WIDOWS (2018)

   Director: Steve McQueen With: Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, Cynthia Erivo, Colin Farrell, Brian Tyree Henry, Daniel Kaluuya, Jacki Weaver, Robert Duvall, Liam Neeson, Carrie Coon, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Jon Bernthal, Garret Dillahunt, Lukas Haas, & Matt Walsh. Release: Nov 16, 2018 R. 2 hr. 8 min.

Director: Steve McQueen
With: Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, Cynthia Erivo, Colin Farrell, Brian Tyree Henry, Daniel Kaluuya, Jacki Weaver, Robert Duvall, Liam Neeson, Carrie Coon, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Jon Bernthal, Garret Dillahunt, Lukas Haas, & Matt Walsh.
Release: Nov 16, 2018
R. 2 hr. 8 min.

 

Heist films are a particularly lively bunch of genre films. They are aesthetically riveting, sprinkled with surprises, and are predominantly splashed with suave. They are the “cool-hand-luke” of the cinema. Enrapturing any and everyone with their sophisticated posture, and enriching the cinema with their soft-spoken wisdom. It’s usually a gang of anti-heroes on a path for vengeance, led by an unexplained genius of some kind who has been stealing and thieving since the age of a toddler. All of that, all of that stock-formatted mess, all of that is nowhere to be found in the immaculate framing of Steve McQueen’s newest feature (and front-running best picture for me) “Widows.” A film about a group of “Widows” picking up the pieces of a four-man, now dead, crew of heist aficionados, the stereotypical team of robbers who had a job go sideways and got lost in the blaze of the chaos.

It’s a film born out of that nebula of curiosity, that moment after a movie like an “Oceans” or a “Dog Day Afternoon” in which we inquire: what happens if the job goes wrong? More importantly, what happens afterward? How would a society that demonizes criminal action as equal to the same punishment across the board react to a thief killed in the crossfire, a thief leaving behind a family of three? Are we supposed to feel bad for the family, as if they were the con-job all along? What if they knew though, then are we supposed to demonize them? Arrest them for recognizing the whereabouts, the ins and outs, the Xs and Os?

This is where “Widows” lies, dead and center in the frame of curiosity, that spark of an investigation. It’s a brilliant genre exercise, fueled by emotional conflicts and passionate-driven compositions of characters; it's placing societal inequalities, the fatigue of corruption, and the obvious visceral frustration pointed at a bullshit system underneath the microscope. How we relish a poor feeding the wealthy kind of culture, an antiquated and legally abiding, swamp-ridden democracy. How that sort of system is paved upon the backs of the societally inequal, a continuance of doing whatever it takes to stay in power.

Least to say, McQueen’s newest powerhouse is one that works on multiple levels. Maneuvering its way through genre-expectations, societal messaging, and personal talking points in which we’re enjoying the ferocity of such a ride, but we’re not walking away without learning a thing or two before we head for the exits. It works as a pure pulp-ridden piece of entertainment. It works as a commentary on how often it feels like we have to take back what we believe to be ours or run the risk of never having it at all. It’s a film that is rightful of such praise-riddled terminology like: “tour-de-force.”

Which is perhaps the best way to describe Viola Davis performance as the late-wife of Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson in one of his best performances since forever ago). She carries the longing, the aching pain, of grief farther and further than most actresses could. Her moments of release, primitively screaming out into the emptiness of a now empty apartment, are some of the film’s highest moments. Her moments of tussling with an imagining of her lover’s return, she stumbles in the fog of depression, her mutation from sadness to anger; all of it organically formulates to the point that it's foaming out of the funnel of what is, perhaps, McQueen’s masterwork.

McQueen is no rookie to any of this, the complicated intricacies that are human emotion have always been of the utmost of importance to him. Whether it's that of the self-sacrifice mentality for a cause that can be seen in “Hunger,” the smog of bliss to be found in our addictions as seen in “Shame,” or that of the legitimizing of the pressure that hope, real hope, is placed underneath during times of hell as seen in “12 Years a Slave.” The human condition has always been intriguing to McQueen, and Gillian Flynn is one hell of a dance partner.

I’ve left most of the remnants of the story out of this review because it's one that is better seen than told. Amalgamating itself like a chess-board, fabricating a story that is incredibly difficult to predict, and one that is crisply-fine-tuned. Riding the coattails of the masterful adaptation of her gut-wrenchingly somber novella “Sharp Objects,” Flynn’s script for the adaptation of Lynda La Plante’s novel is sleek in its design. She and McQueen are careful never to allow their film to sink into political waters too much, keeping its head above water with the crackles of dialogue without ever calling attention to itself or allowing itself to indulge within its own preachings of socio-politically-charged vignettes. It brings itself together with that of a fray of women who vary in personality, family life, and background.

It is only till you begin to remove yourself from the story that you notice the lack of coincidence present in that of how Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), and Veronica (Viola Davis) are Polish, Latino, and Black, respectively, nevermind the distinctive economic backgrounds of each of them. A lot of that makeup, that genetic coding, of “Widows” has to do, in part, with its points on corruption in how it's both a big bully for cowards to hide behind, but also an unmistakable equalizer in the shadowed battleground of politics. A lot of this is painted in the political race that occurs in the foreground, one between a prodigy white rich boy and a black man from the streets of Chicago. It’s about that changing of the guard, how that terrifies the white monarchy of American politics, and how the railroads built to such prestige are usually paved with blood and money. This discourse is exchanged between a number of characters in “Widows” though, but there is a balance, a level-headed genius to this film, one that is only reflected in the talented ensemble that echoes Davis’ exceptional depiction.

Debicki has had a great year thus far, one that is finalized with this breakout role. Despite her well-tuned performance in “The Tale” earlier this year, her performance here, nearly allows her to steal the film entirely. Her body language, her posture, her weaponizing of feminity for power, all of it is subtle and brilliant; if you don’t pay attention closely, you’ll miss that genius at work.

It’s a rare film in which everyone is on their A-game, so much so that choosing a standout is as difficult of a decision as deciding what the key theme to take away is. Kaluuya is menacing, teetering upon the lines of a well-trained soldier and psychotic mercenary. Rodriguez is filled with hesitation, a mother unsure of whether or not vengeance is worth the cost, and Farrell teams with Duvall in this dichotomy of a son attempting to escape the blood-covered hands of his father. He breaks down in a handful of moments, cursing and releasing his pent-up aggression against a man who sees the world as nothing more than a foundation for his palace. Brian Tyree Henry is the frosting on top of it all, remaining stern and diligent with his cause and hunger for “real power” as he calls it, a man of color willing to become the man in charge by any means necessary.

There is no flashiness to be seen on the technical side of the fence though. Walker (who should be nominated for an Oscar for his work here) is just as good as the work seen in last years “Baby Driver," lowing the story to sway, arguably convulse, in and out of consciousness, Walker toys with memory here. Matching the excellence exhibited in HBO’s “Sharp Objects” earlier this summer, able to manifest the authenticity that is a memory, how we can wake up, reaching out for our lover, only to realize their no longer there anymore. He’s an editor maintaining the rhythm of a gargantuan story such as this one, and Zimmer’s composition of the score is like that of the crowning stroke. McQueen reserves it, holding it back for the first half of the film, allowing it to bubble, to foam up as the heist comes near, enhancing the tension of this ferocious experience.

The tapestry seen here makes “Widows” feel like a film worth seeing again. (Believe me, I am going to see it a few more times) Because, while you can take away the main course with ease, there are small patterns hidden underneath, some that need more light, more attention from you as the viewer. It's easy to get caught up in the grained lusciousness that is the cinematography, the potent whiff of the colors, and forget to pay attention to the story.

It’s a film that cuts so deep, so constructed upon itself that the texture spills over the top of the glass. So much so, that by the end of it you're left in awe of its majesty. It’s a film about loss, about sacrifice, about running the table of life, and how so many people even notice such an apparent truth. The discussions of meritocracy and cultural inhibitions to be had, well, that’s just the icing on the cake for a film as masterful as this one; how many other films from 2018 can say that?

Instant Family (2018)

   Director: Sean Anders With: Mark Wahlberg, Rose Byrne, Octavia Spencer, Isabela Moner, Tig Notaro, Gustavo Quiroz, Julianna Gamiz, & Tom Segura. Release: Nov 16, 2018 PG-13. 1 hr. 59 min.

Director: Sean Anders
With: Mark Wahlberg, Rose Byrne, Octavia Spencer, Isabela Moner, Tig Notaro, Gustavo Quiroz, Julianna Gamiz, & Tom Segura.
Release: Nov 16, 2018
PG-13. 1 hr. 59 min.

 

There is a conversation to be had about representation in film. How it should evolve, how portrayals should differ from years past, how diversity both on-screen and behind the camera needs to be addressed; and, this isn’t all to be brought up at the expense of a happy-sad film like “Instant Family.” But, there is an underlying subtext, a palpable tension, in particular moments of the narrative in which we’re watching a white, middle-class, suburbia couple (Pete: Mark Wahlberg; Ellie: Rose Byrne) adopt a trio of abused, damaged, and desperate for love Latino children (Lizzy: Isabela Moner; Juan: Gustavo Quiroz; Lita: Julianna Gamiz).

How miraculous is it that the picture paints itself with a flavor of white-privilege? Can’t you envision the Social Justice Warriors of the far-left, swooping down from the self-loathing towers of superstitious snobbery and demonizing a film such as this one? Shouting: “Racism” or “Another white savior trope!” Doesn’t that seem possible? More importantly, doesn’t that seem likely to happen?

This isn’t all to say that I’ve switched teams and am now an evangelical, “make America great again” kind of voter, but there is a fabric being stitched together in-between the predictable emotional climaxes and see-through endings that are merely meant to pluck tears out of you, instead of causing them to pour. I resonate with that code of conduct. That flag-bearer mentality. All of that is birthed out of white-guilt, that unassurance of what the right thing to feel is; and, we haven’t gotten to have such introspective and complicated discussions just yet. Right now it's about changing the status quo, which is all good with me, but eventually, that conversation needs to be had, and the longer we wait, the harder it's going to be.

Nevertheless, this isn’t all to sit back and praise “Instant Family” as a genius for such forward-thinking. It’s a happy accident; any drunk buffoon can see that. But, that’s not to say there is nothing here, quite the opposite. What “Instant Family” manifests is an abundance of topical discussions involving symbolism, behind the scenes operatives, the purpose of representation, the teetering lines between authentic representation and the shouting down of a different color of skin. Before we get there though, allow me to say that “Instant Family” is that happy-go-lucky kind of film.

It’s sappy, meant to pry any remnants of emotion left inside of the cold heart of any cynic and any critic. It a lot like last year’s “Wonder,” a film about a disabled child learning to embrace himself. Matching that textural expression of surface-level emotion, how adoption is a complicated process. How the complications that arise are not only challenging for the kids but the foster parents as well. The examining of this duality, of this shared struggle, is a bit like a one-liner: smooth and soft, and a bit pudgy. It rolls off the tongue and contains a sharp edge; remaining firm and stoic with a beginning, a middle, and an end.

The crafting of such a film, aesthetically, is quite easy on the eyes. It’s simple, elementary, and knows when and where to insert a sprinkle of update or change from its contemporaries. The performances are all satisfactory, few of them step out of line or attempt to cross an unagreed upon threshold. It’s all smooth sailing. Which is sort of the point isn’t it?

These are the fluff pieces of the cinema, never reaching for a brass ring, or daring to wake up the person next to you. It’s in the name of good fun, and, because of that, the grade above represents a passing score. Not because the film is grand or breaking new ground, but because it plays the formula to perfection. The moments of relief, of that smiling cry, are there and you can’t help but grin at the joy of a parent’s hard work paying off with the words “Goodnight ‘Mommy’!” That ounce of appreciation, that moment of sheer glee, is what this movie works for, and I’m not afraid to say that I fell for it. I bought into the trick, fell for the bluff, got lost in the sun, or whatever other expressions you want to use to say: “I bought in.”

If a film can do that, well, it’s hard to say it's a bad movie at that point huh? However, like the rest of these passable products of the multiplex, there is a monumental gap in the excavation of these characters. It’s a term I’ve used quite a bit over the last bit of time, and for a good reason. One, I think it's a pretty word. Two, it’s true; a story involving characters should be treated as an archeological dig, reaching back into the past and figuring out what made it work before and why; and then taking that artifact of genius and issuing it into your collection of storytelling tools. There is never a moment in this film where the kids are not portrayed as damaged goods in need of repairing. The superficial emotion and the predictability of our story are expected traits. It’s a contractually-obligated token of the experience, one that is only rewarding to us depressed suckers who go to see these movies every holiday season.

The gears, the cogs behind that emotion though, that’s something that can be evolved. That’s a criticism worth noting; especially when that line between white-skinned heroism and honest-to-god humanity is teetering on the edge of a cliff. There needed to be a moment, a time, where the film provided that dose of authenticity in which these kids chose to be repaired, decided that it was time for a change. Some will argue it's the admissions of “Daddy” and the climactic finale, but that’s the product we paid for, where is the one that we didn’t?

Listen, I know that most of the audience is there for a cry-fest; just hoping to see a story that is peeling back a curtain just enough to weep a tear or two. But, there is something to be said about the divine intervention lurking within the background of a film such as this one. As I said, it’s an act of long arm coincidence, but there is an ounce of remedy, an ounce of mastery; I would even go as far to say a shred of artistry looming over this easy to digest movie. We all stumble upon perfection at one point and time, what if that’s what happened here and they were too attached to the blueprint to notice? I guess we’ll never know, isn’t that a crock of shit.

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald (2018)

   Director: David Yates With: Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Zoe Kravitz, Alison Sudol, Ezra Miller, Callum Turner, Claudia Kim, William Nadylam, Poppy Corby-Tuech, Kevin Guthrie, Brontis Jodorowsky, Victoria Yeates, Jude Law, & Johnny Depp. Release: Nov 16, 2018 PG-13. 2 hr. 14 min.

Director: David Yates
With: Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Zoe Kravitz, Alison Sudol, Ezra Miller, Callum Turner, Claudia Kim, William Nadylam, Poppy Corby-Tuech, Kevin Guthrie, Brontis Jodorowsky, Victoria Yeates, Jude Law, & Johnny Depp.
Release: Nov 16, 2018
PG-13. 2 hr. 14 min.

 

J.K. Rowling is a writer with inventive wit, able to pour out the texture and the minutia of a world of witchcraft and wizardry; and to allow for such a setting to feel both tangible and intimately homespun, that’s an excellent way to make someone believe in magic. However, there is an impression of real-world dilemmas and socio-political issues that, unlike most of her genre contemporaries, was never present throughout the books, at least not at the forefront of her story. In her newest venture, “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald,” there is a level of reflection, of materialized mirroring, near the finale of the film that fabricates itself like the icing on the top of a cake for a sequel that not only supersedes the first film, but perhaps it even makes it feel unnecessary.

The first film followed a beat-for-beat storytelling method, one that invoked the essence of nostalgia in that of its texture; how the film felt and was visioned in the same framework of a “Harry Potter” movie, but mine, and many others, issue was the lack of anew, the lack of obliterating a story that ties into the grooves of this prequelized tale. There was an embellishment to be had with Rowling and Yates’ first feature film two years ago; it was a distraction for those looking for cover, looking for shelter from the political meteor shower that was the 2016 Presidential election.

Now, Rowling seems unabashed, un-phased, in weaponizing her world of diversity and ancient-ideologies as a fun-house mirror reflection to the one being seen on the news waves of every mundane morning. But before we get there, allow me to iterate that “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald” is not reliant on such a juxtaposition of real-world issues. No, instead, there is a furthering of an investigation, a furthering of curiosity launched into the Potter-verse. There is a spell within the midst of this chase-filled, safari-like hunt of a sequence, that allows for a feather to act like that of a compass, pointing and arrowing you in the direction of what is magnetized to the other end of the feather.

This sort of enchantment feels as if it's indicative of the point of our newest adventure into the land of mischief and sorcery, in which we open with a sequence that mirrors that of the opening in “Deathly Hallows Part 1.” The rain-drenched, thunderstorm-ridden, gliding chase sequence in which men and women on brooms swerve and dive in the evasion of lightning bolts and offensive maneuvers from dark magic. It’s an easy sell for me, one of those scenes that can get the movie off to a good start for yours truly.

From there, we catch up with magizoologist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne, as subtle and brilliant as last time). Following the events of the first film, his travel permissions have been revoked in the wake of the destruction of New York City. A proposition put forth is that of his aligning with the ministry of magic in hunting down and capturing the now-escaped Grindelwald (Johnny Depp), a compromise that Newt is unable to agree upon. He’s a man wanting to remain in the shadows, his naivety and innocence acting like that of a blindfold from the impending war on the horizon; and there are a few moments of isolation, of solidarity, in which we begin to get peek behind the curtain that is Newt Scamander. But, as our main character, I still feel refrained from jumping onto team-Newt. I just can’t find something to latch onto, something to tether myself to, an anchor for me to tie myself onto; at least, that hasn’t happened yet.

That is one of the more significant flaws for me that continues to plague this newest iteration of magical-allegories, and part of me resonates with that struggle of recoloring and redefining the significant empty canvas and silhouette-like vacancy that is the inevitable replacement of Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe). Nevertheless, you can’t have a great story without a protagonist for us to care about; but Rowling can seemingly have a good-enough story alongside that barren landscape of heroism.

To my surprise, there is a lot to like about the newest entree into the Potter-verse. It retains that maintenance of visually, hand-crafted magic, bringing this world to life in a way that was as empowering and as breathtaking as the first film in which we meet and acquaint ourselves with new and more ferocious creatures. Like that of the cutesy fan-fair of the Niffler’s, the adorable and scavenger-ish creatures who are now even smaller and cuter than the previous movie. There is also a gigantic, Chinese-stylized, cat-like beast that swoons the audience into a frenzy on more than one occasion, touching upon that misunderstanding of a predator-like subtext.

All of that is splendid, manifesting that escapism, that launching into the fantasy, that allows for the film to have moments of splendor in this elegant collage of alchemy and illusion. The cinematography has some gratifyingly steady shots of 1930s Paris, capturing the beauty found in the calmness of the water, that moment before a new-wave, before a new storm disturbs the peace.

Which is sort of what this story is about: the rising of a storm, the seduction of a demagogue, the lust for someone to tell “the world is broken, and only I can fix it.” Unlike the first film’s reliance on the handsome production and the period-piece recreation of a time that is now a go-to source for contextualized imagery, “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald” doesn’t necessarily carry the torch further, but decides to find a different path for our journey to divert upon.

Dont’ get me wrong, Newt is basically a glorified dogcatcher and a lot of the Dumbledore's moments feel as if they’re screaming out to you “look its dumbledore guys! You guys love Dumbledore, right?” That said, our continuing examining of Credence (Ezra Miller), an Obscurial (a wizard who has repressed his magical abilities, which, in this case, has forced it to manifest itself in the form of an Obscurus: a dark, destructive, and chaotic entity.), and how that character becomes like that of a fully-lived-in archetype of the unhealthy neurosis that can develop when you deny who you are. The self-destructive elements of that battle that is metamorphosized in the subtext of this narrative, his mission to learn his true identity. (And, boy does he. A third act reveal of epic proportions) That kind of reflection is something that, alongside Rowling’s political overtones, has always felt stilted, volume down, upstaged by the simplicity of a boy’s love, his dreams, his fears, and the sheer amount of acumen and empathy that Rowling infuses into that character.

But, that subsided story-line of hostility and persecution of the No-Maj, the Muggle, the humans in these stories and how that political discussion mutates from the background and into the spotlight of this movie is a welcomed, and nuanced, transformation to our story. How our characters, like that of Jacob (Dan Fogler, toned down just a bit here) and Quennie (Alison Sudol, ironically volumed up), become tempted and ensnared by the promises of a strong man, of a man telling them that he will give them everything they want if they pledge themselves to his cause, that he wants what they want. How that finale of a rally, a man in the center of an arm-crossed, hate-filled, pure-blooded crowd of sorcerers and witches, oozes that parable of another powerful, blonde-headed man’s rallies of propaganda, of division, of “I understand what’s wrong with the world, and only I can fix it” shenanigans. How Grindelwald incites his followers with words of division, with promises of a better world, a world with more freedom to choose who you want to be. His power derives from his manipulation of minds, not from his wand.

It’s one of those timely, and precise developments of the story that reminds you of the “he who shall not be named” shadow that lurks beyond our screen. How that same doom-and-gloom entity stalks and seemingly looms over our fantasies, over everything that is good and fair in this society, and I am not talking about Voldemort here.

That kind of evolution, that kind of difference in aim by Rowling, is welcomed. Yates is splendid too, manifesting and fabricating the world of ambiance and cinematic-magic once again. Redmayne, Law, Depp, and others provide excellently, nailed down, performances. But, that emerging of difference, that identification of what makes this story different, and in some ways, more important than the one prior; that style of creation is fantastically adept and revealing of the deft that lurks behind the skilled penmanship of Rowling. She’s been outspoken on these issues, on this troubling churning of events, and I am glad she’s parabling her world of witchcraft and wizardry with a world that needs to remember what it is to believe; what a magical second chapter this turned out to be.

Overlord (2018)

   Director: Julius Avery With: Jovan Adepo, Wyatt Russell, Pilou Asbæk, Mathilde Ollivier, John Magaro, Iain de Caestecker, & Bokeem Woodbine Release: Nov 9, 2018 R. 1 hr. 50 min.

Director: Julius Avery
With: Jovan Adepo, Wyatt Russell, Pilou Asbæk, Mathilde Ollivier, John Magaro, Iain de Caestecker, & Bokeem Woodbine
Release: Nov 9, 2018
R. 1 hr. 50 min.

 

I am barely qualified to be named, or dubbed, a gamer. Once, maybe twice, or, if I am so greedy, three times a year I will fixate upon the interactive and lingering artistry that is video games. However, even I can call-to-attention the bare-bones resemblance of “Overlord” and “Call of Duty,” especially with that of the zombie-like story of gameplay in which, at least most recently I think, “Call of Duty: Black Ops” contained a mode of gameplay involving then sitting President John F. Kennedy to be tasked with fighting against Nazi zombies. It’s a ludicrously, bat-shit idea that invokes enthusiasm and intrigue. But, video games and the cinema have never been a downright, holy matrimony. They’ve always been a bickering and a self-centering couple and “Overlord” is a good example as to why.

In “Overlord,” a World War II low-hanging fruit, horror/action movie directed by Julius Avery (and perhaps more importantly, produced by J.J. Abrams), the R-rating stands for bloody-enriched imagery, the cursing, and the tomfoolery (Specifically those latter notes of the finale). It’s a film that feels far-fetched, and like a Hollywood-type, but, for a 14-year-old horror fan, it’s probably anything but silly. It’s the sort of no-nonsense, straightforward, and scattered storytelling you’d come to expect from an under-marketed and under-hyped action movie that attempts to digest sketchy ideas about the main difference between Us and Them: humanity and cruelty, assimilation and appropriation, blah blah blah. It’s that 1950s, and its good guy American soldiers vs. bad guy Nazis. Its the same sub-genre of historical fantasy that birthed the likes of Captain America, a cookie-cut, good ol’ boy who punches Hitler.

If any of this excites you, then enjoy your time at the multiplex this weekend. But, for me, it played like a rip-off of a rip-off. Its narrative can’t be dubbed relatively original, as I said, it's themed are broad-stroked with those antiquated ideas that aren’t precisely examining the War effort in its totality. More of a picture frozen in time, being painted with the colors of red, white, and blue, so that you know what the good ol’ US of A is all about.

The one aspect of this that is changed for the better is Boyce (Jovan Adepo), an inexperienced, African-American recruit who was pulled into a war he had no place being apart of, describing it as “I was cutting my grass before this, and then, all of a sudden the Army comes by with a recruitment letter, and now, here I am.” He’s the moral compass of the story, pointing straight and narrow through the muck of War’s manipulation of morality. There is a whole sub-story involving his exploration of the Nazi-base, something that played to the effect of “Get Out,” a black man in the midst of a white-supremacist regime, and willing his way out of the mess he got himself into.

Boyce ventures into these caverns of human experimentation, peeking and prodding through medical curtains with hesitance and visible, sweats of terror. He lacks survival instincts, barely escaping the grasp of such bßasic baddies by running and hiding. He's also quite ignorant at times, poking and messing with scientific-equipment that is probably best left untouched. But screenwriters Billy Ray and Mark L. Smith, feel as if they are reliant to a connect-the-dots style of a plot in which every advancement in the story is birthed out of a bad decision from the characters, making it seem like a facade to resonate with them. Where, despite how much we might dare to care for them, we know they'll end up being directly responsible for whatever bad-shit happens.

I quite enjoyed the voyeurism of that style though, the stumbling onto madness that seems as if it has leaped out of an H.P. Lovecraft/Stephen King story and onto the screen. In that vein, there are some camouflage parallels of genius, but those few moments where that bread is spread thin run dry. Usually resorting back to an array of characters that resemble every and any war movie you’ve ever seen before: The no-nonsense, grizzled leader Ford (Wyatt Russell), the innocent bystander Chase (Iain De Caestecker), the insensitive gambler Tibbet (John Magaro), and the girl caught up in the midst of it all, Chloe (Mathilde Ollivier). The names themselves sound familiar, and it plays out in the same way.

Don’t get me wrong, Julius Avery has some eye-catching brilliance that is buried beneath this tonnage of mediocrity. There are a couple of tracking shots that feel belonging to an “Indiana Jones” movie, the long-steady capturing of the spontaneity and randomized chaos of war is helmed masterfully in an opening sequence that feels both painstakingly hollow and vehemently perspiring. In that mechanical mindset, Avery drives hard and fast towards the finish line. But it's the tire-tracks, and the path left behind that feels absent of that same intensity.

Applying logic or any other high-minded standards feels pointless when dissertating or criticizing a movie like “Overlord” though, it's a superficial movie meant to grasp your attention with its widespread violence, it's a blood gushing vignette. There are some wispy ideas about how the Nazis’ rumored last-ditch-effort to win the war was a turn to spiritualism, to sorcery, to some aloof genius that must have felt like an act of desperation. Which, in a way, is a revealing note when it comes to the Nazis, a superstitious, illogical pack of bullies in a desperate pursuit for power.

That being said, “Overlord” isn’t exactly hitting that nail on its head as much as it is whispering a few sentences of inventiveness in the midst of bombastic absurdity. It’s fair to assume that “Overlord” wasn’t made with me, a cynical 21-year-old film snob, in mind. It’s targeted demographic can be seen, in unison, screeching out their approval of the unabashed vulgarity that can be seen within the skirmishes of “Overlord,” something that is sure to satisfy their bloodthirsty tendencies. Those moments, I even grant, have a certain aesthetical elegance to them, but when the bullets stop flying, and the characters wind down, “Overlord” musters up nothing more than a luscious homage to yesterday’s news. As I said, I am no gamer, but that Zombie craze was so five years ago; I am guessing J.J. didn’t get the memo.

The Grinch (2018)

   Director: Yarrow Cheney & Scott Mosier With: Benedict Cumberbatch, Rashida Jones, Cameron Seely, Kenan Thompson, Angela Lansbury, Pharrell Williams, Ramone Hamilton, Sam Lavagnino, & Scarlett Estevez. Release: Nov 9, 2018 PG. 1 hr. 30 min.

Director: Yarrow Cheney & Scott Mosier
With: Benedict Cumberbatch, Rashida Jones, Cameron Seely, Kenan Thompson, Angela Lansbury, Pharrell Williams, Ramone Hamilton, Sam Lavagnino, & Scarlett Estevez.
Release: Nov 9, 2018
PG. 1 hr. 30 min.

 

Two of the more notable Christmas figures aren’t exactly big fans of the holiday. Dickens offered us Ebenezer Scrooge, a man that oozes greed and disdain for those who bear an affinity for the Christmas season. The story is about reflecting a man’s loneliness, a man’s absence of humanity, as the core cause for his insignificant life. How no one will remember him, because no one knew him. The hardening of his heart is designed to melt, as is Dr. Seuss’ (Theodor Geisel) furry, green, and charmingly vile figure “The Grinch.”

A classic since its publication in 1958, the book inspired its fair share of adaptations. However, the mimicking of Seuss’ aggravating rhymes and symmetrical storytelling has always been something of a nuisance for myself. I know that it is an epochal trait of Seuss’ style or form as a children’s novelist, but it's a formalization of narrative that only feels quintessential for the youthful reader. It’s more of a bolstering blister for the adults in the room, which is how Scott Mosier (acclaimed Kevin Smith producer) and Yarrow Cheney (co-director of “The Secret Life of Pets”) fabricate the newest illustration of Seuss’ iconic holiday tale.

The backstory and the narrative itself are all-too-familiar, barely sketching diverging pathways for previously acquainted audiences. The differences in the story are slight, hardly noticeable. In fairness, the adaptation of a story (especially one as beloved as this one) is a challenging feat. Maintaining a native resemblance to the original and a nuanced form for the next generation, that’s not exactly a mixture of storytelling that arrives with ease. Nor is the blending of maturity and adolescent-targeted screenwriting, as the best of the family genre resides in that crux of genius. How a story like “Toy Story” can latch itself to both the whimsical nature of kids and the reserved insecurity of adults, that’s something of a feat of higher-level thinking that “The Grinch” strays away from, which should come to no surprise.

“Despicable Me” was a film only as good as it's childlike entertainment values, never competing with the likes of “Inside Out,” “Finding Nemo,” or any of the other peaks of the American animation cinema. Illumination has never attempted to breach that barrier, choosing to remain reserved and predominantly careful with their films. Targeting an audience, and one audience only, “The Grinch” remains grounded by its lack of maturation or adult-like motifs and messages to be delivered through childhood wonder.

That said, there are some lunges in diversity that are welcomed. The idea of a strong-mother storyline in which Cindy Lou (Cameron Seely) hopes to have one gift, and one gift only, for her year-long benevolence. It’s not for her, but for her double-shift working, exhausted, and continuously devoted mother (Rashida Jones). Watching her lead a gang of hoodlums and pranksters is a joy to see, as is the amusing recapturing of Seuss’ infamous main-character.

First depicted, at least filmatically, by Boris Karloff in the 1966 television featurette, and most recently portrayed by Jim Carrey in the 2000 live-action picture, directed by Ron Howard; “The Grinch” is a character that has shredded many green fur coats, and now Illumination has quite possibly upstaged them all. Now, Karloff’s 1966 version is incomparable in many ways, seemingly unable to be overshadowed for its prominence as the original film debut for the character. However, Benedict Cumberbatch most certainly levels that of his contemporary Jim Carrey. Jim’s performance always walked the tightrope between Carrey’s improvisational brilliance and an authentic enlivening of the grassy, grizzly Skrooge. At times, he leans far too much into Carrey’s comedic genius, straying away from the character itself and masquerading the Grinch beneath the presence of the immaculacy that is Jim Carrey.

Cumberbatch, though performing through voice-over, encapsulates the character’s childlike freight, while maintaining a warm, fuzzy sense of a lonely man looking for someone to accompany him on these destructive adventures. He strays away from his well-known captivating techniques, choosing to invoke an American accent to veil his identity beneath the pixelated animation. It’s not great enough to surpass Karloff’s iconic depiction, but it certainly outdoes Carrey’s spontaneity.

The modernizing of animation lends a helping hand as well, manufacturing a level of world building that is brilliantly intricate and imaginatively festive. It’s delightfully Seussian, slanting and curving through the wondrous world of Whoville. The festivity is animated with splendor, fabricating captivatingly illustrative gingerbread villages, mitten-shaped windows, and snow-enriched environments that encapsulates the aesthetical gala of the Christmas season. The Grinch’s monstrous cave is drenched in child-like curiosity, stretching far and wide in solidarity and isolation like that of the devious smile of the frivolous Grinch.

The gadgets and equipment the Grinch creates are devilishly clever, the action scenes are slapstick and energetic, and the music, is livelily reimagined by Danny Elfman, but trespasses the pop-ridden modernizing with a propped up version of Thurl Ravenscroft’s classic “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” by Tyler the Creator. A lot of it feels that way though, teetering between ridiculously renovated and sharply adapted.

“The Grinch” is a welcomed treat nonetheless, a warm enough illustration of the famous Christmas tale that will thaw the coldest of hearts. It’s charming and cute, never losing that fantastical juvenile mischief; able to firmly plant itself in the thickness of the snow and provide enough heart-warming cheer to make even the most cynical man cry.

Suspiria (2018)

   Director: Luca Guadagnino With: Dakota Johnson, Tilda Swinton, Mia Goth, Lutz Ebersdorf, Angela Winkler, Ingrid Caven, Elena Fokina, Sylvie Testud, Renée Soutendijk, & Chloë Grace Moretz. Release: Sep 1, 2018 R. 2 hr. 32 min.

Director: Luca Guadagnino
With: Dakota Johnson, Tilda Swinton, Mia Goth, Lutz Ebersdorf, Angela Winkler, Ingrid Caven, Elena Fokina, Sylvie Testud, Renée Soutendijk, & Chloë Grace Moretz.
Release: Sep 1, 2018
R. 2 hr. 32 min.

 

Pretentious is a word flung around by general audience members when something may seem too intricate or inconclusive. For me, the word invokes the definition of an artist forcing immaculacy upon something that is merely above average, something that can be seen in Luca Guadagnino’s “Suspiria.” Now, as a critic, there is an invisible line in which most refuse to cross when it comes to dubbing something as snobby or too-artsy as if our backing of films that push barriers and challenge genre-constructs will suddenly conjure an essence of hypocrisy.

But, film criticism is more of a case-by-case basis style of study. And though most, if not all, critics haven’t a certain bias towards particular genres, (which is sort of the brilliance of film being subjective) we seemingly fear to dub a filmmaker’s work as patronizing. And perhaps that’s not the best way to describe Guadagnino’s reimagining of Dario Argento’s crisp, atmospheric terror from 1977.

The two films share a setting and a basic premise, a prestigious German dance company is a front for a witches’ coven, and that’s about it. It isn't so much a remake as it is ludicrous and unduly serious. From the get-go, there is an atmosphere manifested from Guadagnino. With a soaked and blanched Chloe Grace Moretz dashing into her shrink’s office in hopes to convince him of the impending supernatural threat, her paranoid movements and skittish speech patterns echo Moretz evolving range as an actress.

Guadagnino crafts a vintage, yet contemporary look to the film. Toying with the zooms and focal-pointed camera stills of 70s Hollywood, but he is also ever-so modern by allowing tracking shots and the smoothness of digital camera work to engulf the screen. Providing this glossy yet fractured approach to his Sayombhu Mukdeeprom’s cinematography, proving that his warm, luscious touch from last year’s impeccable hit “Call Me by Your Name” was no fluke.

The score from Radiohead mastermind Thom Yorke fabricates an imminent sense of dread, this building and momentum-ly charging runaway train to insanity. This looming melancholy and blooming style of quaking emotion is exhilarating, but Dakota Johnson’s subtle and manipulative performance amplifies this flourishing apprehension as Guadagnino is patient and calmly pressing down upon the screen. Squeezing and compressing every cruel contortion and any callous illustration, Guadagnino attacks the frame like that of a pinpoint marksman, toying and sizing up the audience for a final bullseye.

It’s a chilling and cold atmosphere the lingers from the screen, but one that never truly matches the warm and tactile naturalistic essence found in “Call Me by Your Name,” nor does he re-invoke that usage of environment to produce empathy or sympathy for the characters as the cold and misty nature of 1977 Berlin never feels related or a product of the story here. It’s an accessory, one that can have its fair share of effect on the narrative at hand, but the screen itself carries this stuffy and pompous nature to it, as if Guadagnino is reaching through and whispering “this is what art looks like” to the viewing audience.

It’s a film far too full of itself, allowing long breaks in the plot to slowly push in upon symbolic imagery that loiters on the screen for an obscene amount of time so that it can hit you over the head as much as possible before moving along in the story. Most of us can see what Guadagnino is saying, his subtle and emphatic bellows of the duality encaptured in creating art, how it can be both sociopathic and rational, both a relieving and maddening process. This message is noted, repeated, and continuously screeched at the audience like that of an indication of some kind. Guadagnino’s previous film echoed the arts of subtlety and organic manipulations of setting and story, lessons he’s learned from filmmakers like Ivory and Rohmer; here, he’s amplifying the tedious and boastful nature of Trier and Mallek. Never allowing himself to be brought back down to earth, to speak to the audience coherently and genuinely.

That said, there is too much excellence at hand to write-off "Suspiria" as an empty and hollow attempt at horror from an artsy-fanfare style of craftsmanship. Watching Swinton and Johnson stare down one-another and speak a thousand words with their facial expressions and invocations of emotions by their stature and posture. Their psychic connection piercing through the thick cigarette smoke, soaking every scene with sadness and fear as the futility of trying to escape the past is present and fervent throughout the screen. The predominantly female and largely strong feminine mindset of the film is enthralling.

Men are essentially background noise in the film, merely following and riding next to the women like that of a passenger or a sideshow of sorts. They exist to be mocked and manipulated, proven-to-be not as formidable or spearheaded as their gender’s opposite as femininity is all that matters, especially in the finale which geysers with crimson blood and effeminated dexterity. It is not so easily forgettable, nor is the juxtaposing imagery of post World War II Berlin in which post-Nazism continue to torment the divided and split remnants of European culture. Which can be over-utilized by Guadagnino, far too often used as a cutaway reminder as to when this story takes place, but it's narrow tale that incorporates these set of circumstances producing a slight and profound message of human liberation being led by that of female prosperity. It’s a theme that parallels the understated brilliance of George Miller’s “Mad Max: Fury Road” in which the reminder that men solely birthed and conjured a world of war and plague is followed by the faint realization that women can lead us out of it.

There is a tour-de-force whiff of genius to be found in that thematial puncture, and the technical brilliance on display by Guadagnino and his colleagues is gorgeous and fluidly comprehensive of something that upstages most, if not all, others attempts at relying upon the toolbox to amplify the screenplay’s motifs and subjects. However, it’s hard to care past that of the vivacious nature of the movie, as the women are flaunting and celebrating their sexuality at all times in a way that feels far more like a weaponizing of eroticism than the male objectification of female autonomy.

All of it feels so over-handed, so heavy and overly flashy; it’s a film that never actually brings itself back down to earth, never fabricating a relative sensation of fear or human terror. There is too much technical splendor occurring too scrap the film as hollow or vacant of depth perse. But, “Suspiria” lacks that touch of humility, of clemency for its elongated runtime and pudgy texture. Despite the performances seeming to be effortlessly fierce and exceptional, and the screen appearing immaculately hypnotizing, Guadagnino's biggest problem is that lack of physicality, that lack of palpability to be found in this film as it never truly feels as if it's touching the ground.

Following the advice of Swinton’s teachings in remaining aloof from the earth, rejecting its believability and sincerity, is the biggest problem surrounding “Suspiria," its absence of human touch. Projecting a pretentious and detached nature of stilted filmmaking that mirrors that of a reality star that is pretty and identifiable in their pathos and convictions, but never truly feeling like a reflection or a literal illustration to strive towards; a pretty and lavish picture that becomes victim to its own devices. Mimicking that of Aronofsky, Guadagnino is brilliant but unable to identify what we are supposed to be afraid of here, which doesn’t make for terror as much as it does food for conversation; a grand deception and artificially plush attempt at modern-day horror.

Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)

   Director: Bryan Singer With: Rami Malek, Lucy Boynton, Gwilym Lee, Ben Hardy, Joseph Mazzello, Aidan Gillen, Tom Hollander, Allen Leech, Mike Myers, & Aaron McCusker. Release: Nov 2, 2018 PG-13. 2 hr. 14 min.

Director: Bryan Singer
With: Rami Malek, Lucy Boynton, Gwilym Lee, Ben Hardy, Joseph Mazzello, Aidan Gillen, Tom Hollander, Allen Leech, Mike Myers, & Aaron McCusker.
Release: Nov 2, 2018
PG-13. 2 hr. 14 min.

1.5_4 stars.png
 

In the midst of Bryan Singer’s (with uncredited director Dexter Fletcher, who replaced Singer after his termination) “Bohemian Rhapsody,” I found myself tracing my footsteps as to where my affinity for Queen began. For reasons I can’t quite pinpoint, I found myself gravitating towards the vehicular, bombastically animating sorcery that is the greatest frontman in musical history Freddie Mercury(Rami Malek), lead guitarist Brian May (Gwilym Lee), drummer Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy), and bassist John Deacon (Joseph Mazzello). Perhaps it was birthed out of a rebellious attitude to my father’s fidelity of heavier metal bands like Kiss and Metallica, that my search for alternative tunes found a home in that of the anthemic, roaring majesty that is Queen. In that same swift retraction of musical rapport lives my confusion and discomfort from a film that struggles to grasp the roots of the enigma known as Freddie Mercury.

The creative process is a maddening theme to convey, the interior design of it all plays like a tough defense in which the few cracks of vulnerability to be found are quickly swallowed whole. It’s hard to match the grooves and puzzle pieces into something that matches that of a finished portrait replicating the innovativeness or pure genius of an artist. However, there is an outlined pathway to follow with films like “Ray” and “Walk The Line” acting like blueprints for those who may need some inspiration before drafting their work. But, Bryan Singer is not the man for the job, as crazy as it may seem.

That blatant dose of sarcasm aside, Singer and the man who replaced him merely reside on the periphery of Mercury and the band itself. He never truly delves into the man behind Freddie Mercury, the sexually confused Pakistan kid Farrokh Bulsara who transformed himself into this flamboyant amalgamation of mystification and effemination. Henceforth converting the role of a front man, and, subsequently, popular music. His gayness is never defined or examined, merely tossed aside and arguably detailed as the great divide from him and everyone else. Like that of an illness or a disease of his sexual perplexity, as if the stability and normality of his fellow band members is the counteraction to such depravity.

That’s a viewpoint of the film that is never truly proven wrong or right, but for it to rise into conversation of the film’s merits is both discomforting; to say that his overexertion of gayness and femininity enwrapped in male bravado is perhaps his downfall, well, that’s something conceived out of ignorant insecurity.

Luckily, the music is great. Opening and closing with Queen’s iconic Live Aid performance from 1985, the film attempts to craft a growth and payoff sort of biopic in which Freddie's battles with obstacles placed in front of him by trespassers and intruders and his own doing in the hopes of molding a masterful performance for the world to see, something he achieved on a global stage in Wembley. Too much of it is montage though, separated and unconnected vignettes of musical composition that feel hollow of the emotional prowess that was Queen. As the film skims and brushes over the conceptions of hit singles like “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “Another One Bites the Dust,” “We Will Rock You,” and others with this cursory treatment that make it feel as if Anthony McCarten (“The Theory of Everything” & “Darkest Hour”) and the directors were, perhaps, not the biggest fans of Queen, or, better yet, Freddie. The film never even really decides what it wishes to be about; is it Queen, Mercury, or the path that led to that legendary 24-minute performance? Whichever one you decide upon, the results feel lackluster and empty nonetheless, which is not a sign that points to the filmmaker's appreciation for such an atypical, musical-virtuoso like Queen.

But the sheer infectious magic that is Queen cannot be hindered by mere faulty storytelling tropes and creative vices, and neither can Rami Malek’s incarnation of Mercury. The boyishly precarious young actor is far better than the material deserves, echoing and reinvigorating the film’s momentum and masqueraded genius on more than one occasion. He’s aching, searching for the underlying, and suffocated depth that isn’t there, mirroring the pain and loss, and even the confusion of a man losing himself to his own artisan acumen.

The best moment of this embodying performance comes in that of the vignette-like recreation of the infamous Live Aid performance in the film’s operatic finale in which Singer and his cronies take a backseat to Mercury’s, and even Malek’s, brilliance. The tsunami of humanity hypnotized by a supernatural presence that has never been matched on stage in what was the one scene in which I could feel myself leaning into the screen, enwrapped by the enchanting extravagance that was Freddie Mercury. The fact that Malek can mold such a thing in the midst of this distorted, linear, and conventional biopic is evidence of the sheer talent he possesses as an actor.

And the acting as a whole is lyrical, rhythmical almost. Playing like that of the actual band itself, in which everyone attempts to match Malek’s sheer eccentric brilliance. Ben Hardy, Gwilym Lee, and Joseph Mazzello construe the frustrations of a band that is chained to one-man’s crusade for perfection, for experimentation. In some ways they love it, in others, it’s a continuing strenuous exercise to bring Freddie back down to Earth. Alongside them, Lucy Boynton is solid in depicting Freddie’s long-time love Mary Austin. Her reactions and discoveries of Freddie’s evolving sexuality is perhaps the most-blatant missed opportunity by the filmmakers.

Which is where the film’s shortcomings fall upon, the blame lies with that of those behind the camera. Though the cinematography is luscious, vividly piercing even, “Bohemian Rhapsody” falls apart in the way it's fellow genre adversaries do: remaining superficial, negligent of complexity, and adverse to the depth behind an artist’s work.

The sheer ferocity exhibited from Malek, forces the final 45-minutes of the film into something of a compelling nature, willing his craft through the murkiness of what could arguably be described as phobic. The lack of context, attention-to-detail, and mere oversight of the subtleties of Freddie’s situation and the context of what it would mean to “come out” in the 1970s are not explored near enough to fabricate a final product. The single star and half for this review can be attributed to Malek, his contemporaries, and the veiled magic that is lurking underneath this formulaic biopic of a band that was anything but that.

The film’s reluctance to deal and to dive into the man behind the machine, the fuel for such a mystifying creature like Queen, is what becomes the ingredient for catastrophe. That alongside the film’s failure to even craft a story behind the band’s creation, behind its production of iconic hits, is what makes “Bohemian Rhapsody” perhaps the greatest disappointment of the year for myself.

Yes, Freddie, himself, was never one to draw a crowd and confess his vices, instead choosing to craft hope out of self-destruction. But, his name is synonymous with that of the queerness that arguably crafted the band’s experimental nature. Genius doesn’t emerge from a vacuum, and Mercury was many things, one of which was promiscuous, and that is a point to be made in this expression of an artist’s convictions. His muse is there, his sexual liberation well-noted, but the men behind the reimagination of his life seem to be anything but excited to depict such an icon, one that has become an inspiring anthem for queerness. Why would you take that away from us?

Beautiful Boy (2018)

   Director: Felix Van Groeningen With: Timothée Chalamet, Steve Carell, Maura Tierney, Amy Ryan, Timothy Hutton, & Kaitlyn Dever. Release: Sep 7, 2018 R. 2hr.

Director: Felix Van Groeningen
With: Timothée Chalamet, Steve Carell, Maura Tierney, Amy Ryan, Timothy Hutton, & Kaitlyn Dever.
Release: Sep 7, 2018
R. 2hr.

 

Drug addiction is a sticky subject to depict on screen because it's such an internalized defect of the psyche. It's both exclusive and seismically volatile, spreading like a wildfire that is lit by one person. The interpretation of this toxic swelling of buried emotion is spread out like peanut butter on bread in director/co-writer, Felix Van Groeningen’s “Beautiful Boy,” a story about a father’s journey through his son’s on-going addiction to crystal meth. Adapted from David Sheff’s “Beautiful Boy” and Nic Sheff’s novel “Tweak,” “Beautiful Boy” provides a rich specificity to a father and son relationship in which both are writers, but only one of them stems from a broken path.

There is a cluttered construction throughout the film that makes that peanut-butter-like comparison feel chunky though, as Groeningen struggles to grasp the depth and weight of these emotional strifes, at least in their totality. He avoids the familiar horrors and tussles of human fervor, instead examining a young man’s struggle with methamphetamine as a series of sun-dripped vignettes in which we watch him sprint through withdrawal, relapse, and addiction as we rummage through his life's span.

But the addiction is not at the heart of this story, though Groeningen’s visuals capture that ecstasy of absence near-perfectly. The Belgian filmmaker behind “The Broken Circle Breakdown,” Groeningen illuminates that sharp spitting image of how Nic (Timothee Chalamet) can get lost in the high, the rush of escapism from a world that seems mundane or piercingly hurtful to him. The portraits are brilliant, immaculate almost. Crafting a vivid sense of remoteness in this woodsy Marin County, California setting. Groeningen and cinematographer Ruben Impens labor away at this endeavor of obvious beauty masqueraded in grilled confusion, portraying that diffusion of blame between the separated parents of a drug-addicted child. Vomiting and spewing hatred in the midst of crisis, attempting to release that compiled rage they have for a son that seemingly refuses to get better, to grow up.

Groeningen and Luke Davies’ adaptation doesn’t equivalate that operatic feat; instead, they struggle to excavate enough of the characters to make the moments of release, of vulnerability, convey the concealed poignancy cached in these individuals. This complication in the trenching of melancholy fabricates a kind of flimsy detachment in Groeningen’s approach; failing to achieve that kind of amalgamation of surging emotion it intends to emit. As the meat of the plot is nestled within that of David (Steve Carell), the father, and his efforts to pull his son away from the brink, over and over again, reaching and tugging back his son by the neck of his collar and continuously self-debating whether he’s doing the right thing or enabling the act. It’s an authentic familial tragedy, one that should resonate with viewers who’ve been around this odyssey for self-implosion. As not only does the film unearth the tectonic shift occurring in this family, but it also spotlights that kamikaze mentality that can be enshrined by someone like Nic (Timothee Chalamet).

The dilemma arises in how these two men struggle to maintain an open-through line of dialogue, how their moments of reveal feel short-changed. Some of the blame can be placed on the non-linear approach in the script, how the film cuts back and forth between those moments of childhood, a boy sparkling and radiating with charisma, and a father lost in that shine of pride. While elevating the emotion in various depots of the screenplay, the overall effect from this narrative choice strips away the potential power of the triumphs and tragedies that occur throughout. They take us out of the moment, reminding us of the inner turmoil boiling in the character while simultaneously hindering the emotional crescendo at hand. In the same vein, the precise moments of craftsmanship picked to assist in those climaxes of emotion are misused as well.

Far too often, the film relies on cringeful, on-the-nose music choices to underline a scene or to further express the feeling manifested from the characters. Like that of the decisions made in-production, these musical distractors inhibit that emotional train from rolling to its destination; Instead forcing it to stop, refuel, and remeasure the distance it needs to travel. Teetering between that of what’s at the heart of this material and the aloof themes hanging overhead, “Beautiful Boy” loses it's steam on more than one occasion while in the midst of two exceptional performances that are so good, you long to see them merely be given a stage to act upon without interruption, as Carell and Chalamet apply pressure to this open-wound of a story.

In his first major role since his breakout performance in “Call Me by Your Name,” Chalamet depicts a college-bound 18-year-old kid with a promising future. He’s young, beautiful, and tormented. So far ahead of most of his contemporary colleagues, Chalamet thrives and writhes in this arduous role. He’s suave and poetically raging through the highs and lows of a life that is hacked upon the screen, but those few moments where he’s allowed to breathe, to take center stage and speak his mind are some of the film’s best. He’s a talent like none other, one of the best of his generation thus far as he captivates us once again in this elegantly provocative depiction.

As his opposite, Carell undergoes a similar roller coaster of mental exertions. “Beautiful Boy” stems mostly from his perspective, the point of view of a father failing to save his son and blaming himself for doing so, as Nic comes off like that of an enigma through most of the runtime. Bursting out of the story with poignant ferocity and then blending back into the fold with subtlety; meanwhile, Carell is someone lost in the fog of all of this. Fondling his optimism like that of a keychain, hoping to find that one right way to remain level-headed and strong for a son who seems to be unrepairable. One of the best examples of this is when David, as a professional journalist, attempts to resonate with his son by putting his skills to work in trying to comprehend the allure and the damages of this drug. Straightening out this poignant tangle and giving it some much-needed momentum, Carell’s performance becomes like that of the compass we needed the whole time; pointing us back towards the correct destination. It's a methodical and measured performance that makes those rare moments where he erupts feel that much more effective.

But, “Beautiful Boy” is an impoverished home for these actors to reside. The will-power shown from them is admirable, attempting to grasp the reigns of an emotional roller-coaster that fell off the tracks in the writer's room. It begs the question if someone like Felix Van Groeningen was right for the job, perhaps someone with a more apprehensive and delicate method like Luca Guadagnino would have been a better fit. Working with Chalamet before, there might have been some tangible familiarity that could mirror itself on-screen, something that would allow the camera not to feel so intrusive to our story.

However, Groeningen was the man elected to mold this story into a palatable and relatable tale of a father’s shortcomings and a son’s spiral into addiction. He’s loud, bombastically carving away a canvas for this story to reside upon. Acting like that of a carpenter, drilling and hacking away at the wood in front of him, Groenigen might have benefited from a more understated approach. Knowing when to push deeper and when to step back and allow his actors to do the work, instead he handcuffs them and keeps them from stepping out in front and leading the way. Muting the emotional impact that could be produced from two of the year’s best, but, inevitably, wasted performances.

The Night Comes for Us (2018)

   Director: Timo Tjahjanto With: Joe Taslim, Iko Uwais, Julie Estelle, Sunny Pang, Zack Lee, Hannah Al Rashid, Abimana Aryasatya, & Asha Kenyeri Bermudez. Release: Oct 19, 2018 NR. 2 hr. 1 min.

Director: Timo Tjahjanto
With: Joe Taslim, Iko Uwais, Julie Estelle, Sunny Pang, Zack Lee, Hannah Al Rashid, Abimana Aryasatya, & Asha Kenyeri Bermudez.
Release: Oct 19, 2018
NR. 2 hr. 1 min.

3.5_4 stars.png
 

There is a certain kind of exhilaration to be had with a talent’s cinematic redemption, a case in which we’ve seen someone of high regard be dragged through the mud just to turn around and rectify their name. Timo Tjahjanto’s “The Night Comes for Us” does just that for Iko Uwais who’s Hollywood washing from “Mile 22” contributes to his atonement in this bracing action feature that is brought down by a thin script that nearly extinguishes the spark ignited by some brutal, yet elegantly crafted sequences of mayhem.

With all the craze for “John Wick” and “Mission: Impossible” of recent years stirring up that thirst for smooth and hand-crafted action sequences of yesteryear, the craving for the magic of the past is echoed in the foreign-field of beat em’ up filmography. Timo Tjahjanto mirrors the brilliance of films like “The Raid” and “Uwais,” but his work with the pen has yet to match his visual ferocity. As “The Night Comes for Us” is a better-suited tale than most, but it's surface level at best.

Centering around the Indonesian Triad and their elite squad of enforcers known as “The Six Seas,” Tjahjanto crafts an energetic exercise in craft over wealth in which he is molding an innately delightful concoction of cartoonish carnage. The film embroils the former “Raid” stars Joe Taslim as Ito and Iko Uwais as Arian as the former brothers become embarked upon a warpath. Ito is a former “Six Seas” assassin, imposing wastelands of death by his own hand, wiping away countless villages for merely attempting to steal a small piece of the Triad’s large pie. After wiping out everyone in a coastal village, Ito finds himself elected to murder the final remnant of a massacre, an 11-year old girl. This young, now orphaned, girl named Reina (Asha Kenyeri Bermudez) finds herself granted passage by the haunted warrior as his morality finally washes away his rage, a man redeeming himself through action. This witness to a mass-murder and inside man turned foe produces a must-kill scenario for the crime bosses as a bounty is placed on his and her head. Attracting Manga-like characters who wield unique weaponry that make for some enticingly organic set-pieces of perforating chaos.

It’s a knockout, targeting the action-junkies who are merely looking for a hit or a temporary high. In that way, “The Night Comes for Us” works like a charm, neglecting the emotional tug for the all-go mentality of a human-car wreck. The corpse-strewn collision between a younger brother looking to brand himself onto the arm of the world and his older brother seeking restitution provokes enough care for a showdown. And the feminine ferocity exhibited in one of the final battles between that of lesbian assassins Elena (Hannah Al Rashid) and Alma (Dian Sastrowardoyo) and a mysterious heroine badass simply credited as “Operator” (Julie Estelle).

This couple doesn’t simply stab and twist their blades, they run their knife up and down the body. Separating tendons and muscles as entrails seep out onto the blood-soaked floors, as these are the sequences in which I grew squirmy from these female embodied symbols of social justice, these were the moments where my mouth drew agape in awe. The welcomed discovery (for me) of Julie Estelle who reprises herself in such an action thrill-ride, lends a hand to this madamized era of heroines who derive from the “Lady Snowbloods” of yesteryear. These sequences of female carnage are breathtaking, reminding us as to what we are sometimes missing from this golden age of media, those rare gems of feminine badassery on the big screen.

Though these final showdowns are pulsating, an unequivocal frontal assault of anarchy, the lack of care or grasp of the mechanics behind the engine lends to a story that only works as well as it's vignette. Cinematographer Gunnar Nimpuno uses widescreen framing to splendid effect, utilizing these open spaces and tight environments to their total expense, and the duo of Fajar Yuskemal and Aria Prayogi round out the technical package with a jittery, synthesized score that employs throat singing to strong effect. That alongside Tjahjanto’s immaculate construed hardcore mentality of human wreckage makes for a visually astonishing work.

That said, this story is lacking. It’s mechanical almost, carrying itself as a necessary tool to underlie the havoc of humanity we witness. It's amplifying transparent emotions of pride, regret, and a sinful man mutating towards that of a saint; all of which we’ve seen before in films that didn’t amplify as much as they harmonized the poignancy of humanity with their harsh, animalistic tendencies that we can embody.

It’s a narrowly-produced narrative that evokes a “Lone Wolf and Cub” aura, the ever-encompassing tale of a warrior seeking forgiveness seemingly continues to carry a primitive resonation that most stories seem vapid of; but, “The Night Comes for Us” lives and dies by a double edge sword. Thriving by that of the gore and the berserk nature of the action scenery that leads to a feat of exhaustion that runs its course after the 90-minute mark, “The Night Comes for Us” struggles to maintain it's cruelty and it's polished violence for its elongated two-hour runtime.

It's a ludicrously violent and gore-soaked film with little method to its madness. It's insanity, most of which loses its bite because of its thin recipe; but, the craftsmanship invoked from such a feat of genre charms will render almost any and every action-junkie to eat up the screen like that of a sugar addicted monster discovering a Hershey's factory. The set pieces may blend together from that of its butcher shop improvisational works to a grandiose showdown of little poignant effect; it would be adequate to dub the film as a mindless orgy of violence, but sometimes the techniques used in said orgy can provide just enough of a lending hand to be far more exciting than anticipated. Yes, that is a crude and naughty way to say that "The Night Comes for Us" is a splatter-action film ripened with delight, despite being destined for something greater perhaps.

Mid90s (2018)

   Director: Jonah Hill With: Sunny Suljic, Lucas Hedges, Na-kel Smith, Gio Galicia, Ryder McLaughlin, Alexa Demie, Katherine Waterston, & Olan Prenatt. Release: Sep 9, 2018 R. 1 hr. 24 min.

Director: Jonah Hill
With: Sunny Suljic, Lucas Hedges, Na-kel Smith, Gio Galicia, Ryder McLaughlin, Alexa Demie, Katherine Waterston, & Olan Prenatt.
Release: Sep 9, 2018
R. 1 hr. 24 min.

 

Jonah Hill’s first directorial feature “Mid90s” is a renaissance film in its purest form. One still shot inside the rooms of 13-year-old and 17-year-old Los Angeles natives Stevie (Sunny Suljic) and his older abusive brother Ian (Lucas Hedges) will inform you as to when this story takes place. The emphatically spotlighted posters of Wu-Tang Clan, the immaculate Air Jordans in the closet, and the Nintendo 64 being used is plenty enough exterior evidence to inform you as to what decade the film’s plot occurs. The debris of this era is scattered throughout Hill’s 4:3 frame, fanning out any and every remnant of the time; manifesting an archeological dig into the times before the internet, before the popularity of diversity, before the evolvement of culture.

It’s sacred, guarded almost, especially with that of Ian who protects his room ferociously. He commands Stevie to stay out in one of the opening scenes, who, of course, ignores that direct order and intrudes Ian’s personal space. He examines and investigates the room like that of a crypt, carefully deciding what items he can touch and which ones should remain dormant. When we learn that he trespassed to conjure up some kind of gift for his older brother’s 17th birthday, our hearts ache as Stevie is just a young lad looking for someone to care for him.

He takes brutal bumps throughout the film, emotionally and physically. Breaking bones, spilling blood, and exchanging primordial screams of buried rage; Stevie is a kid with hair bigger than his head and a shy gaze of innocence. When he becomes star-struck by the so-called “cool kids” at his local skate shop, he’s awkward and fidgety around them. Unsure of what the right thing to say is, or better yet, what’s the cool thing to say is. He’s never interacted with someone who doesn’t ask something of him or demands something from him. His mother (Katherine Waterston) is a work-obsessed, casual hook-up, kind of gal; allowing strangers of men to intrude upon her family without warning.

It’s one of the reasons given to explain the diffusion between brotherhood, but it's one of the many fragments worth a closer-look that Hill chooses to neglect. Hill’s job here, seems to be entirely centered around rebirthing the time, the era, the essence of “Mid90s” aura. In that frame, he excels. Stevie interacts with this illustrious group of rebellious teenagers in a vein that echoes the decade of masquerading. They spit off terms like “faggot” and “like” with the same kind of repetitious and casual behavior.

The leader of the group, Rey (Na-kel Smith) is the literal embodiment of the “cool kid.” He’s suave, athletic, and by far the best skater of the group; he also just-so-happens to be the more level-headed/mature member who is looking for a way out of the ghetto. He has dreams of “going pro” and skating for his life to do so, but he’s not alone in this endeavor. His best friend, nicknamed Fuckshit (Olan Prenatt) because he prefaces every comment with a droning “Fuuuck. Shit.”, is someone who denies that whole “growing up” thing, believes it to be a cliche of life. To settle down, to aspire to be better is something of a commonplace to him. So obviously painted by his fear, he and Fourth Grade (Ryder McLaughlin), nicknamed because that’s about the level of his intelligence, record and cheer on Rey in hopes that his dreams will come true. Ruben (Gio Galicia), the closest to Stevie in age, is so desperately terrified of being perceived as gay. Manipulating the connotation of “thank you” as a signifier of homo, something the cool “Rey” has to set right for Stevie later on.

The unquestioned fatal design of the social interpretation of “Manhood” is something of a pivotal role in their relationships; how sex becomes a test of coolness, or how the scrapes and bruises that Stevie gains from trying to prove his worth are signifiers of toughness. Something that Hill skims over along with many other emotionally gripping subjects, like that of the conscious rebuttal of homosexuality amongst the generation, how these kids so casually refute that difference of sexuality based off of misread or misguided philosophies taught to them by those who surround them.

The film is almost absent of adults, which would spark some idea that the coming-of-age aspects of the film would somehow elaborate upon the false cultural pretenses of the time. But, much like the decade in question, “Mid90s” attempts to oversee the scratches so effortlessly heard on the record being played. Rather analyzing the relationships of these boys, how growing up can complicate things, especially when some of them are maturing faster than others. But, the abusive household and the internal strifes that oppose Stevie are rendered through haphazard efforts, as if he can merely skate away from his troubles. While poetically apt for such a film, the struggles produced and studied by Hill need more time, more attention, more air to breathe before moving onto the next problem in question.

Sometimes, what has been left out of the story is just as necessary as what’s been left in, and Hill, as a young filmmaker, needs to understand the difficulty of that high wire act. Though not his first writing gig, with credits of “21 & 22 Jump Street” and “Sausage Party” underneath his belt, Hill is inexperienced in character study, in examining pain and strife. Here, he leaves out explanations for Ian’s rage, his psychological breakdown that we glimpse at after he beats Stevie down is never examined or brought up again. Hedges, who is proving to be a versatile and talented actor with each new picture, is never given his moment of pay off, a scene where he allows us a peek under the hood.

Most of the actors must feel this way, most of whom have no prior film or television experience. They are, quite literally, fresh new faces who work some magic with what they have. Though not near as enduring or moving as what could’ve been, the scene in which Na-kel Smith and Sunny Sujic talk things out fabricates a feeling of vulnerability. One of the rare moments in “Mid90s” where we can see what’s behind the characters, what’s haunting them, and how they deal with such a dilemma. And while Hill’s impromptu nature is on display, concocting a sense of familiarity and life-long friendship amongst the young ensemble, nobody gives a performance worth noting. Not because a lack of effort or care, but because of the lack of material to work off of; feeling handcuffed by design, the actors are boxed in and caged by the limits injected into a screenplay begging for more heart than skating.

There are a couple of moments of pure beauty to be found, the elongated rhythmic sequences of skating down highways, mirroring that of the Hulu documentary “Minding the Gap.” A doc that looks behind the skating, the feeling that transforms skating from a mere activity to an escape from life, into a figment of a reality that frees the young spirit from its prison. Hill should’ve done the same here, as it is hard to characterize the film as a “Coming-of-age” kind of movie when no one is actually coming towards something. The no-nonsense, low-def look is amplified by a tremendous score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, with a soundtrack populated by hits from the vibrant time of the Mid-90s.

And though these exercise in nostalgia invoke care, excitement, and familial edge to such a film, “Mid90s” is spending far too much time looking over its shoulder than down at its own feet. Hill is gentle, light, and almost aloof in this project; rarely clearing through the brush and molding the rough edges of a film that feels far more like a first draft than the “straight-outta-the-gate masterpiece” we were advertised. As one of my favorite trailers of the year, I walked in wanting to love this movie; it’s always a hard thing to walk out burying that boyish wonder you walked into the theater with. Luckily, Hill has enough here for us to care about, he just needed to drill deeper to spring the oil-rich, goldmine lurking underneath.

Daredevil: Season 3 (2018)

   Creator: Drew Goddard Show Runner: Erik Oleson Credits: Executive Producers: Jim Chory, Alan Fine, Drew Goddard, Stan Lee, Jeph Loeb, Joe Quesada, & Dan Buckley. With: Charlie Cox, Deborah Ann Woll, Elden Henson, Vincent D'Onofrio, Wilson Bethel, Jay Ali, Geoffrey Cantor, Stephen Rider, Peter McRobbie, & Joanne Whalley. Release: Oct 19, 2018 TV-MA. 13 Episodes. 55 min.

Creator: Drew Goddard
Show Runner: Erik Oleson
Credits: Executive Producers: Jim Chory, Alan Fine, Drew Goddard, Stan Lee, Jeph Loeb, Joe Quesada, & Dan Buckley.
With: Charlie Cox, Deborah Ann Woll, Elden Henson, Vincent D'Onofrio, Wilson Bethel, Jay Ali, Geoffrey Cantor, Stephen Rider, Peter McRobbie, & Joanne Whalley.
Release: Oct 19, 2018
TV-MA. 13 Episodes. 55 min.

 

“Daredevil” is a man without fear, it's fitting that the show-runners and writers behind Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox) create in the same vein, without fear. Each season has been an exercise in the limits of a canvas such as Television, though much smaller scale than fantasy dramas like “Game of Thrones” and not near as clever as a show like “Black Mirror,” “Daredevil” is a show that knows how to roll with the punches. The first season was a balance between character/story and action, the set pieces feeling grand and physical while matching that ferocity with character study and worldbuilding. The second season was a tsunami of action, revitalizing the show as a must watch for fans of works such as “The Raid” and “John Wick,” and the story slacked but inevitably paralleled the chaotic brilliance of the second season’s inception.

The third season leans into the characters, allowing for monologues and grandiose speeches to take place between physical force, and criminal mastermind Wilson Fisk (Vincent D’Onofrio) and that of the devil of hell’s kitchen that clings to his shattered morality, Matt Murdock. The show hinges on these two characters embattling in a war of the minds. Matt is broken, physically and emotionally, from the events of Midland Circle in “The Defenders.” His fighting spirit diminished, his bones cracked and broken, and banks of blood settle inside of his skull. He’s in a bad way, a hero who is broken beyond measure, one who struggles to grasp a reason for heroism; more importantly, a reason for maintaining the skin of Matt Murdock.

Questioning if he should allow the Devil to consume him, to swallow him whole, to let the devil in, as the poster advertises. It’s nothing new to see the hero questioning his existence, examining his role as a villain, as if he’s been blinded by his superficial sacrifices to the desolation surrounding him, perhaps caused by him. It should come to no surprise that the villain reflects Daredevil’s angst, his pain, his bloodshed; after all, the idea of a villain mirroring the hero in some figment as a dark reflection is nothing new. Frank Miller did it decades ago, along with other literary artisans. So, when Bullseye (here called Benjamin “Dex” Poindexter played by Wilson Bethel) embarks in a similar struggle of maintaining his humanity, we notice the familiarity.

He’s a character centered around someone tussling with mental illness, an illness the destroys his kind heart, or better yet replaces it in a way that he needs a north star to point him towards the right directions. It’s apparent that showrunner Erik Oleson and company put a great deal of thought into crafting a character, walking the tightrope between gimmicky and authentic. Bethel’s empathetic performance is crafted through screams a buried rage, rage that explodes with spurts and yells of emotion. The camera is jagged and spinning out-of-control, literally. All of this can be seen in a bad light, and in others, it works wonders; but in the end, one of the great Daredevil foes has made an undeniably noticeable entrance into a show begging for another good villain to replace one of the Netflix MCU’s best to date, Wilson Fisk.

Here, Fisk is enacting the familiar trait of punishment, targeting those who the hero loves, breaking what’s left of his spirit. The writing behind such a villain is some of the show’s best yet, fabricating an essence, a spirit-like trait to him that makes him feel larger than life, above the law even. D’Onofrio doesn’t shy away from such a challenge, enacting power into his voice, allowing for the small blemishes of a slow-burning first half feel pardonable by the sheer masterwork exhibited by the presence of such actors. The realism threaded into the characters assists in such an endeavor, allowing the season to feel like that of roller coaster chugging up to its high point before it barrels down into a frenzy of mayhem. Which is how the show ends in a way, but the cut and dry precision attached to it is a bit off-putting.

The emotional stakes invoked, the pain examined, and the sheer amount of blood spilled across our screen makes it all feel unworthy it for a final battle that ends with a whimper. A story threaded across the second half is a question of “what limits does the law have? And is it just for us to test such limits?” Fisk becomes an unbreakable, immovable, and seemingly unstoppable. His fingers in every pocket, his reach as vast as New York City itself, and his thumb pressing down on the shoulders of everyone daring to stand up against him. The continuing questioning from returning characters Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll) and Foggy Nelson (Elden Henson) becomes agitating at a point, feeling ignorant and forced as they continue to ponder the necessity of Matt’s double life.

With an unstoppable force like Wilson Fisk, you think they would begin to grasp the roots of such ferocity, such rage, such intention to harm. Although I can resonate with their unwilling to desire to preserve Matt’s principles, at some point they have to recognize a necessity for such actions, a physical enactment of resolve. It’s selfish of them to see to imprison him merely because he means more to them than most, unable to see the necessity for sacrificing for the greater good of everyone else. It's another common fate that confronts old and new characters alike, but when it's an enduring stigma attached to the characters we’ve come to know and love, those who follow our hero into the depths of hell. It becomes aggravating that the message hasn’t become evidential to them, but, as comic books have exemplified, there is a certain kind of beauty in repetition, in consistency, in the unyielding determination of a group of characters.

That occurs with Karen and Foggy though it runs the risk of enraging me more than imploring me to sympathize, and by the end of the season there is a scene in which the characters begin to speak plainly, to breath out their stresses and cracks of humanity in a moment that is cheerful, one of the few in the season. This final moment feels like a scene of acceptance between the characters, realizing their roles in the world, their purpose to one another. So, in some ways, my frustrations are resolved, in others they’re amplified.

The appeal for fight scenes is met with a gem of a scene in the middle of the season. A lot of the punches and kicks feel thrown, both because the scenes feel rehashed and the choreography loses that visceral touch we’ve become accustomed too. Nonetheless, when Dex becomes who he becomes, the show leaps in intensity, in stakes, in its viciousness as the pieces on the chessboard begin to face off. Cox anchors the show with a performance that is suave, empathetic, tested, and exalted. All of this is to say, that by the end of the season I had one hell of a time, but there was a lot of wrinkles in the story to be found.

Murdock is drowning in his grief, his self-hatred, his guilt; but, this darkness infects and becomes undeniably toxic to even those who care for him. Reflecting the darkness that he embodies, mirroring his true identity. It’s a story that I bought into hook, line, and sinker, and one that I wish felt far more paid off than it was. The focus here is on the people who live in this story, their actions and the resulting consequences, and the messy, frustrating walking and talking contradictions that they can become.

There’s darkness in everyone, a reoccurring theme that “Daredevil” continues to insinuate. That darkness, that evil that we all inhabit, never is brought to light as much as it needs to be for a character that feels fractured by his internal conflict. There’s a lot to like about “Daredevil” in its third seasonal outing, but those small bumps and disappointments in the storytelling manifest an overlooking cloud of lackluster fulfillment. I can’t help but connect with a distorted and fragmented character who is merely trying to do the right thing, but the scars and pain endured to fabricate a hero’s resolve feel far more accessible than it should. An arch lacking that moment of consequence, of resentment, of backlash is never floundered as much as we were promised.

I love this character, this world, this comic book vignette brought to life. I am most likely over rewarding the aspects that I enjoyed, but the mistakes, the shortcomings to be had, are hard to miss for me. Sure, I admire the action, the elongated set-pieces and swift elegance of violence that we’ve come to love from such a show. D'Onofrio is powerful methodic, and Cox is genuinely sunbathing in the internal conflict being prescribed to his character, but he feels like an actor looking for a payoff, for that moment where he snaps and knocks on the door of sin. We get a sense of this, a whiff of it's potential, but never does it stand out and shout out “Will he do it?” I never bought into that premise, which if you can’t accomplish such a feat in thirteen episodes of uninterrupted storytelling, then you might need to head back to the drawing board. “Daredevil” doesn’t exactly let the devil in, as much as he allows it to merely peak through the crack of the door.

The Sisters Brothers (2018)

   Director: Jacques Audiard With: Joaquin Phoenix, John C. Reilly, Jake Gyllenhaal, & Riz Ahmed. Release: Sep 2, 2018 R. 2 hr. 1 min.

Director: Jacques Audiard
With: Joaquin Phoenix, John C. Reilly, Jake Gyllenhaal, & Riz Ahmed.
Release: Sep 2, 2018
R. 2 hr. 1 min.

 

“The Sister Brothers” is frontier road-trip that is continually reinventing itself, improvising at every twist and turn, from graphic body humor to witty, and ultimately moving brotherhood. It’s a film that evolves from its Wicked-style affairs to an action-filled and bloody shootout of wit and guts. It is absurdly revising the stereotypical shoot em’ up effects of a genre built upon gunfire and surface level emotions. Becoming both nostalgically familiar and inescapably nuanced, at least it's that way for the second half of its 120-minute runtime.

The backdrop is the Gold Rush, with that of Eli (John C. Riley) and Charlie (Joaquin Phoenix), the sister brothers, as our central pair to follow. They’ve been tasked with the job of tailing and killing and even torturing a chemist named Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed) who has discovered a way to allow gold to appear in water glaringly. One of their illustrious and intellectual partners, Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal) is tracking this man and soon discovers this trick. Perceiving it as a way out to escape the thumb of ‘the Commodore,’ a feared crime boss who enacts a policy of reaping what you sow, so when these men barrel out of their deals to him, they find themselves on the receiving end of a bounty.

It’s a tale that doesn’t begin to grow on you until the latter half when we actually start to peel away the skin of these characters. Grasping the roots behind them, in what turns into a somewhat emotionally conflicting tale. The first half is quite the opposite, a lot of it is shrouded with meaningless set-up and road-trip backgrounds. The film builds itself as a traveling journey between these brothers, they bicker and argue and interact with nature in formidable fashions. They’re no slouches when it comes to surviving. The film opens with the fireworks of a shootout. The sparks of gunfire lighting the midnight sky.

We soon learn they’re a pair of cold-blooded hit-men, without much thought of the consequences of their actions, or the bodies that pile up behind them. They are cowboys in the truest sense of the word, antiquated and shortsighted. The film becomes that of a battle of brothers in a way, the older one looking for a way out for his brother, the other to covered in the muck of bloodshed to see anything ahead.

Charlie is the younger brother, one with a darker past than expected, a history that isn’t brought to fruition until the latter half of the film where it begins to pick up. Nonetheless, he’s a natural born killer in a way, one who is unable to escape his sinful past and actions that have caused so many bodies to pile up along the way. His older brother, Eli, is more soulful and gentle-natured.

Joaquin Phoenix is exceptional in this role, as is John C. Reily. Both of whom fabricate some surreal chemistry that mounts to a duo of performances that is some of the year’s best. Their pair of dancing partners in Jake Gyllenhaal and Riz Ahmed are fantastic as well, reuniting from their time on “Nightcrawler.”

These two pairs become paralleling stories. Two men are feeling as if they’ve known each other for longer than they actually have, forging a path for themselves that is struck with gold. The other, a pair of brothers who have, literally, known each other for the entirety of their lives, attempting to discover a way out of their experiences of mayhem.

The biggest problem with this entire period-piece of familial ties though is that the first half amounts to nothing more than a rehashing of a dialogue-heavy plot without meaning. It’s meandering, wallowing, and rambling to its ultimate point of story; it never begins to ignite itself, to allow it's the meat of the story to take hold of the screen until the inevitable finale. Perhaps it's the transitioning from the slow-burn, humanistic character studies to one of American cinema’s most infamous genres, the western, that French director Jacques Audiard struggled with; unable to capture the crux of the story being told until the bitter-sweet end.

The film is painted beautifully though, Audiard captures the old-west with vignette brilliancy and a level of rawness to its landscape as well, but that same level of tactile, of tangibility is lost upon the story for so long that you begin to feel as if your wandering in circles. When the bitter-sweet duality and the guilt-ridden relationship of brother take hold, both the performances and the story follow the grand, scope of the cinematic language laid forth.

“The Sister Brothers” is a movie without bite for most of its runtime, but when it does eventually begin to reach out and grab you and force your attention; “The Sister Brothers” becomes a quite moving film for both brothers and non-sibling audience members alike, but that long wait for relation makes it feel hollow and empty. Like the old west, it took quite a while for the Cowboys to discover their morality; when they did though, it was a beautiful thing to see.

The Old Man & the Gun (2018)

   Director: David Lowery With: Robert Redford, Sissy Spacek, Casey Affleck, Danny Glover, Tom Waits, Tika Sumpter, & John David Washington. Release: Sep 28, 2018 PG-13. 1 hr. 33 min.

Director: David Lowery
With: Robert Redford, Sissy Spacek, Casey Affleck, Danny Glover, Tom Waits, Tika Sumpter, & John David Washington.
Release: Sep 28, 2018
PG-13. 1 hr. 33 min.

 

David Lowrey’s “The Old Man & the Gun” is a film meant for those of yesteryear. Yes, all films have a targeted demographic, but “Old Man & the Gun” amount's itself in the vein of an amalgamation of a man’s career as the cunning and suave commander of cinema. And though it's not a film as inclusive and broad-stroked as Lowrey’s previous outings, “The Old Man & the Gun” keeps Lowrey’s streak intact as a worthy but dwindling follow-up to the astonishing masterwork of “A Ghost Story.” As Lowrey, a relatively new name in the spectrum of directors, is a filmmaker of consistency. Setting one accomplished peak of work after another, surprising with his range of interests and audience-targeted intentions. In his newest work, he’s crafted a love letter to cinema’s past; one that relies too heavily on inside-baseball for us young folk to resonate with.

“The Old Man & the Gun” is a final film for someone who long ago surpassed mere actor status and became a name of iconic status, Robert Redford is that legendary figure. Making clear that “The Old Man & the Gun” is his final film, Redford flashes his charming smile, endearing us one last time with his twinkle-starred eyes. Redford leans into this adieu and farewell performance with a naturality, a sense of someone who’s grown tired of trying to keep on keeping on. He’s manifested a manifesto of sorts, one that is both ironically mirroring of the actor’s long-lasting career, as well as the finality of the bow he takes by the end of this exceptional performance.

Here, he plays long-time criminal and heist-manager Forrest Tucker, a lifelong rule-breaker whose been incarcerated 18 times, starting as early as 15 years old, and escaped a presumed record breaking 16 times. We meet him near the end of his illustrious career, a 74-year old man who has lived a life of adventure and unpredictability. Never settling for the family life or the stay at home and reap what you sow kind of livin’. No, instead, he and his two buddies who will be known as the “Over the Hill Gang” (Danny Glover & Tom Waits) rob banks with a casualty and veteran-like expertise that never ends with calamity or violence, but instead formulates an surprising amount of endearment and respect for a thief that just stole from you. Forrest tells us one story after another, and Lowrey maintains the charm needed for us to sympathize with such a man. Making it out to be a character who stepped out of a John Huston film, a soft-hearted brute with an affinity for a crime.

The final days of the gang are spent challenging and accepting; how you can both still believe yourself to be young enough to embark upon nuanced journeys, but your age has a funny way of reminding you of your limits. In this vein, Forrest meets and flirts with the ever-so-talented Sissy Spacek depicting the innocent farm-girl caught up in someone else’s tricks and charm, Jewel. They first meet after Forrest robs a bank and, in an attempt to camouflage himself, he pulls over and pretends to assist her with some car troubles, despite knowing next to nothing about automobiles. He’s a quite peculiar man to her, never knowing if he’s who he says he is, or if he’s pretending to be someone else; a duality of identity that I think Redford even struggles to grasp a hold of himself.

His character seems to be someone stuck between a rock and a hard place; perplexed by whether it's time to hang up the runaway shoes and stay still for a time. He’s a character on the run from stability, on the run from the status-quo. Something John Hunt (Casey Affleck), the detective trying to catch him, sympathizes with. In this old-fashioned cop and robber lifestyle, an essence of respect is crafted between the hunter and hunted in these brief interactions between Redford and Hunt, a mouse toying with the cat who chases him. These moments of the film are where “The Old Man & the Gun” loses me though, the frames in which Lowrey seems to struggle with which talking-point should receive the spotlight. Is this a film about a man’s career? Or, is it about Cinema’s past? Or both?

This was a particular struggle I had, attempting to brush aside the suaveness and the piercingly sparkling charisma in hopes to discover a meaning to the story. Something I feel Lowrey never quite establishes as firmly as he has in the past, and in all fairness, he’s juggling a fair amount of excess fat. The cinematic language invoked period-piece heavy tone, fabricating a grained, distorted view that mirrors the old-fashioned-ness of such a work. Which then divulges into a film echoing the accomplishments of a man’s career, a story of reminiscence, and a tale of looking forward while peaking over your shoulder to make sure you're going the right way.

A lot is happening in such a film, so much so that Lowrey never actually decides which moment is worth far more discussion than the other; as if he can’t choose whether to retrace his footsteps or follow the path ahead. “The Old Man & the Gun” is a work of yesterday in that way, never precisely looking forward as much as it does behind. Redford wills himself into the nooks and crannies of a performance that demands attention though, and Lowrey isn’t precisely playing armchair therapist here. Lowrey cultivates a film that feels like it was crafted in a different era, enhancingly magical and timeless.

But there’s too much of someone else’s view in his work, feeling mimicked and copied and pasted far more than handmade or homemade. After all, this is a story about a legend riding off into the sunset, and in that vein “The Old Man & the Gun” gallops with ease. The aesthetical presence, while charming, lacks the vision of an original eye; and, in more ways than one, “The Old Man & the Gun” plays like a remake of the past, someone re-envisioning old cinema. The charming outlaw, the head-over-heels love interest; it all sounds like a film from an era of yesterday.

Sure, I love a work of Redford’s as much as the next; but shouldn’t we be looking to the horizon instead of the dusk? What’s coming next, not what’s already came before? Maybe it’s just me, but there’s too much commemorating in “The Old Man & the Gun” for me to see it as a new feat of cinema’s best, despite the array of talent involved. It’s a film living in the past, and sometimes that’s a good thing; for me, right now, we could use a bit more forward thinking.

The Hate U Give (2018)

   Director: George Tillman Jr. With: Amandla Stenberg, Regina Hall, Russell Hornsby, KJ Apa, Anthony Mackie, Sabrina Carpenter, Common, Issa Rae, Lamar Johnson, Dominique Fishback, & Algee Smith. Release: Oct 19, 2018 PG-13. 2 hr. 13 min.

Director: George Tillman Jr.
With: Amandla Stenberg, Regina Hall, Russell Hornsby, KJ Apa, Anthony Mackie, Sabrina Carpenter, Common, Issa Rae, Lamar Johnson, Dominique Fishback, & Algee Smith.
Release: Oct 19, 2018
PG-13. 2 hr. 13 min.

3.5_4 stars.png
 

“Always be aware of your blackness.” This is a home-lesson that I’ve heard black authors/creators invoke when asked to prevaricate their role in art as the voice of a black man/woman. I, myself, have applied this task, but it takes on a different connotation. I am a white man. And, hearing the voices of black creators, innovators who have inspired me to challenge myself; I decided to listen to a core value of theirs and apply it to my creed. Of course, it carries a contrasting intent. I remain aware of my skin color for its history of entitlement. My blood-tied lineage of victimization, of dogmatic terror, of falsehood liberty. I remind myself of where I came from, and how change is not a choice; it’s a necessity. In the same vein, I comprehend the fact that I am merely a helping hand in an on-going fight for equality. Let me explain.

George Tillman Jr’s “The Hate U Give,” adapted from Angie Thomas’ breakthrough debut novel, follows Starr Carter (Amandla Stenberg), a black teenager well-versed in color-coding. Splitting herself between her black community in Garden Heights and the prep school her parents send her and her sibling to in the glaringly white and wealthy Williamson community. When we first meet Starr, the tone is set that this film is not going to thread its message throughout Tillman Jr and Audrey Wells adaptation. We meet Maverick (Russell Hornsby), Starr’s father; a drug-dealer turned fluff father. Underneath that fluff though, lies a proud black father who instructs his children the rules that single-handedly apply to them in a traffic stop as a black individual. At the age of nine and eleven, they learn always to keep your hands on the dashboard, obey every command without hesitance, know your rights, but don’t argue; all the while knowing, that one decision could mean you are driving away with a ticket or not driving home at all.

The story then jumps forward, Starr is a vibrant 16-year old who plays on her school’s basketball team, smiles and fabricates a welcoming persona, and does everything she can to masquerade her blackness from those around her. She finds love though, in a goofy but earnest white classmate name Chris (K.J. Apa). But she feels out-of-place, and it’s not exactly like she fits into the jigsaw puzzle of Garden Heights. Struggling to cope with the out-of-character behavior she sees, unable to find her footing in either social circle. That all changes though, when Khalil (Algee Smith) sashays into the frame, his charm igniting the screen.

They’re childhood friends, recounting their days as the Wizarding-trio of Garden Heights as young fans of “Harry Potter.” In the midst of this catching up of memories, a fight breaks out, and a gun is fired, and the two drive off in Khalil’s car. On their way back to Starr’s home, Khalil pulls over to gaze upon Starr and connect with her sparkling, veiled beauty. She feels bright, shining throughout the film with an essence that is radiating. As they drive off from this stop and share moment, red and blue lights flash. A cop pulls them over for some unidentified reason, and Khalil gets defensive, and Starr tries to encourage him to listen, to restrain his emotions. Starr cleverly pulls out her phone to capture any looming injustice; the cop violently orders her to drop it. She scarefully obliges, panically jittering in her seat; Khalil tries to calm Starr's emotions; wavering that suave smile. He reaches for a brush to flirtatiously adjust his hair, an item the cop mistakes for a weapon and shoots without hesitance before voicing any commands or questions. Shots clang out of the barrel, killing Khalil. The office immediately handcuffs a visibly in-shock Starr, aggressively breaking down and emphatically asking “What did you do!?” The cop hastily commands her to point him in the direction of the gun, a gun that was never conjured by the unarmed, young, and now deceased black man.

The event is seismic for the community, spawning protests, a media frenzy, and righteous outrage. Starr is quivering with emotional bruising. Suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, Starr contemplates the right course to take, her internal social perplexities foaming to the surface as she begins to confront her identity head-on. Her classmates use the unjust shooting as a reason to skip class and protest for a cause the merely gets them out of a chem test. This exasperates Starr, infuriates her as she begins to break down those fabricated personas that she conjured to camouflage her blackness.

The film instructs itself from there, balancing itself between preachy and soft-spoken. It takes time to explain various inequalities and veiled barriers facing black Americans that white people choose to be blind to, the ghettoizing and trap-doored construction of black communities. In learning the ways of this needlessly complex system, Starr decides to voice Khalil’s life, to speak truth to power. Her outlook mirrors the kind of youth-led movements of contemporary America that have sprung from Black Lives Matter and #MeToo protests, but “The Hate U Give” should not be quantified by its mere voiceful interrogation of unchecked power.

“The Hate U Give” stands out because of it's inclusive rigmarole of black communities, racial differences, and police bias. During the evocative scenery of Starr and her white classmate's ditching class, we gain witness to that ever-so evidential idea that racism is not legitimized by violence and brutality, but by thought as well. How these kids see the cops life as the one under scrutiny, the one under attack. That common rebuttal of “All lives matter,” a protest to a protest that argues that history should remain in the past and life should go on and not be evolved or changed. It’s already perfect, right?

When I say that I’ve taken the lesson of another to become my own, this is how I frame it. Recognizing the lingering yarn of thought used to erase, to blemish injustice; to know that the majority of those arguments stem from voices of white men and white women. But, “The Hate U Give” also reminds us, white-folk, to know that the fight we support, the battle we walk beside is not our own. That our fight is not theirs, that our voice is not theirs, that our struggles are not theirs; “The Hate U Give” elegantly examines the difference of stakes in the conflict. How one of us can choose to hide our heart behind pale skin, while others can merely try to camouflage their skin color.

Similarly, the colors of the screen change in this switching between worlds imagery, shifting from the warm, familiar tones of Garden Heights to the washed out blue hues of Williamson. It's a simple trick, one that garners respect when handled with deft and character work that allows those visuals to amplify through resonance. Which is where this film strides, exemplifying the importance of crafting character out of story, how the two can be separated and one-in-the-same.

Stenberg, whose previous credits include other YA affairs like “Hunger Games,” carries this burdensome part with conviction; mutating from a blissful teenager to a traumatized kid to a child confronting maturity as a natural born leader. It’s a tour de force performance, that goes unsung for its power, for its heft. Her presence is thunderous, ear-splitting even. I admit, she’s not alone in her success. Regina Hall delivers a subdued but superb performance alongside a deft depiction from Russell Hornsby who professes blackness like the gospel; it's his gospel, his truth.

Which is what “The Hate U Give” achieves in conveying: someone else’s truth, and it’s our turn to listen. As in the midst of a finale mirroring the imagery of Ferguson, Baltimore, Oakland, Berkeley, Bloomington, and New York; for names like Brown, Scott, Gurley, Wilson, and Garner. In this final scene of protest, Starr exclaims “No matter what we say, how loud we shout; they still don’t listen.” In another scene earlier on, Starr’s white boyfriend, Chris (one of the few inclusive white characters in the film), softly admits to Starr that he sees her for who she is; gently stating “I See You.” As a white person in the audience, you have to ponder, what side to I reside upon internally. Do I see them, or do I tone down the volume when they speak?

Yes, “The Hate U Give” is not a perfect film. The directorial craftsmanship fails to equal that of the page, and the film can become dependent on a narrative that doesn’t stay as level-headed as it could; but it's simple, direct message is carried through a poignantly provocative toolbox. There were tears, gasps, laughs, and cheers from the crowd around me. Goosebumps riddled my arms during the shooting; I swallowed lumps in my throat during that scene and many others. And at the end, I am left with a moral equation for those surrounding me and mirroring my lighter shade, how to change their minds. In addition, I am left questioning if this ride was emotional for me, what was it like for those with a darker shade?

How do they perceive its roots, it's grasp of basic, elementary educating of race in America. I can only imagine, the effects a 16-year old girl of color wrenches from the screen. Similar to how I must infer the impact of a “Black Panther,” of a “Luke Cage,” of a “Blindspotting,” of a “BlackKklansman,” and so on. In some ways, these movies are for those who wish to, finally, grasp the sympathy to understand those opposite of them. In addition, it's for those who need to see themselves on-screen. To know they are not basked in shadow.

“The Hate U Give” evokes that call-to-action through a mainstream style that argues simple messages that somehow still fall on deaf ears in 2018, “The Hate U Give” commences this endeavor and embraces the duality of story and audience; a humane and hopeful work of American cinema, I just hope were paying attention.

Halloween (2018)

   Director: David Gordon Green With: Jamie Lee Curtis, Judy Greer, Andi Matichak, James Jude Courtney, Nick Castle, Haluk Bilginer, Will Patton, Rhian Rees, & Jefferson Hall Release: Oct 19, 2018 R. 1 hr. 46 min.

Director: David Gordon Green
With: Jamie Lee Curtis, Judy Greer, Andi Matichak, James Jude Courtney, Nick Castle, Haluk Bilginer, Will Patton, Rhian Rees, & Jefferson Hall
Release: Oct 19, 2018
R. 1 hr. 46 min.

 

John Carpenter’s "Halloween" is a holiday favorite of mine, though admittedly it's flawed and gets overshadowed by Carpenter’s dexterity as a filmmaker for me; the 1978 “Halloween” is must-see on Halloween night. It disappoints me to say, David Gordon Green (“Pineapple Express” & “Joe”), Danny McBride, and Jeff Fradley’s “Halloween” is one of the same. Carpenter’s film contained a certain atmospheric tension, it's iconic score certainly played some significant dividends in fabricating such a flavor, but Green and McBride’s film seemingly feels slacked and hindered. There is a tautness, a visceral rigidness to Carpenter’s version, that it's shocking to see some of the same tastes of genius be provoked 40 years later. Green and McBride are tinkering with some fascinating, in-depth themes that feel undercooked; which seems to be the biggest problem with the newest iteration of Carpenter’s timeless, tactile terror.

“Halloween,” like its predecessor, seemingly shares a clean theme: “Evil is not to be trifled with.” The first film was meant to analyze something of pure evil incarnate, Green’s version replicates the same but points out the danger of modern-day culture to lend a helping hand to everyone, despite those who merely want to chop that hand off. Those of us in favor of criminal reform, or stand against capital punishment have to recognize that some people cannot be helped; those few who are just too far gone.

Retconning every film that followed the 1978 original, “Halloween” opens with two freelancing, podcasting journalists who don’t seem to understand this notion. That there is something to be learned from such a hideous Shape. They visit the mental asylum that has imprisoned the infamous serial killer Michael Myers for 40 years, hoping to provoke him with a figment of his past that will finally force him to utter a word as he has remained indefinitely silent in his incarceration. There is a curiosity forged in these journalists, expecting to discover a lapse of judgment that explains Michael’s absence of morality.

Mike, inevitably, escapes and begins to hunt down those who done him wrong. Specifically, the woman who survived his first spree of terror forty years ago, Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis; who is magnificent here). Laurie has resided in her own kind of prison since that night; she has basically become a doomsday prepper, one whose anxiety for the Boogeyman's return is palpable and emotionally sporadic. Her home now resembles a fortress of solitude; she’s had two failed marriages and inadvertently has pushed away from the remainder of her family. Obsessively teaching her daughter how to defend herself, and unavoidably forcing them to become estranged from one another.

There’s a duality fabricated between Mike and Laurie, both of whom have become apart of each other’s vocation; as if they are the other’s bitter end. In that frame of mind, McBride and Green encompass a duplicity between producing homages and manifesting an original work. There are a handful of shots that echo the Shape’s horrific past, his lineage of terror. Those body counts fail to compare to this one, which is another area in which Green shines in his direction; producing this elongated sequence of shots in which we watch Michael gander into homes from an outside perspective. It is perhaps the most frightening aspects of the film in which we're watching a figure with no sense of morality enact horror. The way Michael attacks the dozens of bodies along the way to his showdown with Laurie is nightmarishly realistic. The gore is underplayed, purposefully allowing the imagery to remain vivid but agile. It’s a sequence of fright that is simple, but works like a charm because of the tone in which it occurs; how Michael nonchalantly stabs, and slices without hesitance, no sense of humanity behind each motion. He feels aloof, ambiguously supernatural.

Laurie is of the opposite thought, her character feels grounded and echoing of a woman battling through trauma. It’s painful to watch her struggles, her wrestlings to interact with her family, panicking and seizing up at the dinner table, imagining the shadow of Michael wandering towards her. It becomes a fable-like hero tale, like that of a female empowerment feature; which is where McBride and Green begin to lose the reigns. Though they are incorporating aesthetic references into a new vision and fabricating an exceptional story that is ripe for the picking, McBride and Green choose not to grab the forbidden fruit lying before them. It begins to echo that of the past, but the echo of the original is much louder; over shouting the fumbling brilliance of McBride and Green.

There is a level of excellence that is suppressed in “Halloween,” the duality painted between Michael and Laurie is inherently intriguing. How the victim and victimizer become subservient to the other, unable to escape the other’s shadow. Laurie has a tangible arch of a woman escaping trauma, which with that of the #MeToo movement becomes masterfully timely and inherently relatable; but, Green and McBride choose to push those tasteful ploys aside for a stereotypical revenge plot.

It’s precarious to see two talented craftsmen sink their teeth into something juicy and irrefutably poignant, and then not take a bite. It spawns a lackluster sense of payoff, shaping a malleable and endowing narrative that finalizes with a whimper. The feminine heroism is inescapably elevating to see, and I’m an easy sell for such a scene; but, this exorcizing of psychological anguish plays to little effect because of the neglection of the acute set-up. The pressure internalized for the finale feels jumbled, slipping through the fingers of its creators; falling to the wayside with the rest of the superb narrative toys isolated to misfit island.

“Halloween” is a yearly-ritual for us horror fanatics, whether you believe it to be a masterpiece or a flawed, but eerie ride; “Halloween” is a cult classic. I walked into Green’s version expecting something of a rehashing, and with the recent success of comedians turned horror filmmakers; I had a slight swell of hope the closer it got. And there is a lot to like about McBride and Green’s take on the Shape; the elegantly crafted sequences of insouciant bloodshed that make the camera feel vibrant and adept. The story sets-up many surprisingly provocative sub-plots that become squandered by a team of filmmakers that seems to be unable to grasp the moxie of the Halloween season.

Curtis is a standout, manifesting this raw vulnerability that acts as both a shield and a weapon, but her usefulness becomes washed down by a screenplay that is far more about the slashes than the scars left behind. There is a peek at the man behind the mask, a man whose absence of thought, of care, or the ability to sustain his humanity is inevitably masqueraded by McBride and Green. There is something special lying behind that pale, empty exterior; if only McBride and Green elected to unveil it.

The Kindergarten Teacher (2018)

   Director: Sara Colangelo With: Maggie Gyllenhaal, Parker Sevak, Anna Baryshnikov, Rosa Salazar, Michael Chernus, Sam Jules, Daisy Tahan, & Ajay Naidu. Release: Oct 12, 2018 R. 1 hr. 36 min.

Director: Sara Colangelo
With: Maggie Gyllenhaal, Parker Sevak, Anna Baryshnikov, Rosa Salazar, Michael Chernus, Sam Jules, Daisy Tahan, & Ajay Naidu.
Release: Oct 12, 2018
R. 1 hr. 36 min.

 

Intellectualism is quite a rather unique way to describe yourself as snobby, at least that’s what most people will tell you, not one of whom is Kindergarten teacher Lisa Spinelli (Maggie Gyllenhaal). In Sara Colangelo’s contemplative character study “The Kindergarten Teacher,” the 40-something educator is someone who aches for those to match her level of appreciation for art, for culture, for something beyond the status quo. She, herself, is not much of an artist though, she attends a weekly poetry class for adults seeking to continue their education; but, her material seems to be trying too hard to be good. She lacks those essential creative skills to convey her emotions, as that what art is in its nut and bolt from, an expressionistic method to convey or vehicularize emotion to someone else.

Sara Colangelo is right on the money in that examination, as her story centers around this teacher of youth discovering what seems to be a child prodigy, at least in her eyes. She is someone attempting to navigate through her mid-life crisis; her children are entering their later years of high school, her husband’s ambition for life seems to have run dry, and her spark for curiosity has seemingly caught fire. Living her mundane life in one of the more dull cities of New York boroughs, Staten Island, Lisa is a tired mom looking for something to ignite her soul, her thirst for life once again. If only she were more original with her poetry.

The American remake of Nadav Lapid’s 2014 film of the same name, “The Kindergarten Teacher” stars Maggie Gyllenhaal (one of the more vastly underrated stars of her generation) in the role of an internally divided Lisa. She conflicts with herself as to what her purpose in life has become, seemingly wandering from her home to her work and back again, all just to repeat it the next day. She coincides in that rat race of life, working the 9 to 5 way of embarking in life within contemporary American society. At times she seems to enjoy the stability and the normality of her life, cherishing the late night dinners with her husband, and checking in on her two academically successful children. Lisa seems to be torn between who she wants to be and who she’s become, entering that midpoint in her lifespan in which Lisa has begun to ponder what endeavors she will mount after receiving the looming freedom rewarded for successfully raising two, successful, smart and bright children.

Gyllenhaal captures her character’s outside-the-circle mindset with insurmountable depth, able to evoke emotions from the subtlest of details. Though her performance ranges between a cringy and uncomfortable portrait to that of a grown woman seemingly obsessed with a child, a child that does not belong to her. It’s purposeful, capturing that density in her character in which her desire for recognition, for flicker, for the feeling of being desired by another; it may be the key that turns the ignition of her obsession. Once again though, Lisa is no artist. So, she calmly blends in, dragging her feet through life. Even after she discovers this pint-sized kid-genius who seems to have an aged soul trapped in his small body, Lisa is lethargic, sluggish even; she reacts to the discovery of Jimmy’s (Parker Sevak) talents like that of a veiled alcoholic unearthing whiskey.

And though Jimmy is adorable, his poems seem lacking to me, as if Lisa is placing a reserved term like “Genius” upon Jimmy without due process. While his poems seem to capture things far past the intellectual grasp of stereotypical five-year-old, Jimmy seemingly simplifies intricacies through the eyes of a child which in its own way is fascinating, maybe not genius level worthy though. It's a term, like love and hate, that is thrown around with apathy and lukewarm tendency. Never perceiving the heft and weight of such a word, a so-called “intellectual” like Lisa seems to misinterpret the weight of the term.

Which in the same vein is where Colangelo stutters herself, struggling to grasp the weight of the character instead over-examining the societal reflections she embodies. Lisa is a problematic archetype to comprehend, she’s quiet, relying on us to identify her through visual storytelling. And Colangelo strides in tandem with her cinematographer Pepe Avila del Pino, crafting these steady, spacious, and long shots of Lisa. Capturing her disoriented graze, how she seemingly wanders through the story, seeming half-asleep almost. This is a brilliant performance and a reflective visual eye working together in sync.

But Colangelo chooses to prop up Lisa as someone who typifies the contention that some feel for a culture that seems dumbed down, and unresponsive to diversity or the bolstering of knowledge. She mirrors that of someone who looks down upon others who don’t seek satisfaction in education, it's flawed in providing relatability in character; struggling to comprehend the purpose in which she’s apart of this story. I found myself struggling to empathize or grasp the roots that were planted in producing the character, and while Gyllenhaal is remarkable in her performance; I can’t help but struggle to understand the purpose of the film’s narrative. In a way, it's probing the effects of the concentration put towards what are believed to be “child prodigies,” examining how parents or in this case, teachers, struggle to grasp a child’s endearment for the topic they may be naturally gifted at. Simultaneously, Colangelo is criticizing the world around Lisa, how we permit children to become absorbed by technology. Colangelo, like her character choice for study, is internally conflicted. She squirms and strifes in capturing the essence of her work, confusing her variety of topics at hand for intertwining subjects.

It’s a critical stigma that occurs in character studies as of late, in which the storyteller wrestles with how much to attribute to the character and what to place as background noise. In “The Kindergarten Teacher” there are themes I had a hard time watching fall into the background, like that of a mother feeling uncomfortable or out of place around her family, how that sort of dilemma internalizes and explodes. It falls to the background behind this woman turned obsessive talent pirate, in which she uses a child’s innate ability to ramble and mutter poetry to himself as her own. In some ways, Colangelo is digging into the essentials for someone of Jimmy’s talents; how we should approach them, mentor them, or how, we groom them for future success. But, if that’s the case shouldn’t we see the failures of a teacher, not an educator turned manic artist.

There are some fascinating ideas conjured in the midst of this one-woman self-destruction feature, and Gyllenhaal is as captivating as ever; but, the film throws too many of those ideas to the wayside, fabricating an experience that feels more indecisive than illuminating.

Halloween (1978)

   Director: John Carpenter With: Donald Pleasence, Jamie Lee Curtis, Tony Moran, Nancy Kyes, P.J. Soles, Charles Cyphers, Kyle Richards, & Brian Andrews. Release: Oct 27, 1978 R. 1 hr. 31 min.

Director: John Carpenter
With: Donald Pleasence, Jamie Lee Curtis, Tony Moran, Nancy Kyes, P.J. Soles, Charles Cyphers, Kyle Richards, & Brian Andrews.
Release: Oct 27, 1978
R. 1 hr. 31 min.

 

It’s the Fall season, the leaves have begun to ripen, the clouds shaded with grey. October looms overhead, and what better way to spend the month of freight than with a montage of Halloween favorites, none more so than “Halloween.” The cult-classic, indie-darling turned mega-hit, has always remained atop the top ten and all-time favorite lists of confirmed ghost story and horror film addicts. For me, it's once was that same notorious merciless thrill-ride; but, when I began to look deeper, I began to see through the cracks of rhythmic piano and eerie imagery to see a satisfying, but an immensely flawed tale of a town under attack by evil incarnate.

If your not a horror movie fan, or just not familiar with the 78’ classic, allow me to introduce you to “Halloween,” in which a strange figure who killed his own sister at the age of six, escapes from a mental asylum and returns home to continue his reign of terror. The local babysitters caress themselves in the warm arms of their horn-dog boyfriends, and the goody-two-shoes like Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) watch “The Thing” with the sugar-high kids. As the psychiatrist, Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasence), unnervingly scurry’s to the town of Haddonfield, Illinois to keep this devil-like figure at bay. Someone who he describes as less than a man, crueler than any man, spending eight years of his life trying to help, and the next seven years trying to keep him locked up. He’s a mountain of evil, an eerie presence that haunts the imagery of our film, even after the screen fades to black.

“Halloween” became the igniter for the slasher subgenre of horror. A subcategory of the genre that invokes that of a lone wolf and his weapon of choice, typically hunting down teenagers or young adults. Though the father of the genre is arguably Mario Bava’s “A Bay of Blood,” “Halloween” remains known for holding claim to the inventor of the madmen let loose in the tranquility of suburban America.

It is perhaps the most widely imitated film from the 70s, spawning off so-called “original stories” like that of “Friday the 13th” and “A Nightmare on Elm Street” that copied the blueprints and then began to build themselves up from there. Other films like “Scream” would satirize these movies, later on, becoming that of a cult-hit that we’ve all come to know and love.

However, “Halloween” is not the classic flick that I remember it to be, lounging inside of my room and watching it once more today, I began to notice the atrocious attempts at acting put forth by Nancy Kyes and P.J. Soles. They ramshackle their dialogue, over connotating and exaggerating their words. Manifesting an invocation of cringe and wincing, rather than unease and dread; they are not alone either, John Michael Graham and others supporting actors feel empty of humanity, never pulsating with flesh and blood. Some have argued this to be the case on purpose, that the actors are meant to encompass everyday inhabitants, the average man/woman turned about to one treacherous night. Even if that’s the case, the acting remains god-awful, mimicking the level of artistry exhibited in a film like “Samurai Cop.” They are like these abandoned, hollowed-out carvings of Jack-o'-lanterns, expressing vacant emotions that are dead on arrival. It’s a product of the indie-craftsmanship I think, how Carpenter seemingly focused far more on manifesting atmosphere, style, and framework; far more than he cared about molding performances out of these young actors.

Donald Pleasence is the only performance that consistently remains atop the curve, providing a virtuoso performance. He matches the tone with the timbre in his voice, remaining stern, anxious, and undeniably frightened of what’s to come. His infamous speech in which he states: “I realized that what was living behind that boy’s eyes was purely and simply… Evil.” Professing the imminent danger that the Sheriff's town has been placed in by the mere presence of this man, Pleasence carries this speech with his ability to manipulate words through emotion. The lecture is garnered with exemption from the array of bad-acting because it involves a veteran talent relaying empathy to us. He’s a messenger, one of the few to be found in Carpenter’s work of violent horror.

Jamie Lee Curtis is better than her surrounding cast but remains far from Pleasence’s grounded and fearful mentality. Her moments of exemplifying terror, feel rehearsed, staggered from reality. While we all know she is acting, we shouldn’t be aware of the fact during her performance; we shouldn’t notice her looking for her mark or glancing her eyes to the man behind the camera. These are the facets that construct a lousy performance, and Curtis’ re-vitalizing of the character in H20 made up for it, and I’m positive that her upcoming performance for David Gordon Green’s “Halloween” will undoubtedly top her last few endeavors. Curtis is a talented, powerful actress, but her first feature role feels elevated by the tour de force effort from Carpenter, instead of the performance she puts forth.

“Halloween” may live in the frame of “Psycho,” but it doesn’t match the legacy left behind. Carpenter is phenomenal as a filmmaker here, in the truest sense of the word. His camera positioning, choices of lighting, and sheer fabrication of atmospheric tension is epitomized by the iconic tickling of ivories that Carpenter composed himself. Carpenter’s use of shadows is top-notch, but his score lives in infamy. It’s an echoing that activates memory recall, one key is played, and you are taken aback to the source of its sound. I watch “Halloween” in search for the same sense of recollection, nostalgically scampering through the pathways of the past.

It’s a trip down memory lane for me, and while “Halloween” has, and will continue, to hold a special place in my lineage of horror filmmaking; Carpenter’s so-called “Masterpiece” is the pivotal embodiment of filamatic “fool’s gold.” It’s an exteriorly pleasing, and at times frightening, work made from the hands of a deft indie-filmmaker. The internal forgery is where it begins to slide past my attention span, becoming a sparkly and dazzling feat to gaze upon and become entranced by; but, once you begin to hold it within your grasp, it slips through your fingers like withering crumbles of once-beloved treasure. “Halloween” is a must-see for the season of spook, but it's not exactly one that will get you to your climax. Instead, it acts more like that of the foreplay before the big show.

Bad Times at the El Royale (2018)

   Director: Drew Goddard With: Jeff Bridges, Cynthia Erivo, Dakota Johnson, Jon Hamm, Chris Hemsworth, Cailee Spaeny, Lewis Pullman, Nick Offerman, , & Shea Whigham. Release: Oct 12, 2018 R. 2 hr. 21 min.

Director: Drew Goddard
With: Jeff Bridges, Cynthia Erivo, Dakota Johnson, Jon Hamm, Chris Hemsworth, Cailee Spaeny, Lewis Pullman, Nick Offerman, , & Shea Whigham.
Release: Oct 12, 2018
R. 2 hr. 21 min.

 

There is a kinship, almost dominion, between that of a deft writer and his/her reader. This sort of immeasurable control that words can hold upon us, how a tale can capture us, forcing us to transfix upon it. We become a servant to someone’s words in a way. And for some of us who consider themselves harder to fool than others, writers like Drew Goddard become some of our favorites for being able to deceive and startle us with his unwavering ingenuity. It’s an odd relationship when you begin to contemplate it, but Goddard alongside others is a writer who can hypnotize you with mere words. It’s a bit sad to say that it doesn’t reign as impactful as before in his newest feature “Bad Times at the El Royale.”

As both director and writer, Goddard crafts an ensemble with big twists and turns that inevitably reign hollow like that of an abandoned underground tunnel, similar to that of the one encompassing the El Royale hotel. Before that though, the film opens with a tantalizing set piece in which a camera is positioned in the back of a room, behind the double-sided mirror perhaps? We watch a trench-coated, well-dressed gentlemen enter the room hastily. He’s seemingly running away from something, but what? He roams around the room, exhaling and gathering his wits as he then turns to the radio and tunes into a station. The audio swallows the screen, and the man proceeds to rip apart the room as he begins to bury one of his suitcases underneath the floorboards. He then pulls himself back together along with the ramshackled suite; cleaning, and combing. He waits, as another man arrives with a peculiar knock that seems rehearsed. The man allows his visitor in, turns around, and BANG! Shot in the back, as the screen cuts to black and a title card appears and reads “Ten Years Later.”

It’s a sunny day now, and what we know is that the duffel bag is still under the floor and that those floorboards belong to the El Royale hotel. A novel feature of the place is discussed by the first two characters who appear, Jeff Bridges as Father Daniel Flynn and Cynthia Erivo as Darlene Sweet. They exchange delightful and charming small talk, poking fun at the idea of the neighboring states borderline. The lodging is built upon that borderline, splitting between the great states of California and Nevada. It’s a hotel that’s seen better days, as seen by the desolate interior that finds itself in need of employees as the one bellhop is also the bartender, hospice, and manager.

It’s a big place though, so how can one man manage to hold it down? Well, the back rooms have to provide some help in making sure that everyone stays in line, as we are introduced to our six participants in this ensemble mystery. The so-called “salesman,” Laramie played by an enjoyably smarmy Jon Hamm; the priest depicted by the unrelentingly charming Jeff Bridges; the emotionally suppressed bellboy Miles, performed poignantly by Lewis Pullman; the high-motored and surely girl on the run, performed deviously by Dakota Johnson; and the virtuous singer Darlene performed by the palpable Cynthia Erivo.

More characters arise along the ride, but these are the foundational elements that act as moldable clay for Goddard to craft and shape into a suspenseful, nuanced story that is too clever for its own good. There is a lot of plot dispensed by “Bad Times at the El Royale,” enough to support it's 140-minute running time. The storylines threaded and allocated throughout the film don’t add up to much though, but there is subtle and surface-level brilliance applied by Goddard. A certain kind of exploration into morality, the sins of war, and a dose of religiosity; painting a duality between the sinner and the devoted faith believer. Everything else exists in a gray area, as few of the characters inhabit absolutes of morality. They refuse to play the game or choose to play it on their terms as Hemsworth’s cultish character preaches in the midst of the film’s latter half.

The threads add up to much of nothing, it’s sort of an auto-critique on social and faith-driven juxtapositions that gives off the impression that Goddard hopes will give the film’s inexplicable sadism and cruelty a pass without reason. He’s trying hard, too hard. Attempting to craft something of unpredictability by not making much sense, it's a sort of out-of-the-box thought process that backfires far more than it fabricates any sense of nuance. The finale involves a strutting villain standing off with a group of differing but paralleling individuals in a conclusive ending that is absent of resolution, which may be Goddard’s point.

Goddard is no newb or hack; he’s crafted immersive uniqueness out of a face-level, predictable story like “The Martian.” He’s the same guy behind “Cabin in the Woods,” a supposed teen slasher turned apocalyptic nightmare on which he provides social satire along with a thrill ride. “Bad Times at the El Royale” is a different animal though, in a bad way. Crafting a relentlessly alluring and compelling narrative that lacks that ever-so essential underline of purpose; every story needs to be about something, but Goddard doesn’t make that clear during this almost 2 and ½ hour picture, which comes to my surprise.

What also comes to surprise is the big leaps he’s taken as a director, manifesting some stupendous tracking shots that seamlessly capture the attention of any viewer. Glancing, floating, and wandering between characters and perspectives with a certain sense of fluidness that is surprising to see from a director in his second feature. His work in fabricating interluding performances that maintain a sense of tone and relatability between one another is an added dose of icing on the cake, along with that of the whip-cream on top in which each performance is stunningly captivating. Jeff Bridges, with little character depth, flexes his muscles and invokes sympathy and empathy for a character we barely know. He’s one of the best working today, and he reminds us of that in little to no time.

All of that is to argue that “The Bad Times at the El Royale” is not a misfire as much as it is a misstep. Goddard is crafting a film that overlaps in technique and execution with his previous works, channeling a range of influences from the Coen brothers’ simplistic intricacies and Tarantino’s stylistic pandemonium to create an aesthetically palatable period piece. But it's all a bit too complicated, relying on theme over plot and a more unconventional structure that makes it a distinct watch, but one that fails to satisfy and pinpoint the reasoning for sitting down and listening to the story Goddard has to tell.

Goddard remains one of the more clever and ambitious writers working today, but he gets too smart for his own good in “Bad Times at the El Royale.” Becoming both his greatest ally and his greatest enemy in the midst of constructing a double-sided mirror of a movie, he’s just on the wrong side in this case.

Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween (2018)

   Director: Ari Sandel With: Madison Iseman, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Jack Black, Caleel Harris, Chris Parnell, & Ken Jeong. Release: Oct 12, 2018 PG. 1 hr. 30 min.

Director: Ari Sandel
With: Madison Iseman, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Jack Black, Caleel Harris, Chris Parnell, & Ken Jeong.
Release: Oct 12, 2018
PG. 1 hr. 30 min.

 

It’s Halloween night, and two middle school boys are combating monsters in an attempt to save their mother from an evil ventriloquist dummy; how fun does that sound? If you're a nineties kid, like me, then the name R.L. Stine is as synonymous with your childhood as “Batman: The Animated Series” or “Dora: The Explorer.” The real-life author of 62 spook-tastic books for tweens that sold millions of copies makes his next entrance to the big screen. While some of us branched out from his child-like adventures to that of Stephen King's matured terror, R.L. Stine remains one of the more notable authors for a generation of kids that spent their nights reading and skipping through the pages of novel like that of “Night of the Living Dummy” or “Monster Blood.”

Looking back, I can recognize the dust-ridden bookshelves of novellas as the allegorical manifestations of children confronting adulthood; how they combat that of responsibility and maturity. A similar feat occurs in Ari Sandel’s “Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween,” a delightful spook-fest for the Halloween soul. Rob Letterman’s “Goosebumps” was a blunder of adventure and scare, one that received praise from both critics and families alike. It was a fun, deliciously-eerie watch that in its follow-up swing has only squandered by that of a few notches.

Opening the film with that of the word “Fear,” as Sarah (Madison Iseman) types out loud into her laptop as she composes her college entry essay into Columbia University. The question asks about fear or a challenge she has overcome and how did it define who she is today; although currently, the only challenge she’s encountering is the horror of a blank page. A self-described creative writer, Sarah (Madison Iseman), like most of us so-called "aspiring writers," has seemingly encountered that ever-so dreadful and plagueful terror of “writer’s block.” However, she’s startled by the appearance of her boyfriend as he sneaks in through her bedroom window to drop off a care package for his mentally conflicting girlfriend. It’s a predictable fake-out scare moment, but what follows is surprisingly subverting of expectation as the mother catches the intruder before a make-out session ensues. Sarah’s single mother Kathy (Wendi McLendon-Covey) swiftly sends him away in a hilarious moment of lecturing as she pokes fun at just how loud teenagers are today, mockingly repeating his dialogue in what is a well-written and devilishly clever start to the children adventure.

The next morning, Sarah attempts to apologize to her mother. While that of her little brother Sonny (Jeremy Ray Taylor) and his best friend Sam (Caleel Harris), who is staying with them for the weekend, post an advertisement at the convenience store for their start-up dumpster-diving business. Sarah confides in her mother, and Kathy attempts to provide advice to her struggling writer of a daughter, but she also asks for her to babysit while she works double shift at the nursing home.

Sarah, apparently upset, plans to sneak out. In the meanwhile, Sonny is trying to finish his science project on Tesla, but Sam gets them their first job in which they are tasked with cleaning out an old house, but whatever they find they get to keep. This just so happens to be an old-residence for the once-popular child-horror author, as they soon discover a secret passage and a treasure chest locked away. They open it up and find a book. They open it of course as Slappy the Dummy suddenly appears with that latin card in his suit pocket. Sonny reads it aloud of course, and Slappy is brought to life. However, before he begins to terrorize the neighborhood, Sonny and Sam are confronted by that of Tommy, the local bully (Peyton Wich from “Stranger Things”), and Slappy comes in handy. He pulls down his pants and telepathically abuses the crew of neighborhood bullies, but later on, his niceness fades and the evil within begins to reveal itself.

The kids band together in some surprisingly deftly scenery that like the first film is brought to life through top-notch VFX work. Everyone involved begins to play a role in the story, even that of the next door neighbor, a Halloween enthusiast depicted by Ken Jeong from “Hangover” prominence. He goes overboard in decoration, producing a line to the sidewalk on Halloween night. But when Slappy begins to transform Halloween costumes into real-life monsters and ghouls, Jeong’s house becomes a grease-fire of fright. The enormous purple balloon spide is brought to gruesome life, stomping it's eights legs around the neighborhood and chattering its jaws.

These are the surprises of fear that come in handy when creating such a fun ride, as screenwriters Darren Lemke (“Goosebumps”) and Rob Lieger (“Peter Rabbit”) and Oscar-winning best short-film director Ari Sandel (“The Duff”) maintain a sense of unpredictability and rambunctious imagination to their adventure. Watching and cutting to everything and anything that has sparked into sentience, as at one point, hundreds of gummy bears begin to merge and gnash their gummy teeth as they attack and terrorize our youthful heroes.

That is ingenuity at work. But McLendon-Covey and Jack Black become underused talent pools, and Sarah and the boys are so thinly and haphazardly written that it's difficult to conjure up resonation for them amongst their battles with ghosts and headless equestrians. It’s missing vital components for a good allegory to reign true, but the few jokes provided to them and the glimpses of character attributes are entertaining enough to keep you focused on the journey at hand.

Black, has one of the film’s best jokes in which he arrives onto the mayhem of this Frankenstein-Halloween event and notices that of a solemn floating red balloon as he points and exclaims “Aha! I knew I came up with that first!” It’s a quick jab at the prominent King of horror as R.L. Stine once told King “ You know Steve, one magazine once called me a literary training bra for you." Steve replied: "Yes, I know." That same self-awareness that Stine exhibited to King is on grand-display by Ari Sandel. This is not a film about developing memorable characters or lessons to learn, but merely an encapsulated spook-filled adventure for families to enjoy. It’s not as bright or as compelling as the first film, but it strikes the perfect balance of silliness and creep-filled terror. The talent is in short supply both in front and behind the camera, but the remnants of inventiveness that make their way to the screen are worthwhile; sure enough, to make even the more cynical of trick-or-treaters leave the theater in the spirit for chills and thrills.

First Man (2018)

   Director: Damien Chazelle With: Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Corey Stoll, Patrick Fugit, Christoher Abbott, Ciarán Hinds, Olivia Hamilton, Pablo Schreiber, Shea Whigham, Lukas Haas, & Ethan Embry. Release: Oct 12, 2018 PG-13. 2 hr. 21 min.

Director: Damien Chazelle
With: Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Corey Stoll, Patrick Fugit, Christoher Abbott, Ciarán Hinds, Olivia Hamilton, Pablo Schreiber, Shea Whigham, Lukas Haas, & Ethan Embry.
Release: Oct 12, 2018
PG-13. 2 hr. 21 min.

 

Damien Chazelle is a filmmaker who, in the span of two films, caught the eye of both critics and audiences in a way that few achieve. With the ferocity of “Whiplash” and the lyrical scope of “La La Land,” Chazelle has become one of the more notable names in that of the next generation of directors/writers. He’s altered his tune from song to that of pure-drama, in this case, a space-drama. It’s an intense, arm-gripping, palm sweating thrill-ride that encapsulates the most dangerous mission in human history. 

It’s a first-person assault on our senses; more so than previous entries that romanticize the Apollo 11 mission. Capturing the magnitude and severity of such a mission, the experience is one of wildness and tension. The grandness of space is rarely the focal point as the film grounds itself around that of forthcoming first man on the moon Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) and his fellow Apollo Program comrades. Zipping themselves into insulated suits packed with that of body waste catching bags, as they strap themselves into a skyscraper-tall rocket and for that final countdown for lift off and ignition. The frenzy and the roaring speed rattle their bones and shatter their eardrums as they are forcefully heaved into the atmosphere and into the vast vacuum of space. Few of their fleeting moments are spent gazing upon the silent beauty and calmness of the blackness of space as they stare out at the shrinking blue earth, little of their time is devoted to such aesthetic bliss. Perhaps they couldn’t grasp such natural artistry amongst the mayhem of expending their mental energy in keeping the ship afloat.  

Stemming from the minds of director Damien Chazelle and screenwriter Josh Singer ("Spotlight," "The Post"), the film opens with him testing the atmospheric pressure of an aircraft; we watch as the camera vibrates and jitters with unrelenting energy. The audio drowned out by the sounds of chaos and mayday mayhem; it's loud and ravenous. Neil eventually gains control of his craft and returns safely to the ground as we now get to learn more about the man on the ground than the one in the sky. 

Neil, a dapper and soft-spoken pilot, is a family man. When we first see him carrying out that of normality in his life, he’s at a hospital watching through a glass window as his young daughter receives radiation for what is presumed to be cancer. Though it's never made clear by Chazelle, the treatment is tragically unsuccessful as we soon take part in viewing Neil and his wife, Janet (Claire Foy), stand side-by-side as their daughter is buried. Later on, we watch Neil saunters into his office as he clears it from the research he was applying towards that of saving his late-daughter, he then gently sits down, and the camera closes the distance as Neil begins to let his emotions flow. It’s a powerfully poignant scene in which Chazelle construes Neil’s confinement of his feelings, a recurring trait throughout the film that implies or suggests that Neil was battling depression in the midst of flying to the moon. 

Though that suspicion is never made apparent, it becomes evident that Neil chose to enroll in the Apollo program in part because he wants to be distracted from the grief of losing his two-year-old daughter. His wife Janet is grieving too, but she’s chained to the home, solely being responsible for the children. On one occasion, she storms the building of NASA, demanding answers as to the inquiry of her husband’s safety during one of the many deadly missions he embarks on. It’s quite possibly her only standout scene, next to another that occurs moments before the Apollo 11 mission. Chazelle doesn’t neglect her, but the attention that could be given to a mother, a wife, watching her husband risk his life from the sidelines, constrained by societal constructions to be nothing more than a mother, is somewhat of an uncompensated and dimly lit subject begging for more attention. 

Now and then, the movie reminds you of the complexity that the American public generated towards such a mission. How could the government fund what amounted to be a rocket-measuring contest between two overly-macho countries, instead of supporting regulation for racial, gender, and economic equality? At one point, the film cuts to a protest occurring off the shores of the Apollo test sights in Cape Canaveral in which a protestor pleads the inherent hypocrisy in neglecting the needs of those subjugated to racial-driven scrutiny while that of a group of white boys fly to the moon. While films like “Hidden Figures” showcased the integral role that a group of African-Americans, African-American women, played in that of the success of the Apollo, “First Man” strays away from the politics and environmental turmoil of the time in exchange for the vigor of the mission. 

It plays into a more significant flaw that stifles Chazelle and Singer in their efforts to craft such a roller-coaster ride, disregarding the humanity encompassing both the mission and the men commenced to see it through. While we gain knowledge of Neil’s struggles and a surface level understanding of his grief and his emotional turbulence, “First Man” most significant stigma occurs on that of a human level. The film fails to capture the outrage or the controversy of such an event happening in the political firestorm that was the 1960s. Glimpsing and merely poking at the surrounding circumstances that frame our narrative, Singer and Chazelle graze the imprint of such an event. In the same way, the pair decline to apply pressure to that of the characters we meet. Neil’s anxiety and his meandering stir that mutates over the film becomes like that of the foreground, never does Chazelle or Singer begin to zero in on the man behind the mission more than the mission behind the man.

Chazelle and his regular cinematographer Linus Sandgren maintain an embedded relationship between Neal and the camera though, whether he’s absorbing information at a NASA mission briefing, reading to his son at bedtime, arguing with his wife, or walking away from a burning wreck; the camera fixates upon him and him alone. Even in the case of the Apollo 1 capsule fire, Chazelle and Sandgren don’t treat the accident as one of individualistic tragedy, but rather their painful impact on that of Neil and the conveying of a potential threat to his safety. The film seems to be focused on that of his journey, and his trip alone, and the intensity of such an adventure. In that frame of mind, judging the film solely as an exhibition in visual dynamism, “First Man” has to be considered a success. Imparting astonishing clarity to a sequence of images we’ve seen before, but ones that never honestly felt as vehemently as Chazelle makes it.

If he only he explored further with that of Neil himself, as Chazelle and Singer, like others before them, insinuates the emotional calamity of American machismo but never explore any farther. While they are crafting a vehicular visual ride about our responsibility to examine and reach further and higher than those before us, they almost entirely omit the investing tour of the socially conditioned and tangibly grieving man standing before them. His stoic and unarticulated suppressed grief is never attacked by the two, and its one feels like that of a handicap on Gosling's performance. Though he is capturing that buried and choked down sorrow, the moment where he would eventually let it go and begin to release, as indicated at the beginning of the film, is never brought to fruition. Gosling is the only one with moments worth mentioning though, the talented actor carries the film alone like that of a one-person show, as Foy and Corey Stoll (who depicts Buzz Aldrin) compete for a distant second place finish. 

While the winner of that contest remains unclear to me as of yet, what does become explicitly evident is Chazelle’s viscerality as a director. Like that of the gritty ‘70s filmmaker that he cites as heroes during interviews, Chazelle adapts that mold with that of a technically adept big-screen showman. His musical fervor in that of “Whiplash” was riddling and tightly-gripping to watch, forcing us to react to music in a way we’ve never have before. His scope and grandeur in “La La Land” was a reminder that he, like us, grew up admiring filmmakers of the past, as he tailored the musical majesty of yesteryear while placing a unique fingerprint on the work. Those films were standout projects, and “First Man,” in comparison, is a misfire. 

It’s not a bad film or a failure in any sense of the meaning, but “First Man” is a rattling and compelling experience without heart and without a crux of poignancy. It’s a film that with a bit more trajectory and correction in the flight pattern could have soared higher and farther than any realistic-space drama before it. Not to be too on the nose, but it's one small step backward for Chazelle, but hopefully one giant leap for his future as a filmmaker. Because, while he and Singer struggle to grasp empathy, they revitalize the hellish thrill ride that cinema can become. The large-scale action scenes are frightening and exhilarating; in fact, it’s hard to imagine someone pressing the eject button in the midst of experiencing this chaotically, breathtaking cinematic depiction of exploration.