer of social commentary for how outdated some of their ideals come across in 2018. It all makes for something that doesn’t settle for being just scenery for the narrative, and brings with it no shortage of witty material that tickled my funny bone more times than not.

– One spectacular musical number. While the Wreck-It Ralph franchise isn’t like other Disney properties, in that it never has to sing about its emotions, there is one number in this movie that I thought fit wonderfully from Vanellope’s downtrodden disposition and Disney princess recommendations. What’s even more important is that it’s actually a good song that does a double service deed of authenticity, depending on how you choose to look at it. The first is for Disney’s usual sporadic lyrics, which sometimes are all over the place in terms of topical consistency, and the second is keeping with the tradition of catchy chorus lines, that will have you humming it long after you leave the theater. Silverman won’t be confused for a singer any time soon, but her infectious vocal deliveries combined with the absurdity of the lyrics, make for three delightful minutes that I greatly enjoyed.

– Perfect timing for a particular cameo. I won’t ruin anything for this person popping up, but when you consider what the entertainment media world has been through in the last two weeks, the appearance of a familiar face to the silver screen feels transcendent for how incredible it played hand-in-hand with this person’s real life passing. It’s only for around two seconds long, but only proves how much of a lasting memory and permanent stamp on pop culture this person made on us all. You truly couldn’t have timed this one any better, and its subtlety as being the only real life person in this world of fantasy proves that they will live on forever.

– I commend a movie where the setting itself is secondary to the characters, and it’s clear that the evolving and straineous friendship between Ralph and Vanellope is what plays front-and-center here. As the film progresses from internet arrival, to money-making campaigns, to a King Kong inspired final conflict, you come to understand that everything we’ve been shown ranges around the adventures of these two people, and I loved that the film, despite educating its youth on the internet, never strayed too far away from the unveiled layers of these two people. An example of this done wrong is in the National Lampoon’s Vacation sequels, in that the Griswolds became almost an experiment of the environments they were being introduced to. Here, Ralph and Vanellope constantly bring the focus home. If they didn’t, the moving closing moments of the third act wouldn’t register, and thankfully they did.

NEGATIVES

– Age boundaries with the humor. While the comedy worked around 70% of the time for me, I feel like it’s because of my age why I was able to grasp onto the clever material with so much success. I noticed in my theater that most of the quips were going over the kids heads, and I think that lack of crossover appeal between age groups may limit Ralph Breaks the Internet’s final judgement. Because of such, I would recommend this more as a home video kind of experience for kids, as the theater is designed to test their attention in ways that isn’t as easy as sitting in front of the tube.

– I hate the title of this movie. I know, it’s stupid to complain about something so minimally important, but in my eyes a title can tell you everything that’s clever and important about a movie, and “Ralph Breaks the Internet” is in the shadows of a much more encapsulating title. “Ralph WRECKS the Internet” not only tells you everything that’s to be expected, but also keeps the consistency of its predecessor, that was short, sweet and simple. If you watch the first trailer, even Disney agrees, when Yes asks Ralph why they don’t just call it “Ralph Wrecks the Internet”, during a scene that isn’t even in the final cut of the film.

– Sloppiness during the first act. It’s strange to speak of a movie that gets better as it progresses, but that’s what you have here. The first thirty minutes of this movie not only feel very rushed to me, but also limit the kind of proper character exposition needed to pull you into its new conflict. This didn’t happen for me until about halfway into the film, once the focus drifts away from the internet and rests on its two central protagonists. As guilty is an out of place exposition line requiring a flashback, that felt completely out of place compared to the rest of the film. This to me is the definition of lazy writing, and there were certainly much more easier ways to work this into the script than halting the progression of our current day narrative.

My Grade: 7/10 or B-

Instant Family

Directed By Sean Anders

Starring – Mark Wahlberg, Rose Byrne, Isabela Moner

The Plot – When Pete (Wahlberg) and Ellie (Byrne) decide to start a family, they stumble into the world of foster care adoption. They hope to take in one small child but when they meet three siblings, including a rebellious 15 year old girl (Moner), they find themselves speeding from zero to three kids overnight. Now, Pete and Ellie must hilariously try to learn the ropes of instant parenthood in the hopes of becoming a family.

Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, sexual material, adult language and some drug references

POSITIVES

– Much of the humor works here, because it is grounded in reality, instead of the screenplay writing that is all but missing a laugh track to accompany its punchlines. The material is very much grounded in parental life experiences, often feeling like a collection of instances that feel like a right of passage for every parent who has ever taken care of children. This is because Anders himself adopted three children, so it’s a project that he feels very passionate about telling, and I found myself laughing frequently throughout the film, even when the consistency of the tone didn’t cater fully to a comedy genre film. More on that later.

– The chemistry bonds between these actors, making them feel authentic as this growing family. While Wahlberg and Byrne easily dominate the screen time as this remotely monotonous couple who are going through the motions, it is actually Moner who steals the screen, giving way to an adolescent who competently channels the ever-changing emotional range of teenage personality. Moner’s Lizzie is easily the glue that holds this family together, and when that glue is tested, it’s easy to see why the rest of the components fall apart. Moner has been in big films before, but this is easily a star-making turn that will earn her many future roles that she will undoubtedly captivate like she does in this film.

– There is very much this late 80’s John Hughes vibe that I get not only from the treading of dramatic content, but also in Michael Andrews presence on the film’s musical score, that channels vibes of a faithful homage. Lots of synth keyboards and gentle tones throughout, carving out a niche to movies like “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” or “The Breakfast Club”, in which you can easily trace the similarities. When Andrews isn’t orchestrating the tempo of sound, we are given popular tracks like “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” by Starship, or “What Is Life” by George Harrison to hold us over until the next throwback immersion.

– Entertaining as a stand alone film, but educating in its material. “Instant Family” seems intent on squashing the many perceptions, both good and bad, about adoption that our current environment currently has. Along the way, the film takes ample time to guide us through the many steps necessary not only in signing up, but also in raising said foster kids once they are inside of the home. As you can imagine, a lot transpires, and these adults lives are turned upside down, but through it all they, as well as us the audience, are presented an often ignored perspective of the children themselves, narrating a psychological volume to everything that they endure at such a young and character building time in their lives.

– Perfect occasion for the entire family to get together. It’s rare to see a film these days where families of every age demographic can feel entertained for nearly two hours of a film, but “Instant Family” bridges the diverse gap, providing plenty of examples along the way for why it might be the perfect holiday movie this year. Some of the light-hearted humor and brief bodily humor will engage youthful audiences enough into believing this is the typical Mark Wahlberg comedy that is par for the course, but the teasing of this PG-13 rating, involving some testy but tasteful material, will cater to parents who are the only ones in on the kind of jokes that I mentioned earlier regarding parental instances.

– The maturity of heartfelt moments that will have you reaching for the tissues. Many times during the film, my cold heart was on the verge of tears through the material by Anders, that does eventually mature and finds itself at the center of some internally stirring moments. This for me gave the film a lot of depth, acting against a trailer that had it feeling limited to being just another Wahlberg parental comedy, which the film is anything but. One such scene involving the combing of hair between mother and daughter feels every bit as sentimental for how it’s intimately shot, as it does therapeutic for the backstory behind it. This is one of many examples of how interested Anders is as a screenwriter to breaking down walls and healing the emotional scarring of these children by giving them a thought-provoking platform to air their side of things.

– Editing is rarely as important as it is when played towards repetition. As to be expected, the film does have a couple of musical montage sequences, but I feel that they work here because they highlight the tedious and often times overbearing nature of parenting that is often glossed over when described. One such scene is focused outside of the bathroom with a one angle take, and shows the frequency of each character moving in and out of frame to destroy and then clean up, and this gives the film an intelligent side of creativity that other films would use-and-abuse without much meaning behind it. If Anders is a magician at just one thing, it’s in his ability to focus on a particular area, and exploit it for all it is worth, and these instances of delight visually narrate the drastic change of environment that these two adults now find themselves in.

NEGATIVES

– Two hours might be a bit too much for this particular story. While the maturity of the material does evolve and refresh the tribulations inside of this family’s daily routine, the boundaries of repetition are a bit stretched, especially during the second act that feels like it is rehashing much of the same material that we already went over in the first forty minutes of the film. Overall, it’s easy to see what could be spared on the editors floor, and I would be far more supportive of a 100 minute film that keeps with the consistency of pacing that started to slug just before the film’s emotional climax.

– Tonal inconsistencies. Most of the film feels like it is engaged in a tug-of-war battle between this “Cheaper By the Dozen” style of family comedy, while playing against some adult themes in material that are played out as comedy, but should be anything but. For instance, there’s a pervert janitor who sends the oldest daughter (15) penis pictures, there’s physical agony for the little boy, who is the butt of constant jokes about him getting hurt around the house, and an overdone joke about “The Blind Side” that probably isn’t the most racially sensitive, in terms of depiction. “Instant Family” feels like there’s a struggle within itself to properly nail down what kind of film it wants to be, and with more consistency developed, the movie could feel more comfortable in how it attacks these important subplots.

– A bit formulaic and predictable. This is especially evident during the third act, when a series of easily telegraphed events distance the family for the same third act distance that we’ve come to expect. It never goes anywhere that is daring or conflicted, instead neatly packaging up the film’s remaining moments with a bit too much clarity in the form of a perfect existence. This felt like the lone betrayal to the otherwise honest side of adoption that the film takes, and I could’ve used some level of spontaneity to pull itself out of familiarity.

My Grade: 7/10 or B

The Grinch

Directed By Yarrow Cheney, Scott Mosier

Starring – Benedict Cumberbatch, Rashida Jones, Angela Lansbury

The Plot – Tells the story of a cynical grump who goes on a mission to steal Christmas, only to have his heart changed by a young girl’s generous holiday spirit. Funny, heartwarming, and visually stunning, it’s a universal story about the spirit of Christmas and the indomitable power of optimism. Cumberbatch lends his voice to the infamous Grinch, who lives a solitary life inside a cave on Mt. Crumpet with only his loyal dog, Max, for company. With a cave rigged with inventions and contraptions for his day-to-day needs, the Grinch only sees his neighbors in Whoville when he runs out of food. Each year at Christmas they disrupt his tranquil solitude with their increasingly bigger, brighter, and louder celebrations. When the Whos declare they are going to make Christmas three times bigger this year, the Grinch …

Rated PG for brief rude humor

POSITIVES

– Even throughout the many on-screen adaptations of The Grinch stealing Christmas, it’s the un-mistakeable message of Christmas that remains persistent, guiding a new generation through what really matters. As to where presents and material matters can be replaced, it is time with loved ones, involving friends, family, and loves, that truly make the holiday season what it is, and especially in 2018, at a time when we might forget such values, a film like “The Grinch” stands the test of time for this direction alone.

– Vibrancy in animation that harvests Illumination’s single best presentation to date. In channeling the articulation of Whoville, the production team use a fruitful combination of shape and color to really capture the pulse of this town that feels so far from our own, giving the set pieces a one of a kind design that prove a lot of time and energy went into them. The outlines of backdrops generate with a pop-up novel kind of stature, and the color pallet itself radiates off of the screen, treating us to several intoxicating visuals that you may need a pause button to properly take in.

– A Cumberbatch of range. In seeing the trailers, it certainly wasn’t a surprise that this was a one man stage show, but rather how much depth that Benedict Cumberbatch has as a vocal actor. Benedict uses these long stretches of delivery that have him sounding like a combination of Moe from “The Simpsons” and the snooty receptionist from “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”, and after a while you truly get lost in the versatility of his ever-changing tone. In casting him as The Grinch, it not only adds respectable accolades to the taking of the character, but it also gives Cumberbatch depth in the form of a filmography, that above all else proves that this serious actor can deliver on fun when the time calls for it. Beyond this, I also felt SNL’s Keenan Thompson did a great job vocalizing Bricklebaum, and there isn’t a more synthetic pairing of voice matching visual than Thompson’s dry baritone range with the illustration of a husky bearded Christmas junkie. It’s surefire laughs each time he pops up.

– An acceptable time for narration. Considering this film originates from a children’s book, it’s understandable that the producers would include a rhyming narration throughout, read exceptionally by multi-time Grammy winner, Pharrell Williams, but even more than that, it’s acceptable because of Williams positive demeanor being combined with lines that don’t often intrude on what we’re already seeing on camera. It’s true that there are some examples of arguments to be made for this point, but the narration mostly keeps its hands clean, instead serving more as a delve into the mind of a green madman, whose own history with Christmas greatly challenges the on-going narrative.

– While I have problems with the character of The Grinch himself, that I will get to later, one aspect of the film that gave me pleasure was in the kind of justifying that comes with getting an up-close-and-personal depiction of Christmas maniacs, in the town below. There’s certainly nothing wrong with people who enjoy Christmas religiously, but the film takes pleasure in pointing out how overzealous each and every one of these people truly are, and it’s in that passion where you can comprehend why someone would have such a distaste to this. Of course, this isn’t the complete reason for The Grinch’s disdain, but the endless cliches like non-stop Christmas music and commercialism from opportunists, welcome us in to his isolated side, and dare you every step to tell him he’s wrong.

– Kids versus adults. In my opinion, I think there are laughs for both sides of the age spectrum, but I feel like kids will get more from the mostly physical slapstick sight gags that dominated the film’s comic muscle. That’s not to say that nothing is smart about the comedy in the film, but rather the film’s dedication to the bright and bold cater more to those who can be considered attention challenged, and as far as holiday kids movies go, it’s as safe a bet as you can get.

– Modern updates to familiar classics. To go hand-in-hand with Danny Elfman’s ambitious musical score, the collection of songs from assorted artists are given a hip-hop refreshing to not only channel a different sound to familiar lyrics, but also give the title character himself a beat to play against his madness. I’m usually against this particular kind of thing (See hip hop music in the Jesus film “The Star”), but for whatever reason it worked here because of how timeless The Grinch narrative has always been. There’s no yearly designation for when this all takes place, therefore there is no limitation for where any artist can take it in future projects.

NEGATIVES

– Careless subplot. The Cindy story has always been an important part of this story, but why it doesn’t work here is a combination of thinly written characters and overall lack of originality that constantly keep it grounded. I couldn’t of cared less every time the film cut to these characters, and any momentum gained from pacing with its own problems is cut short each time the story shies away from the meat of this plot. On top of that, Cindy and her friends are kind of a bunch of criminals in training, blurring the line between good and bad in a way that wipes protagonists entirely from the picture.

– Stretched screenplay. This film should finally cement the idea that The Grinch story is best suited as a half hour idea, and if this film trimmed itself to a half hour television special, it might be able to compete with the Boris Karloff classic, that is every bit still the measuring stick for this property. To say that the build-up for the heist is stretched is the understatement of the year. This film takes what should be nothing more than a musical montage of training for the big day, and gives each of them five minutes of precious screen time to pad a thinly written 82 minute film. Yes, even with a film that doesn’t reach an hour-and-a-half, there are still these moments of bland that move as slow as syrup, and should be treated as an intro credits scene from Netflix that you can thankfully click skip through.

– Perhaps my biggest problem with this film is in the aspect that The Grinch simply isn’t a grinch. Does he do rude and careless things? Sure, but nothing he does ever feels condemning or personal to the people below. In fact, because of a subplot involving his tortured past, we can justify his actions to an extent, and that’s a major problem for someone described as “Rotten” in song lyrics. Even for a kids movie, this is as safe and inconsequential as it gets, and I wish there were more examples of the detestable side of The Grinch, to make his eventual third act transformation that much more of a distance.

My Grade: 7/10 or B-

The Other Side of the Wind

Directed By Orson Welles

Starring – John Huston, Robert Random, Peter Bogdanovich

The Plot – A satire of Hollywood, the story focuses on the last days of a legendary film director named Jake Hannaford (Huston), who is struggling to forge his last great comeback as a major filmmaker. Hannaford is hard at work on his final masterpiece, “The Other Side of The Wind”.

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

POSITIVES

– Time machine effect. Certain films will transport you to a particular era because of articulate production value for intended purpose, but “The Other Side of the Wind” is a film that attains this by quite literally being a film from a different era of filmmaking. This is a movie that has sat on the shelf for over forty years because of bankruptcy, and is just now seeing the light of day, so the ability to watch something from a time when the things we take for granted were in their infancy, is something that gives the film a one-of-a-kind experience, and grants us one more day in the sun with a genius director who unfortunately left us far too early.

– Crime Noir influenced musical score by Michel Legrand. With plenty of rhythmic jazz instrumentals and an enhanced modern age buffering to clean up the sound, Legrand instills a vibrant sense of the golden age of Hollywood that feeds hand-in-hand with the plot and setting of the film. The easy listenings excel at transcending the screen psychologically in a way that a mockumentary like this requires, and establishes a classy outline to the audibility that envelopes the film synthetically, giving an element of cool to Welles final project.

– Although denied by Welles himself, there’s plenty of reasons to suggest that this film is a bit auto-biographical for the director. Considering this was a man who was very much a mystery wrapped inside of an enigma for admirers who studied him for decades, “The Other Side of the Wind” feels like the most revealing look into a man who was prickly and compromising in the same ways that the main protagonist of the story is. Beyond this, experiences of Welles are decorated throughout the film, engaging us in angles like a snobby critic, the intimacy between a director and his leading ladies, and the urgency of a studio-backed project that often feels like a soul-selling deal to the devil. This all feels a bit too precise to be just another project from Orson, and that thought will hit you almost immediately, should you decide to take this film on.

– Surprisingly, a great amount of dependency upon comedy. Not only is the humor for the film necessary in keeping the audience invested into the dialogue heavy banter throughout two hours of the movie, it’s also finely tuned with a strong combination of sarcasm and reveal, to give us the elusive backlot commentary for most productions during the time. While nothing is truly laugh-out-loud in terms of material, the accuracy of its modest deliveries were something that remained consistent, creating an open door for people to hook themselves into these characters and situations.

– Razor sharp editing. Some of Welles best work in film has always been his ahead-of-its-time editing, and that is certainly on display here, through sequences that sometimes juggle two or three on-going narratives. There was over four hundred hours of film shot in total for this film, so the production team had quite the challenge in trimming this to just two hours, but I think old Orson would be proud if he managed to see the exceptional work involving visual psychological twitches, as well as the juggling of cinematography styles, to make a presentation that feels chaotically subversive. Editing like those depicted in the film are thought of as conventional in 2018, but that thought process is because of a visual pioneer who had the vision to try it first.

– Symbolism of life versus film. There’s a film within this film that is also called “The Other Side of the Wind”, and it’s in dissecting the real film’s two sides where you see Orson’s most obvious discoveries. The fictional film is not only shot more beautifully, involving a rich blend of color to compliment the stained-glass feel, but also feels less complicated because of the lack of dialogue used from within. I believe Orson was telling us that real life is anything but the movies, and that the desirable world we seek lies somewhere in the middle of the fantasy and reality that became his artistic expression. I did manage to find much more in the comparison, but I would start reaching spoiler territory, and I’d rather let you experience it for yourself.

– A duo of fully-committed performances. I’d like to see Huston receive an Oscar nomination, for the ink blot test of a character that Hannaford comes across as. There’s an essence of sadness that comes from his unlimited wisdom inside of the game for so long, and Huston’s grizzled face and unabashed nature in tearing down every relationship and honor he’s attained, lend to a trapped personal hell that the director can’t escape. Matching him nearly jab-for-jab, is Bogdanovich, as my favorite character, Brooks. Peter is himself a director in real life, so he knows what it takes to channel a character in a way that makes him essential to the film, and that’s what we have here. When Brooks is off camera, with the noticeable lack of delightful banter between he and Hannaford, as well as his collection of celebrity impressions, the movie stalls. His inclusion is that important, and the chemistry with Huston cements a friendship that hangs in the balance between student/teacher and best friends. It also doesn’t hurt that Bogdanovich is the single best Bill Hicks look-a-like that I’ve ever seen.

NEGATIVES

– This is a tough sell to any kind of audience, mainly because the disjointed nature of these scenes can sometimes come across as hollow and inconsistent. Especially in the first act, there’s a real lack of definition from what transpires, and the collection of scenes feel like just that: a collection of separated instances that don’t necessarily gel as one cohesive unit. If you can make it through this, the film does eventually pick up, but it’s clear that a lot of the heart and instinct that comes with the director of such a passion project is missing from the scene.

– While the film within the film is stylishly provocative and sensually sinister, it takes up far too much of the finished run time, for my taste. This serves as a major distraction to the continuity and progressive flow of the characters we become invested in, leaving them far too often to come across as nothing more than a test of patience that the audience frequently has to endure.

– Certain aspects of the film unfortunately don’t age well. Female abuse treated like a hiccup, free-flowing use of the derogatory term for the gay community, and the main protagonist’s desire for underage women only do damage to a movie that is at least a product of its time, and at most an offensive time stamp that reminds us how far we’ve come as a society. These three things are tied to necessary developments in the plot, but don’t erase the elements that make it difficult to embrace a character like Hannaford.

My grade: 7/10 or B-

Mid90s

Directed By Jonah Hill

Starring – Sunny Suljic, Katherine Waterston, Lucas Hedges

The Plot – The movie follows a teenager named Stevie (Suljic) growing up in Los Angeles. He’s struggling with his family, including his co-dependent single mom (Waterston) and his abusive older brother (Hedges), and at school, where his richer friends seem to overlook him. When Stevie befriends a crew of skateboarders, he learns some tough lessons about class, race, and privilege.

Rated R for pervasive language, sexual content, drug and alcohol use, some violent behavior/disturbing images – all involving minors

POSITIVES

– Jonah Hill’s impeccable sense of sight and sound within this designated time frame. Being a youth during such a progressive period in our history, grants Hill as the ideal candidate for such an expressive project, and the Oscar nominated actor’s first swing as a director connects hard with audiences who, like Jonah, bare witness to the expressive trends in fashion and music alike. Because of such “Mid90s” is very much enriched in a nostalgic gloss that intentionally feels dated for all of the right reasons.

– Style with substance. The decision to craft this film in 16 MM with a 4:3 ratio is one that moves the creativity of the film miles in terms of duplicating that authentic 90’s home video dazzle of filmmaking, giving it at times a documentary feel of realism that the entire picture is cloaked in. Imagination is big with me, and there’s nothing out currently that looks or even feels like Jonah’s subversive spin on skate culture, that goes hand-in-hand with this particular story and set of characters. Obviously we can’t return to the 90’s to film a movie, so cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt is more than happy to oblige bringing the 90’s to us.

– Another slam dunk score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Finch. I had no idea that these two Oscar winning composers were scoring “Mid90s”, and it only takes minutes for the film’s tones to channel those of the duo’s cold, callous repertoire that we’ve come to expect. The piano triggers loudest during Stevie’s deafening levels of isolation, and if anyone can articulate the angst associated with teenage perplexity, it’s the man who fronts Nine Inch Nails. Unfortunately, their cues don’t come often enough, as too much of the film’s accompanying music relies more on the soundtrack, which presented problems that I will get to later.

– What’s so effective and relatable about this film is that it transcends the group tag to give us feelings and situations that hit on everyone’s awkward adolescence. For me, it’s Stevie’s deteriorating relationship with his family, as well as the timidness and conformity that goes with wanting to fit in. This is perhaps the single greatest strength that Hill as a screenwriter instills, because his sequence of events feel every bit as natural as they do compromising to our main protagonist. In trying to be cool, we see how uncool it all really is, and its wisdom that comes with living through such experiences, that make you want to reach out and speak to Stevie personally.

– Breakthrough performances from a relatively unknown ensemble cast. This decision alone feeds into what we’re watching feeling like real life, giving the film a rich side of candidness that many films can’t hit on because of familiar faces. Even more impressive, the kids themselves are actual skateboarders. Suljic roars in his first starring role with a combination of innocence and ferocity that equally mold this outline of a teenager, who by the end of the film still feels in search of an identity that’s his. I felt great empathy for this character because every action comes at the desire to please someone else, a move that will inevitably move him no closer to self-happiness. The rest of the cast meets their marks equally as effective, even if the decision to cast Waterston and Hedges stands out like a sore thumb from the rest of the fresh-faced ensemble.

– Underrated editing that strikes a nerve psychologically. This aspect is great purely for its minimalist approach. There are times during the film when you blink and you could miss aspect of clever filmmaking, making you wonder if what you saw actually happened in real time. Without spoiling much, conversations between two characters clip on and off, jumbling up the continuity from shot-to-shot, and unnerving us in a way that we can’t explain or justify. This is especially the case during the beginning of a major sequence towards the end of the film that gave me a great jump scare for how visually and audibly arresting it comes across. It all serves as manipulation of the product that kept my attention firmly during these brief tweaks of creativity.

– Unapologetic dialogue that is anything but politically correct. This too feeds into the particular place and time that this film takes place in, depicting a world that feels far from our own in terms of offensive reactions that follow such R-rated banter. There is such a naturalism to it all that accompanies these exchanges that other films feel far too prepared to capture authentically, and while some of it is indeed racy, it’s refreshing to view a world where the youth feel tougher than adults, in that they don’t let throwaway words cloud their judgment of people.

NEGATIVES

– Minimal plot that lessens the dramatic pull. While I don’t have a problem with a film that has little to no story, its presence on this screenplay is one that hinders the impactful third act, reaching for weight on its characters and subplots that never feels fully rendered. Specifically, it’s in the lack of character exposition that feels forced during a brief five minute conversation that feels most obvious, and the forgettable, incomplete ending is a reminder of such inconsistencies that Hill could better steer as rider of this board.

– I mentioned earlier that the soundtrack, while offering a wide variety of genre favorites for the decade, felt forced for all of the wrong reasons. What I mean by this is there’s no context or syntax to their disposals, feeling very much unnatural and spoon-fed for the recognizability of the tracks that will inevitably warm a soft spot in the guts of audience members. A film about a particular decade certainly requires the use of some songs to represent its era, but the sloppiness associated with their deposits made for some truly distracting scenes that illustrated the intruding line of production that sometimes overshot the synthetics of the 90’s feel.

– Loose ends that come and go without resolution. There’s a Hispanic character in the group who has a conflict with Stevie early on that eventually comes to blows between them. My problem with this is the many things set up with this character that goes absolutely nowhere in comparison to the final direction. There’s also a confrontation between the two most influential characters in this skateboarding group that seriously is never mentioned again after its introduction happens with only twenty minutes left in the movie. It’s a little late at that point to be introducing new subplots to the story, and the lack of conclusion between their conflict feels like something more was left on the cutting room floor, that wasn’t important enough to reach the finished product.

My grade: 7/10 or B