On the Basis of Sex

Directed By Mimi Leder

Starring – Felicity Jones, Armie Hammer, Justin Theroux

The Plot – The film tells an inspiring and spirited true story that follows young lawyer Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Jones) as she teams with her husband Marty (Hammer) to bring a groundbreaking case before the U.S. Court of Appeals and overturn a century of gender discrimination.

Rated PG-13 for some adult language and suggestive content

POSITIVES

– An emerging love story. Without a doubt, the movie’s single greatest strength is depicting the progressively blossoming relationship between Ruth and Marty, that is written by Ginsburg’s nephew Daniel, and is acted out wonderfully from the impeccable chemistry between Jones and Hammer. Their relationship is one that doesn’t demean or classify them in any particular role, as Ruth is very much the breadwinner while Marty holds down the fort at home, and there is no shortage of wit to balance the situation. One such gag involves Ruth trying to cook for her family, with the kind of success that makes them grateful for napkins. It’s a constant reminder of this relationship playing against type, giving us a fresh perspective on two people who practice what they preach in progressive ideals.

– Vibrancy amongst 70’s wardrobe. The work here from costume designer Isis Mussenden is clever enough to never distract, but radiates wonderfully the passage of time with a combination of three-piece suits and thigh high dresses to give the styles a familiar reflection without feeling like a tongue-and-cheek rendering of the era. In addition to this, the consistency in detail holds up throughout, keeping anything from feeling out of place, thanks to Mussenden’s synthetic encompassing of the sleek trends that were prominent in such a revolutionary decade, and even reflective of some of the outfits that Ruth herself wore during some of her more important court cases.

– The collective work from a gifted ensemble cast. This is definitely Jones’ show, as she echoes the very look and personality of R.B.G seamlessly, bringing forth a beacon for change who is anything but flawless as a character. Jones’ instills her as this very human first presence, and it’s in that candid perspective where we feel closest to Ruth, illustrating a combination of intelligence and determination that makes her an easy protagonist to root for. Hammer is also delivering solid work, as his dry wit and caustic delivery make for some much-needed moments of release for us the audience that he provides repeatedly. Then there’s the against-type roles from well known faces like Stephen Root, Sam Waterston, and my personal favorite for the movie: Jack Reynor, as this smooth-faced lawyer who stands in the way of Ruth’s inevitable greatness. This is definitely a film that thrusts responsibility on all of its pivotal pieces, and proves that while this is Jones’ film for the taking, every great figure triumphs because of the influence of those surrounding her.

– An honest courtroom film. The film provides many instances where it focuses on the pressures involved with the many circumstances involved with preparing a case. Beyond just the endless amount of studying with the facts itself, we are also treated to Ruth preparing her personality for the court by talking in front of a mirror, the prejudices inside of a courtroom itself, and a mock trial run hosted by those closest to Ruth, that eludes her to the environment that she will be getting herself into. Other courtroom films often overlook this aspect of its career elective, but Leder sees immense value in harvesting Ruth’s fears and anxieties when fighting arguably the single biggest case to date in women’s rights, and it’s a decision that not only allows us the audience to immerse ourselves into the psychology of Ginsburg, but also highlights the difficulties of preparing a case.

– Obviously important for the rough terrain that females still face today. As a vehicle for Ginsburg, the film gives her the respect that she deserves by the mentioning of her pivotal role in the many cases that have shaped our country remarkably, but it’s really the comparison between the material in the movie and our own modern day landscape, which hints how far women have come but still have much further to go for equality, where the film earns its strongest value. A film like this serves as the first step in really understanding the magnitude of courts that are being played out every day in our own country, and I think it will inspire not only females, but people of all genders to get involved and let their voices be heard, a right that Ginsburg still elects to take charge of to this day.

– My favorite scene of the film. Is it a good or bad thing that my favorite scene of the movie involved a sequence during the opening credits that shows Ruth walking a sea of men towards the Harvard auditorium? Either way, it’s dissected wonderfully when you consider that Ruth’s baby blue dress contrasts that amazingly of the mundane single color suits of the entirety of people who surround her. This feeds into Ruth being a one of a kind, but also in the arrival of change to the game that she’s destined to bring, and I thought for symbolism there is no bigger or more important shot in this film.

NEGATIVES

– One problem with Felicity. While I give Felicity a solid 90% on her overall performance of Ginsburg, there was one glaring problem that pops up throughout the film: her accent. It’s hard enough for a woman of English heritage to perfectly channel the New York accent with conviction, but Jones’ work here is so completely spotty that it definitely deserved more takes. Sometimes her English accent comes out, sometimes she is a midwestern American, and rarely we get the Yonkers accent that we came to expect. When the latter does happen, the transformation of Jones as Ginsburg finally feels complete, but it’s only during a few rare instance instead of a continued consistency that great performances require.

– Conventional filmmaking all around. I have no problem personally with Mimi Leder, but I think a story as revolutionary as Ginsburg’s deserved an equally engaging presentation to mirror that of the trail-blazer. My biggest problem is that there simply isn’t enough of a gut punch in the material to ever lay heavy on the dramatic weight of the court case. Never did I feel like this case had an ounce of the importance that the dialogue so frequently repeated, nor did I ever feel like it strayed from the rules of courtroom subgenre films that define predictability. Perhaps Leder was the wrong director for this film, and because of such it will stand in the shadow of last year’s documentary “RBG”, which eclipses this one in nearly every presentational aspect.

– That one embarrassing trailer line. I have to say I’m a little disappointed that more people aren’t calling this movie on its bullshit for the line in the trailer that states that the word freedom is never stated once in the constitution. Let me clue you in to the First Amendment, which declares that “Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech.” Already I have read that the movie’s screenwriter has tried to fix this by stating that it’s an out of context line in the trailer, but let me ease your concerns by telling you that nothing in the film fixes a line of dialogue so lazy that it can’t google a simple question. For irony sake, let me mention that I am typing this while laying on my bed, and even I found the word in the constitution in five seconds.

– Forgotten puzzle pieces. There are a few instances where things are mentioned, and then quickly swept under the rug of continuity, never to be mentioned again. One such example involves Marty’s cancer, which is not only never mentioned again, it never creates anything to be followed upon for the rest of the film. It doesn’t keep him from doing his job or helping out around the house, literally nothing. Another is the incredible case involving Ruth’s son James, who after an introduction scene while helping to prepare dinner is never mentioned or seen again. This presents a mystery disappearance to a character that has only been topped by Paul in 1981’s “Friday the 13th Part 2”. If you’ve seen or heard from James, please leave a comment below, and I will forward it on to Justice Ginsburg.

My Grade: 6/10 or C+

A Dog’s Way Home

Directed By Charles Martin Smith

Starring – Bryce Dallas Howard, Ashley Judd, Alexandra Shipp

The Plot – Separated from her owner, a dog sets off on an 400-mile journey to get back to the safety and security of the place she calls home. Along the way, she meets a series of new friends and manages to bring a little bit of comfort and joy to their lives.

Rated PG for thematic elements, some peril and adult language

POSITIVES

– For a light-hearted family atmospheric film, this one conquers some dark and challenging material. This is the area of the film that I wish had more time devoted to it, as prejudice against the Pitbull breed, canine abuse on the whole, and even human death are all touched upon in these surprisingly revealing ways, giving the film a bit of much-appreciated social commentary. These are the rare instances where the movie feels like it has something to talk about in addition to the cute and cuddly material that it saddles itself with a bit too comfortably, and with more of a push for the PG-13 rating, could’ve separated more widely from the rest of the pact of subgenre films that are easily forgettable because of their similarities.

– The best actor in the film. It feels strange to talk about this, but the kind of physical performance that Smith emits from his canine protagonist is something that gained an air of astonishment from me. In addition to being thrown in the way of constant danger and conflict, the dog limps his way through a third act that really hammers home the length of this impossible journey with a one legged approach of consistency that you’d have to be a cold-heart not to appreciate.

– Smooth and fluent pacing throughout. One accolade that I give the film is the lack of boredom that these kind of films often radiate with, but this exception works because of the decision to keep it limited to 91 meaningful minutes that never lets the story get away from focus. Because this journey is so expansive and ever-changing in its environmental challenges, it frees itself of repetition or redundancy that would test the patience of its younger audiences, making this as easy of a January watch as you’re going to find.

– Nuance to the passage of time. I can’t believe that I am going to give “A Dog’s Way Home” respect for depth in storytelling, but the use of background pictures to fill in the gaps of character separation is something the film does exceptionally well. One such scene near the end of the film has one character in his bedroom, and long before we see anything or anyone else, we focus on this picture that articulates not only how much time has passed, but where certain characters end up. I love a screenplay that doesn’t need to stop to explain these kind of things, especially when you consider that this is the dog’s story first, and everything else, quite literally and figuratively, are backdrops for the main course.

– Fine combination of engaging cinematography and gorgeous backdrops make for eye candy. Even though this film’s dedication to C.G properties often hinder the immersion of each situation in scene, the breathtaking vantage points of some of South California’s most beautiful landscapes made for a rich and ambitious presentation visually that kept the integrity of the big budget feel preserved. Especially when you consider this as a journey film, you would be doing a huge disservice if you didn’t depict the immensity of these jaw-dropping visuals to counteract the ferocity of the wild, and I give great credit to Smith for knowing constantly where to point the camera to get the most out of every shot.

NEGATIVES

– Uninspired C.G animal properties. Simply put, in 2019, artificial animal renderings should not be so obvious to where the outline nor the texture of the animal matches the lighting of the environment that it’s put in. Even worse than that, these laughably bad mountain lions and cougars move so sluggishly in their attacks that the camera has to adjust to how fake everything comes across with interaction. This brings forth camera movements that are the worst I’ve seen since 2016’s “Jason Bourne”, echoing as close to a visual seizure as you’re going to find on camera.

– Minimal plot. I should receive an Academy Award for what I typed in the plot section above, as so much of this film instead feels like a series of events, instead of one cohesive narrative that bends and twists to the three act structure. Not only is this movie completely predictable, but it’s predictable in a way that feels content with walking the same path and pissing on the same trees as the films that came before it. Some people think a movie with a title that tells you everything you need to know about a film is a positive, but it also establishes early on just how empty the sum of its jumbled parts really are.

– Speaking of title. To say I hate the confusing title of this film is an understatement. Why is it confusing? “A Dog’s Purpose”, “A Dog’s Life”, “A Dog’s Tale”, “A Dog Year” Catching my drift? All of these movies have boring, unimaginative titles, and yet none of them are related in the slightest. I get that this film was a book before 2017’s “A Dog’s Purpose”, but couldn’t you have changed the title because of such similarities? So the next time a friend asks if you’ve seen the sequel to any of these films, called “A Dog’s Way Home”, you can remind them that studios have the imagination to include a line like “Snow do your business”, an actual line of dialogue from this tar pit of terrible.

– Familiarity rears its ugly head. When you really think about it, this movie isn’t anything like those other films I just mentioned, it’s instead a dead ringer for a “Homeward Bound” remake. Think about it: dog meets and falls in love with his adolescent owner, is left with a family member during a trying time, escapes said house, and begins a long distance trip to get home. Sniff what I’m conveying to you? Unfortunately this film has about a fifth of the charm of “Homeward Bound”, and not even that in the regards of narration. Oh the shame of this narration…..

– The shame. The narration is so annoying and pointlessly used in this film that I even still fail to understand why its inclusion was depended upon so frequently. Bryce Dallas Howard voices the inner thoughts of this dog, and when she isn’t piercing our eardrums with this screechy, human repellent voice, she’s intruding constantly on our perception of what’s transpiring. For instance, if this dog finds something to eat, we hear her say “I was so hungry”. Or if the dog is cuddling with her owner, we hear “I love you so much”. Really important stuff movie. I could’ve never interpreted that for myself, thank you. This film would’ve been a lot better if it didn’t go the voice route, and just let the heartfelt story play out for itself. So many of these tender scenes would’ve been much more effective if Howard didn’t articulate what Ray Charles could see about a particular scene, and it serves as the single worst aspect of this film.

My Grade: 5/10 or D+

Replicas

Starring – Keanu Reeves, Alice Eve, Emily Alyn Lind

The Plot – A daring synthetic biologist (Reeves) suffers through a brutal car accident that kills his family. In response, he will stop at nothing to bring them back, even if it means pitting himself against a government-controlled laboratory, a police task force and the physical laws of science.

Rated PG-13 for thematic material, violence, disturbing images, some nudity and sexual references

POSITIVES

– Cohesive musical score that channels the vibes of science fiction authenticity. While much of the audible deliveries in dialogue lacked anything of depth or convincing nature for my ears, the experimental touches of tones performed here by composers Mark Kilian and Jose Ojeda echo the paths of uncertainty brewing beneath the surface, and were a treat to my otherwise tortured eardrums. As expected, there are plenty of techno samples incorporated into the general outline, but it’s more so in the majority of practical piano that brings with it an air of class and sophistication to the picture, preserving the high stakes feel that our characters are playing with.

– Unintentionally humorous. Whether the film meant to instill such a ridiculous amount of cheese and silliness to the film, the result more times than not brings us the audience some delightful refrains in the area of hearty laughter. One thing that I can say about “Replicas” is that I was never bored during its 97 minute presentation, and a lot of that has to do with shaky line reads and braindead scientific accuracy that constantly demeaned this film from taking itself too seriously. This might sound like a glaring negative, but I would rather have a terribly funny movie than a terribly boring one, and the former is what helped push me through many of the problems that I will mention coming up.

– Intelligence in shooting schedule. Outside sequences in films often cost much more money to shoot and finalize, and this film’s capability to keep their screenplay indoors is certainly something that helped slim production costs. More than 90% of this movie takes place inside, and it’s probably a good thing because so much of the cinematography outside, especially during daytime scenes, radiate with an overall feeling of artificial lighting design that constantly break the fourth wall of realism. It’s not only believable why these instances would take place inside, but never hinders the creativity associated with the progression of the picture, and it’s awesome that they took something that would be considered a negative and blossomed it into a positive.

NEGATIVES

– How important is a good director? Well, they are responsible for garnering the best in emotional range and gut-punching relatability to us the audience, and neither are anywhere close to where they should be for this film. The movie just kind of glosses over the concepts of grief and its importance to investing so deeply in its characters, riding along with the kind of wooden performances that are easy to sniff out for even occasional moviegoers. When you take a film like “John Wick” and come to understand the importance of his dog, and what losing him meant to John, you back the character through anything, and that was anything but the case in “Replicas”. In a sense, it almost makes Reeves character here feel detestable, in that his selfishness and lack of emotions expressed during the film’s most impactful scene goes unfulfilled, and it made for characters who I just didn’t care for at all.

– Horrendously phony C.G effects. The movie “I, Robot” came out in 2004, and I mention that because not only did this film rip-off the android designs from that movie, but also did it with half of the captivation and weight that a film fourteen years prior did better. Aside from the live action actors totally getting the height capture wrong when staring at their android counterparts, the movements of fingers and limbs is so hollow that you can almost see the computerized dimensions moving stiffly without perfecting. Thankfully, these properties aren’t in the movie much, but the end result makes me think that was more intentional than anything.

– Has a show-and-don’t-tell mentality when it comes to its science. If you can somehow ignore that transferring memories is done in a basement, and done so flawlessly, the lack of explanation that goes into the surgical transfer itself will bother you in hanging on to what is transpiring. Instead, the film shows us a bunch of “Iron Man” touchscreen visuals, which translate to nothing more than lazy screenwriting so that no one calls it on its bullshit. Speaking of that sentiment, why doesn’t the film cover the issue of internal bacterial flora? In real life, these clones would die of constipation or some other stupid disease in no time, just from breathing in our air and not being used to its level of pollution. To be fair, the movie does showcase something going on in Alice Eve’s body while she’s out running, but we never get any explanation if this is what I’m talking about, or just vicious diarrhea from Reeves challenging breakfast offerings.

– In addition to what I just mentioned, the movie also has enough plot holes to drive a Range Rover through it. For one, this research team is specializing in memory transferring, so how are they top notch experts in cloning? If this guy is able to move a whole laboratory to his basement without error, why can’t he just work from home? There’s a scene where Reeves steals car batteries the night before to gain enough power for the transfer, and the cops come to his house the next morning asking if his car is ok, to which he replies “No, they didn’t get me”. How would he know when the thieves did it the night before, and he’s just now waking up? Wouldn’t they ask him to at least check his car before answering? Doesn’t this make him at least remotely suspect? Who cares, because it’s a movie, and you’re supposed to be stupid when watching a movie. Hating it means you’re an old grump.

– Obvious foreshadowing. The many times during the movie when something is unsubtly squeezed into a conversation, removes any kind of suspense or nuance to the developments of the picture. This as you might expect renders much of the screenplay predictable, giving us ample time to sniff out where and when it will pop up in the scenario to remind us why it was mentioned. The biggest instance of this is a crayon drawing by Reeves daughter on their kitchen table that the camera shows us for no reason than to hint that it will pop up somewhere down the road later, and of course it does. Reeves character is so stupid and unbelievable as a scientist that he somehow logs onto his kids Facebooks to clear up their disappearances, gets rid of all of the pictures and clothes in his house, yet somehow doesn’t see this abnormally big drawing of a dinosaur in crayon on a place he frequents often in the film. UGH!!!

– Uneven pacing. While the film was never boring to me, the polarly opposite first and second act did a complete disservice in settling down and enjoying the narrative. The first act speeds through any character introductions, and feels like it starts where a movie’s tenth minute usually is at, yet the second act slugs along in such a way that hinders the progression of some solid suspense up to that point. If the film could ever settle itself down and gain some consistency for itself, these acts would flow seamlessly, but as it stands the script lacks confidence in translating how much entertainment value it pulls from the material.

– It’s been a while since I’ve been this angry at a movie’s ending, but “Replicas” final five minutes renders everything that came before it completely pointless. SPOILERS – The antagonist group that moves in the shadows are never stopped or dealt with, the world evolves in a way with these replicas that is every bit as ridiculous as it is unexplained, and the negatives that hindered Reeves’ family replicants are never addressed again. I guess they just diminish in the same way my expectations for this movie did. It ends as abruptly as you can possibly imagine, leaving ten minutes of credits to inflate the movie’s run time to feel like a big screen run time.

My Grade – 3/10 or F

If Beale Street Could Talk

Directed By Barry Jenkins

Starring – Kiki Layne, Stephan James, Regina King

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

Rated R for adult language and some sexual material

 

POSITIVES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NEGATIVES

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

My Grade – 9/10 or A-

Escape Room

Directed By Adam Robitel

Starring – Deborah Ann Woll, Taylor Russell, Logan Miller

The Plot – A psychological thriller about six strangers who find themselves in circumstances beyond their control and must use their wits to find the clues or die.

Rated PG-13 for terror/perilous action, violence, some suggestive material and adult language

POSITIVES

– Rich production quality in set designs. Of course a film with this title should put everything they have into the elaboration and eye for detail in the many rooms the game takes us through, and each of the ones inside are every bit as cryptically fun as they are sinisterly condemning. What I like here is that none of the rooms repeat, and one such room even plays tricks on the minds of audience members, offering us a psychological immersion into our character’s current foreboding dispositions.

– Eclectic casting. Fresh faces like Russell and Miller capture the attention of audiences with their breakthrough performances that prove they can sustain the depth associated with a leading role, all the while the inclusion of Woll and Tyler Labine add a layer of big name prestige that constantly throws off your guessing game. The wide variety of personalities is what truly keeps the film fresh and evolving, and instills an ideal of ensemble work that very few films are brave enough to touch on anymore. They work so well together because each is given ample time to shine, and it’s something that doubles their chemistry the longer the film progresses.

– Value towards character exposition. What really impressed me and kept me gripped to the unfolding narrative was the film’s combination of game and backstory that equally did wonders for the other. The film takes valuable time in fleshing out who these people locked in the game are before they agreed to it, and the more you start to learn about each of them, the more you start to understand why certain characters are better suited for certain environments. Even more beneficial, the exposition only shows us a few brief moments and lets us sniff out the rest for ourselves, providing food for thought once more for movies that don’t need to spoon-feed their audience.

– PG-13 and proud of it. This film gets a lot of comparisons to the Saw franchise for obvious reasons, but the line of similarities quickly diminishes when you bare witness to the nature of the torture itself. For one, Saw definitely earns its status as torture porn, as to where “Escape Room” is a psychological bending that doesn’t require the exploitation of blood or gruesome nature to sell its believability in permanency. In fact, there isn’t a single drop of blood spilled until the film’s final fight for survival, with around fifteen minutes left in the movie. It’s impressive when horror can still dazzle under such constrictions, and Robitel’s style for substance never believes in taking two steps back.

– Anxiety for days. The quick cuts in precision editing, combined with the variety of many eye-catching angles brings out the sheer drama and urgency of the game itself, doing wonders for the overall pacing of the ever-changing backdrops along the way. Even at 95 minutes of run time, each location is given plenty of time to engage yourself in its adversities and rules, and every movement of choice feels incredibly heavy on the well-being of the group. Through the use of trial and error by our stumped character’s choices, the screenplay almost dares you to shout out your two cents, and this gives “Escape Room” amazing presence as a group watch with friends over a couple of drinks.

– Evolution of the atmosphere. The tone for the movie is handled in such a way that allows for plenty of laughs early on in the film, to get over the personalities of this extremely likeable group, but eventually matures more when the consequences and brutality of the game comes to the forefront. Likewise, the character’s themselves evolve, for better or worse, and it’s interesting to see where two certain character’s end up by the film’s full-throttle finale. When the material and characters work hand-in-hand smoothly, everything fires on all cylinders, and you have a seamless film that moves together in one cohesive movement.

NEGATIVES

– Condemning introduction scene AGAIN. So this is the new cliche in almost EVERY single going today, huh? The scene that starts out a movie spoils far too much, and unless you’re a braindead noodle, you can piece together everything that is coming by film’s end. Only certain films do this properly, showing less in its depictions, but sadly “Escape Room” is the latest victim of this movie, as a sole survivor is shown going through the last trap of the game, before our linear story begins. If you must do this stupid idea, why not show an instance from the trap where everyone is still alive? Why give away so much in a movie where suspense is so important?

– Easy Solutions. I understand that thinking on your feet is difficult in such predicaments, but when an idiot like me can figure out simple ways to solve three different rooms, I have to start wondering if I’m the smartest person in the movie. SPOILER – There’s one room where six different coasters have to be weighed down into the coffee table for a door to stay open. The group goes through hell and time filling six glasses with water. Why not get the six legged couch behind you? I seriously can’t be the only person yelling this.

– What happened with the prize? Considering the trailer says these six strangers are competing for a million dollars, the film’s delivery of ten thousand dollars feels a lot more anti-climatic. Besides the fact that it’s difficult for me to believe that two characters in particular would even go for this for such a limited payoff, a million dollars just sounds better in the advertising campaign, and clearly the trailer crew felt the same way, as they changed it for audiences because they knew how stupid it sounded.

– The ending. I knew it would be difficult for a movie like this to have a satisfying conclusion, but what transpired in the final ten minutes took a solid film down a peg to nothing other than a glorified rental. If it ends after the final conflict, FINE, but the film keeps dragging along, catering to an inevitable sequel instead of properly concluding the movie that is front-and-center. What’s even worse is the additional material tries to answer far too much, leaving very little meat on the bone for the second installment, and feels like final scenes from an entirely different movie. Did this film seriously just turn into a spy thriller? Really?

My Grade – 6/10 or C+

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

Welcome To Marwen

Directed By Robert Zemeckis

Starring – Steve Carell, Leslie Mann, Diane Kruger

The Plot – When a devastating attack shatters Mark Hogancamp (Carell) and wipes away all memories, no one expected recovery. Putting together pieces from his old and new life, Mark meticulously creates a wondrous town where he can heal and be heroic. As he builds an astonishing art installation, a testament to the most powerful women he knows, through his fantasy world, he draws strength to triumph in the real one.

Rated PG-13 for sequences of fantasy violence, some disturbing images, brief suggestive content, thematic material and adult language

POSITIVES

– Vibrancy in art design. While nothing original in terms of its production specifics, the animation in the film free-flows the beauty and attention to detail of a doll’s aesthetics. The actors film these scenes in live action, and in post-production are given a plastic shine filter to emulate them as acting dolls against a live action backdrop. In addition, the lighting of these scenes are beautiful, conjuring up a soft gloss of light that reflects on the smooth plastic exterior of their physical properties. You can say a lot of things about this film, but lacking in the art department will never be one of them.

– Steve Carell dazzles once again. The screenplay does this man zero favors in making his character look presentable to the audience, yet the constant professionalism of one of the strongest dramatic forces working today constantly elevates the material and gives light to another transformative performance. In Carell’s Hogancamp, we taste humor, some anguish, and a lot of fragility, and it’s in the masking of the last term where we really outline a layer of empathy to the character, making his a story of redemption that we are constantly investing ourselves in. Steve delivers a lot of heart for the real life figure, and that commitment to the ball of nerves that dominate his daily routine is something that only an actor of this magnitude can pull off without it feeling humorous every time.

– Believable setting. The boundaries of Mark’s real life town inside of Kingston, New York are tightly shot, preserving that air of a small town quality where everyone knows everything going on. This not only explains why Mark’s situation is the discussion of so many people surrounding him, but also a news broadcast that clues us in on what’s taking place with the men who jumped and beat him down during one fateful night. This is an area of filmmaking that is often overlooked for whatever reason, but in keeping our filming locations limited, and the framing tight, it accurately presents that air of claustrophobia inside of a small town.

NEGATIVES

– Musical miscues. Besides these obvious tracks feeling distracting during the scenes in which they play because of their boisterous volume levels, the overall soundtrack for the film is riddled in such topical convenience for what is playing out on-screen. An example is a sleeping sequence that is being enveloped by The Everly Brothers “Dream” playing out in the most eye-rolling manner. It made for these times of musical incorporation that I dreaded hearing from, and made me wish the remainder of the film was a silent one from the roaring 20’s.

– Cluttered dialogue. There’s nothing subtle or nuanced about the dialogue in the film. From force-feeding of backstories, to obvious metaphorical representations, this film constantly reeked of desperation, and progressed little because of how much explanation it was required to give for the past. Because of such, it feels like two movies are playing out in real time: one for the current narrative, and the one in which the movie has to stop every two minutes to explain something we see in real time or hear about on the news. Who knew in 2018 that biopics can still be this clumsily written?

– Lack of sensitivity for the subject matter. Hogancamp’s story is one that is plagued by mental illness, depression, and especially abuse, and the screenplay tiptoes around these subjects so as not to make anything under Zimeckis’ roof feel risque. For Mark himself, the movie approaches him as this bumbling infant who is part compassionate and part creepy for the demeanor he exerts on others. An example of this is his interaction with Leslie Mann’s character, in which he describes how he collects women’s essences. Keep in mind that all of this is out of Mann’s context, as she just moved to the town, and would otherwise come across as a serial killer who is obsessed with her likeness. In addition, the conflict of mental illness is cleaned up in such a way that is not only insulting to someone like me who has fought his own battles with such adversities, but irresponsible for how easy it is eventually defeated.

– The “Sucker Punch” effect. Zach Snyder’s 2011 fantasy epic is the last film that I ever thought or ever wanted to reference again, but it feels like Zimeckis has watched this film one too many times in his rendering of this project. The fantasy sequences often take far too long to reach their point. As well, they also dominate the time allowance over the live action narrative in a two-to-one ratio, taking far too much focus away from Mark’s confining circumstance. There’s almost too much optimism in a story that should otherwise feel so dark, and I’m not naive enough for a second to believe that the answer to both films conflicts resonate somewhere in the fantasy world. Seriously, fuck you.

– Disjointed continuity. Some character dynamics are dropped and never referenced again, some female doll likenesses are never explained or introduced at all, and some scenes are so miniscule in importance that they were better left on the cutting room floor. It all pressures the pacing of the film into some dire consequences that make 111 minutes feel like three hours of burning wax torture. The main problem is that these scenes never allow themselves to pick up any kind of relative momentum, instead feeling like a collection of instances that don’t gel together as one cohesive unit that is otherwise building towards the bigger picture.

– A talented cast that is completely wasted. Besides what I mentioned earlier about the work of Carell as the film’s central protagonist, the entirety of the female cast is shipped in and shipped off in such a way that makes their value that of their wax counterparts. There just simply isn’t enough time to donate to all of them, so inevitably someone is going to get sacrificed, and the pendulum swings more on Mann and Janelle Monae than anyone else. Mann is Mark’s love interest, and aside from them intentionally lacking chemistry despite Mann and Carell doing three films together, the development constantly feels rushed and unnatural in the way it flows, limiting the film’s one redeeming quality in such a way that gives us the audience nothing to look forward to from the predictably bland third act that comes to fruition.

– Pretentiousness rears its ugly head again. While this isn’t the most pretentious film of 2018 thanks to Lars Von Trier’s “The House That Jack Built”, it does more than its share of Zimeckis referencing to drown out the immersion of the film. I won’t spoil all of them, but I would be doing you a disservice if I didn’t mention that the Doloreon from “Back to the Future” is prominently featured in the dynamic of an important scene, midway through the final act. Why is this included? Because one of the doll’s require a time machine, and we obviously can’t think of anything other than Robert’s biggest franchise when it comes to that distinction. It stinks of desperation, and emits an air of pretentious filmmaking that reminds us that Zimeckis is leaps and bounds from where he once was.

My Grade: 3/10 or F+

Vice

Directed By Adam McKay

Starring – Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Steve Carell

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

Rated R for adult language and some violent images

POSITIVES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NEGATIVES

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

My Grade: 9/10 or A

Mary Queen of Scots

Directed By Josie Rourke

Starring – Saorise Ronan, Margot Robbie, Jack Lowden

The Plot – Explores the turbulent life of the charismatic Mary Stuart (Ronan). Queen of France at 16 and widowed at 18, Mary defies pressure to remarry. Instead, she returns to her native Scotland to reclaim her rightful throne. But Scotland and England fall under the rule of the compelling Elizabeth I (Robbie). Each young Queen beholds her “sister” in fear and fascination. Rivals in power and in love, and female regents in a masculine world, the two must decide how to play the game of marriage versus independence. Determined to rule as much more than a figurehead, Mary asserts her claim to the English throne, threatening Elizabeth’s sovereignty. Betrayal, rebellion, and conspiracies within each court imperil both thrones and change the course of history.

Rated R for some violence and sexuality

POSITIVES

– Fierce Femininity. It’s rare that a film can articulate the ferocity of the male thinktank like this movie can, and it’s something that gave me strong insight into the powers at play against these two women of power, during the 16th century. So much of the interaction between these two queens is in the hands of these dangerous male translators, who for better or worse, use religion as a judge of character for all who pass through their monarchy. The events that take place provided a lot of fuel for the fire for the back and forth in pitting these two women against one another, and for two shameful hours made me regret being born a man, for the silly things that we feel threatened by.

– The mental game. I was surprised that Mary and Elizabeth don’t meet in the movie until there’s twenty minutes left in it, but thankfully the sequence of saucy events from both sides keeps our attention firmly locked into this story without feeling the shackles of poor pacing. There’s so much about these two prominent ladies that I never knew about, and the loads of exposition that the film delivers, all of which is accurately true, establishes this film as the perfect opened door to anyone curious about 16th century politics, as well as the weight that comes with being queen.

– Faithful production values. There’s so much here that hits the mark and really articulates the look and feeling of 16th century England and Scotland that makes for the easiest of immersions. The costume and set designs are seamless, sparing absolutely no expense in transporting us through the visual spectrum of fashions and interiors that were routine for such royal figures. However, it’s the subtlety in make-up work that might be my single favorite aspect of the props department. Especially with that of Queen Elizabeth’s skin pock condition, the details of skin deterioration and scarring stand out firmly without ever feeling intentionally retching, and it takes a beautiful actress like Margot Robbie and strips away everything familiar about her eclipsing appearance.

– Cinematography and photography with a purpose. John Mathieson’s visual focus is in these breathtaking shots of the two countries not only in capturing the immensity to convey the magnitude of its majesty, but also in contrasting the obvious similarities in them visually from afar. These inspiring shots are done exceptionally well with a wide revolving movement that is done with enough patience and time to satisfy our wonder, giving feast for the visual pallet that provide such a close proximity to echo the events of what transpires in this screenplay.

– The performances, what else? If Ronan and Robbie are spared a nomination to the Academy Awards, I simply won’t watch. These are two impeccable performances from two powerful, yet oppositely complex leaders, who the screen so desperately depends on. For Robbie’s Elizabeth, she’s every bit as envious of Mary as she is strategic in her movements. Robbie etches out a loneliness to Elizabeth that other films about her haven’t fully rendered, and even when I didn’t agree with her intentions, I couldn’t help but marvel as Robbie’s single most transformational performance to date. Ronan is equally gifted as the title character. As Mary, Saorise bottles love, anger, and intelligence under the same command, bringing it home with a command that makes Mary a revolutionary in terms of the fearlessness she constantly maintained. This is one of my favorite female heroines of 2018, and provides further proof for why Ronan’s name will be synonymous with Academy recognition for years to come. David Tennant is also devilishly delightful, donning a wig and Rip Van Winkle beard to make him nearly unrecognizable.

– Synthetic conversations and language that feed into the time frame smoothly. This is one of the biggest things I look for in period pieces, as the dialogue can sometimes break mental investment into a movie if even the slightest of speech patterns don’t ring true with their era designation, but that’s never the problem with the combination of Beau Willimon and John Guy, who translate the book of the same name terrifically. The accents are perfect, there’s minimal adult language so to show respect for the throne, and the threats are done in such an intelligent manner that makes them sometimes feel like a back-handed compliment.

– The much anticipated meeting. For those who saw the trailer, with the banter between Mary and Elizabeth, the one scene they share together made the 100 minute wait worth it in more ways than one. For one, it slowly builds this tension around it, bringing forth a confrontation that bottles every adversity that we’ve seen each of them go through to this point, and it’s shot in such a beautifully hypnotic way that serves as a metaphor for the struggle of power between them. There are many curtains throughout the room that they meet in, making it difficult for them to connect, yet easier for Elizabeth to conceal her inferior visual appearance, and the tiptoe throughout is done so exceptionally timely that it makes us yearn for this face-to-face encounter that (Believe me) pays off in spades.

– Josie Rourke, welcome to the world. Considering this is Josie’s first big screen direction, it’s astonishing the kinds of things she managed to accomplish. Rourke has a distinct eye for the camera that radiates the tone and look of the film consistently, and soaking in the most of the suffocating atmosphere in the story that we’ve ever gotten. Likewise, the way she emits the most out of her leading ladies is beyond commendable. She gives this intensity to both ladies without it ever feeling obvious or reeking of desperation to make them equal, and it all sums up why if you want this story done, you require a woman’s touch, and the trio of Rourke, Robbie, and Ronan reign, rivet, and roar. Try saying that three times fast.

NEGATIVES

– Poor documentation of the passing time. It’s difficult to say just how much time passes throughout this story from beginning to end, and the reason for that is the lack of definition between events that has a lot of this rubbing together. One such instance shows a child character who is a baby in one scene and then a young child in another, and it constantly had me feeling like I was playing catch-up to the unraveling narrative that couldn’t be bothered to include a date for reference.

– Damn foreshadowing intros AGAIN. This is far and away my least favorite cliche to any film going today, and here we have it again in the form of an introduction scene that shows us what’s coming by the end of this film. What this does is give away far too much, diminishing any kind of hope or moment of momentum for them because we know what’s waiting right around the corner. Could screenwriters just pretend that people might not know everything about the biopics that they are producing? It would make for a more intriguing time for someone like me who could use that element of surprise for where the story takes us. Enough already.

My Grade: 8/10 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-

Second Act

Directed By Peter Segal

Starring – Jennifer Lopez, Milo Ventimiglia, Leah Remini

The Plot – Lopez stars as Maya, a 40-year-old woman struggling with frustrations from unfulfilled dreams. Until, that is, she gets the chance to prove to Madison Avenue that street smarts are as valuable as book smarts, and that it is never too late for a Second Act.

Rated PG-13 for some crude sexual references, and adult language

POSITIVES

– It’s all in the name. “Second Act” might be the most appropriately titled movie of 2018 because it’s really during that time when the tone and material of the film evolves, all as a result of a twist that I totally didn’t see coming. For a bombshell to come out of nowhere and completely change everything that this film is about is something I greatly commend the screenwriters for, and it takes what could easily be a throwaway comedy and morphs it into a hard-hitting drama that will squeeze the tears from any female moviegoer. Even more important, there are still trailers that don’t ruin the movies that they advertise.

– Thought provoking commentary on book smart versus street smart. I myself am someone who believes that education should never be the single lone argument in determining who is most deserving of a job, and this movie hits on this debate with some strong arguments for the latter that I wish the world would hear. College degrees themselves are catered to the small percentage who can either afford it or go through the first fourth of their lives without so much as a single speed bump to hit them, so there is that feeling that somewhere someone out there is probably a more qualified candidate, and it makes Maya that much more indulging as a protagonist because we’ve all been told that we’re not good enough for something.

– The performances from an eclectic cast. Lopez gives another solid turn as Maya, even if I found her physical appearance throughout the film a little different from what the movie is trying to pursue her as. This is basically a supermodel who everyone treats as nothing special, and after a while the glare from her timeless beauty and extremely revealing outfits kind of shines through. For my money, it’s the supporting cast that really steal the show. Remini gives food for thought as to why she isn’t a bigger star in Hollywood, supplanting much of the film’s best comedic timing throughout. Vanessa Hudgens also gives another dramatic impulsive turn, providing tears on command that prove how far she’s come in her challenging typecast career. I’m glad that she becomes more important to the plot as the film goes on, as her facial registries tug at your heartstrings and hit every time the film needs them to. Also great to see Dave Foley and Larry Miller back on the silver screen, as I feel we just don’t get enough of either comedic icon.

– Strength of humor. It still baffles me that this film is given a PG-13 rating, because there are many instances throughout where the language and ensuing material feels testing for younger audiences. This provided a 33-year-old-man like myself no shortage of laughs, and the landing ratio is surprisingly positive for a movie that I was dreading seeing heading into it. In my opinion, it’s the way the talented cast play out these conventional lines, stretching them to their furthest reactions because of the vibrancy of personality that they invest into each gag. It’s something that constantly reminds audiences of the good times they are having that are helpful in forgetting some of the film’s biggest sins creatively.

– Gorgeous establishing shots of The Big Apple. Segal himself was born and raised in the big city, and his love and passion for the city is clearly evident in some gorgeous photography of New York City that articulately channel the vibe of the setting. Aside from these gorgeous sun-setting shots behind these early 20th century style bridges, we are also treated to frequent shots of the imposing skyline, providing visual emphasis for just how far our protagonist has come, as well as a few moments of reflection sequences inside of the silver bullets that whiz throughout the variety of neighborhoods and cultures alike. Segal, and even his leading lady, have a spot in their hearts for their city, and they’re not afraid to show it with beautiful depictions that constantly capture the beauty from within.

– Has a strong message despite being drowned in lies. I know that sounds completely strange and a bit contradictory, but despite the fact that this woman lies to get this job, and then continues the lie over and over again, the third act of the movie brings home its honorable intentions by explaining the importance of being true to yourself. In doing so, it makes the achievements that you attain that much sweeter because they were done by you….the real you. Whether the film’s conclusion does go the way you think it will or not, I’m a sucker for a feel good story that reflects with respect the kinds of things in our own lives that we take for granted every day, and “Second Act” preserves this quality with dignity.

NEGATIVES

– Recycled dialogue from other obvious films of the genre. Part of the nagging problem with my investment into many of these scenes was the lack of care and concern with dialogue that definitely deserved a second look at the script. There are many instances of films like “Must Love Dogs”, “Sleepless In Seattle”, or even J-Lo’s movie “Main in Manhattan”, but the biggest sinner of all is one of the film’s closing lines that in so many words echoes that of “Field of Dreams” quote “You wanna have a catch?” It basically confirms that these type of movies are starting to rub together, and doesn’t leave a lot of wiggle room if the creativity is this limited.

– Nuisance of the gimmick. I believed in this plot for about two minutes, until the blaring voice in my head said how ridiculous this whole thing really is. You’re telling me that a major cosmetics institution based in New York City doesn’t do a deep background check, calling former professors and bosses to confirm that what they read on paper is true? BULLSHIT!!! The movie’s explanation for all of this feeds into that second act plot twist, but the film’s antagonist even has trouble confirming that anything in this application is bogus when he decides to look into Maya. This kind of thing might be believable in the 90’s, but in 2018, during the age of technological advances, it’s not feasible in the least.

– Overlooks vital information about the profession. One of my biggest pet peeves in movies is when a particular job’s specifics are remotely glossed over, leaving you unable to preserve any amount of knowledge gained about the job that would make its characters feel believable. Instead of giving us specifics, we are given a series of montages that are supposed to artistically fill in the blanks, instead of pointing out the weaknesses in Maya taking up a job that she knows absolutely nothing about, other than how it performed in the grocery store she worked at.

– Far too many subplots and side characters. The biggest sacrifice in this formula is the development of a romantic subplot involving Lopez and Ventimiglia that is ignored for almost an entire hour, removing the possibility of gaining some traction for the flailing chemistry and overall lack of weight from consequences that goes virtually unnoticed. There’s far too much at play between the battle for screen time as well, as characters switch sides and personalities at the drop of a hat. The only explanation would be if something was left on the cutting room floor for DVD extras, but as a cohesive narrative, 98 minutes just simply isn’t enough time to juggle this many bowling pins that more times than not crash and burn.

My Grade: 6/10 or C

Vox Lux

Directed By Brady Corbet

Starring – Natalie Portman, Jude Law, Raffey Cassidy

The Plot – Follows the rise of Celeste from the ashes of a major national tragedy to pop super stardom. The film spans 18 years and traces important cultural moments through her eyes, starting in 1999 and concluding in 2017. In 1999, teenage Celeste (Cassidy) survives a violent tragedy. After singing at a memorial service, Celeste transforms into a burgeoning pop star with the help of her songwriter sister (Stacy Martin) and a talent manager (Law). Celeste’s meteoric rise to fame and concurrent loss of innocence dovetails with a shattering terrorist attack on the nation, elevating the young powerhouse to a new kind of celebrity: American icon, secular deity, global superstar. By 2017, adult Celeste (Portman) is mounting a comeback after a scandalous incident that derailed her career. Touring in support of her sixth album, a compendium of sci-fi anthems entitled Vox Lux, the indomitable, foul-mouthed pop savior must overcome her personal and familial struggles.

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

POSITIVES

– From an aesthetic aspect, this might be one of the more grittier and beautiful films of the year. Arronofsky inspired handheld style is on full display, following the movements and directions so tightly of our characters that it never misses a beat. Likewise, the cinematography is cold and callous, outlining a sort of ghost character of its own that follows Celeste every step of the way since this devastating tragedy that has defined her entire life and career. This is subtle exposition in the form of filters, and it’s something that allows the audience to fully grasp the psychological toll of being a sole survivor.

– Finely measured performances everywhere you turn. For the first half of the film, this is easily 16-year-old Raffey Cassidy’s show. Cassidy’s facial registry channels that of a youth who is still trying to grasp why things are the way they are, and feels especially troubled when she’s forced to grow up at such a quick pace at such a very young age. From there, Portman takes the reigns, giving us a glimpse at a personality corrupted by a business of betrayal, with subtle occasional hints at the little girl inside who is still fighting to get out. This isn’t Portman’s best performance, but it might be her most psychologically straining to date. Jude Law is also excellent as Celeste’s uneasy manager, and the chemistry between he and his musical prodigy is something that transcends that of the four films that Law and Portman have acted in together.

– While the musical taste from artist Sia wasn’t my taste of choice, the concert footage and overall spectacle from within dazzle us in a way that truly channels the monster pop icons of the world. Lights, make-up, costumes, and a multitude of angles capture the magnitude of Celeste’s growth as an artist, entertaining thirty thousand fans with a combination of rumbling club tracks and top notch dance choreography to really immerse yourself in the moment. This serves as the only moment when Celeste feels complete without feeling some kind of pain, and it’s clear from the moment she steps on stage that she’s made for the spotlight.

– Gripping social commentary that never relents. The material inside of this screenplay covers a multitude of topics including the insensitivity of turning tragedy to triumph, teenage stardom, and the desire to put sex above music in the order of importance, bringing a bunch of great questions along with each of them. Each of these gives more depth to the unfolding narrative, and etch out that layer of Celeste that helps you understand why she acts the way she does despite not being there to see some of her most trying times. What’s most important is the film never holds back in hitting us with uncomfortable imagery, so if this isn’t your bag, then this simply isn’t the film for you.

– Unique montage sequences. As to where most films cover a wide range of time with a series of footage cuts, the instances of time flash-forward here are literally that: fast-forward footage in the style of VHS tapes that actually takes us through everything at eight times the speed. Even more commendable is that the direction from Corbet during these sequences is so tight and precise that even at an unusual speed we the audience still get enough time and focus to translate what is transpiring on-screen. This is an idea that I wouldn’t mind seeing more of in film with this kind of attention of craft to it, and I commend Corbet for giving us something fresh even after decades of versatile films.

– Creativity with the credit sequence. The long scroll of the expansive name credits that usually just happens at the end of a film actually invades our attention twice during the film. The first of which is about ten minutes into the film, replacing quick cut introduction credits in a strange fashion, that is until I understood its purpose. LIGHT SPOILER ahead. The scroll credits are included here to signify the end of one life and the beginning of another. Once Celeste wakes up, she’s almost an entirely new person from the little girl enjoying school that she was, and this divide felt different in presentational aspects, and only added to the originality of the aesthetics.

NEGATIVES

– Strange casting choices. This is a film that takes place in two respective timelines, with Raffey obviously playing the younger side of Natalie Portman’s Celeste, but Raffey actually plays two characters in this film, portraying Portman’s daughter in the second half of the film. This is a strange decision for many reasons, but mostly because it’s distracting when the two actresses are on-screen together. As they interact, we start to see how differently and unbelievable their portrayals are for emulating the same character, especially with a Brooklyn accent by Portman that wasn’t there for Raffey when she portrayed Celeste. In addition to this, Celeste’s sister Eleanor (Played by Stacy Martin), doesn’t age or switch actresses during the respective timelines. Neither does Jude Law. So we have a protagonist who changes completely, and two characters who haven’t even changed hairstyles or age in 17 years. Interesting

– Abrupt ending to the narrative. While I mentioned earlier that I appreciated the artistic merit of the concert scenes, I will say that their drowning on forces an unusual ending to the movie that just dropped the anticipation. The last twelve minutes of this movie are concert scenes, so already that concept is far too long, but they come at a time when many questions still require answers, leaving us the audience hanging in the balance. I could’ve used an additional ten minutes after the concert to tie loose ends together and manage to garner some of that momentum that dropped like second week record sales.

– Willam Dafoe’s strange narration. Yep, that’s right: The Green Goblin himself voices a couple of parts during the film. My problem is the usual, in that I don’t appreciate when narration tells us too much instead of shows us, and something else entirely that didn’t fit with the pacing of the storytelling. Dafoe just pops in at the most random of times, and it feels like a violent pause button during some of the more interesting confrontations that the screenplay can muster up. I am a big fan of Willam’s work, but I feel like “Vox Lux” would’ve been best left off of his immense filmography, if only so this story didn’t have so many divides between it that do it zero favors in terms of pacing.

– Uninteresting soundtrack. I have no problem with Sia as a performer, as songs like “Chandelier”, “Titanium”, and “Big Girls Cry” were some of my favorite tracks of their respective years. But her work in this soundtrack just isn’t my taste. The sound mixing is noticeably louder for the music than the vocals, the lyrics lack any kind of complexity, and the hooks completely lack that earworm quality that allows the song to get stuck in your head. Thankfully, there’s only four original songs in the movie, but it doesn’t help when we get each song in its entirety (See negative #2).

My Grade: 6/10 or C