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 experience and one that you have to engage with on the silver screen.

As I said, “First Man” is a thrill-ride; more so than previous entries into the romanticizing of the Apollo 11 mission that took place between July 16 and July 24 in 1969, “First Man” captures the magnitude and severity of such a mission. The experience is one of wildness and tension, and 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 zipped themselves into insulated suits packed with that of body waste catching bags, as they strap themselves into a skyscraper-tall rocket as they wait 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 ("Whiplash," "La La Land") 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 saunter 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.

Singer’s heart lies in that of authenticity, encapsulating the historical precedence of such an event from the eyes of the men behind it, never from those opposing it or interacting with it. He remains as fixated as possible on translating the untamed coherency of the pilots involved, how they respond to the rumbles and the tumbles that shadow their success. His work with that of the dialogue becomes that of a canary in a coal mine in which his surrounding work as a writer is unbalanced and unequal to that of his lucrative task in fabricating believable and palpable dialogue alongside that of Chazelle’s affinity for the flight sequences.

Chazelle and his regular cinematographer Linus Sandgren maintain an embedded relationship between Neal and the camera. 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 forces us to conjure when experiencing his chaotically breathtaking cinematic depiction of exploration.

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 explores 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 the 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 internalizing of Gosling, and skillful ability to construe Neil’s concealed emotions allows “First Man” to gain traction amongst the unrelenting amusement park ride that Chazelle manifests. 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; it’s hard to imagine someone pressing the eject button in the midst of this fiercely, breathtaking, hellish ride of a film.

22 July (2018)

   Director: Paul Greengrass With: Anders Danielsen Lie, Jonas Strand Gravli, Jon Øigarden, Maria Bock, Thorbjørn Harr, Seda Witt, Isak Bakli Aglen, & Ola G. Furuseth. Release: Oct 10, 2018 R. 2 hr. 23 min.

Director: Paul Greengrass
With: Anders Danielsen Lie, Jonas Strand Gravli, Jon Øigarden, Maria Bock, Thorbjørn Harr, Seda Witt, Isak Bakli Aglen, & Ola G. Furuseth.
Release: Oct 10, 2018
R. 2 hr. 23 min.

 

July 22, 2011. That was the horrific day that Anders Behring Breivik, re-depicted here by Anders Danielsen Lie, committed a bombing outside the government building that injured multiple people and took the lives of 8. Within a few hours of the explosion, reports came in that a man was storming the site of workers youth league camp, posing as a police officer, was firing upon that of innocent teenagers. In a matter of minutes, Anders murdered 69 children and injured 110; claiming the lives of 77 people at the end of his treacherous terror.

Whether you admire or condemn “United 93,” the premise of the same filmmaker dramatizing these events is daunting. Yet, the man known for his intense, fast-moving, and quick cutting imagery has crafted one of the most timely and inherently moving pictures of 2018. Greengrass is far sufficient in this re-imagining of a Norwegian tragedy; he’s also contextualizing and contemplating the effects and roles everyone must play in maintaining civility and law. Greengrass puts forth moral and philosophical quandaries and the significance of each while fabricating a compelling and haunting depiction of mid-autumn, cloudy, and seemingly normal day falling under attack from right-wing ideologies. “22 July” is at its most compelling with that of heroing comeback story of a survivor confronting his attacker, learning how to be strong while weak.

None of this is to say, that Greengrass dramatization is an enjoyable sit. Filmed in Norway, but confusingly communicated in English (why films continue to do this is confusing as F$%!); “22 July” opens with that of the monster in sheep's clothing preparing for the day’s events, he’s calm, calculated, and seemingly in control of the actions he’s about to take; despite the insanity plea his lawyer attempts to claim later on. In a contraction, Viljar Hanssen (Jonas Strand Gravil) is on the island with his friends, enjoying the getaway and discussing how they play a role as future leaders in Norway. Special attention is given to Viljar and his family: his mother Christin (Maria Bock) is running for mayor in their hometown, far from Oslo; his father Sveinn (Thorbjorn Harr) is a chicken farmer; his brother Torje (Isak Bakli Aglen) is on the island with him.

The spectacle of children fleeing through the forest area and hiding in the corners of the cabins is horrifying and tragically reminiscent of contemporary America. The shots that take place inside the classrooms of the knocked over chairs, terrified children huddled in the corner, pleading for help; it's all so painfully evocative of our recent years. He shouts “you will die today!” Proclaiming them as Marxists and Muslim-sympathizers, Anders makes it quite clear that this is no act of lunacy, but rather of political confrontation. He claims to be a soldier in a larger war called forth by right-wing extremists, and it's hard to camouflage his hatred for diversity from our American eyes. The chants of “you will not replace us” begin to echo in the forethoughts of my mind.

Nevertheless, the movie continues and “22 July” begins to reveal it's one and only fatal blemish in that of its lack of featurette ability. The film plays like a dramatization as I’ve described, like the one you would see on the History channel. But a feature needs characters for us to relate to, to identify with. It wasn’t until more than halfway into the film that I began to realize that Viljar and Sveinn were brothers, I can only attribute that to missing the focalization of crafting a picture. That doesn’t seem to be the goal here though, so it doesn’t count against Greengrass as much as it would affect other endeavors.

However, the writing from Greengrass (adapted from Asne Seierstad’s “One of Us”) gathers it's footings in that of its meditation on trauma and civility. Once in custody, Breivik demands a lawyer, a specific lawyer. Geir Lippestad (Jon Oigarden) is obligated by Norwegian law to take his case and does so, attempting to craft a plea for insanity, claiming he had no control over his actions. A psychological evaluation revealed he has paranoid schizophrenia, but the prosecution argued that to be untrue and unjust. The judge agreed, and this evoked a cry of rage from Anders as he decided to go to trial and plea for acquittal as he believed himself to be defending Norway.

The entirety of this sub-plot lays forth the intricacies of criminal law and how we, as a society, can wrongfully attack those who are merely doing their job. Shortly after Geir takes the case, he and his family receive vicious death threats for being Nazi-sympathizers. We see it differently though; while he’s doing his job to the best of his ability, he’s cognizant of who he’s defending. Remaining stern, unenthusiastic, and stoic in his exchanges with his client. This thread of the film grapples with the idea of the integral role that civility must play in the case of terror like this one, how we must treat serial killers with the same fairness as a drug offender. No matter how severe the crime, we must maintain our respect for the law.

The remaining threads accomplish thought-provoking benchmarks, like that of the one following the Prime Minister who struggles to grasp the fact that he and the governing body missed the red flags. He meets with the families directly and apologizes, and in a heartwarming moment, they reveal that they do not blame him, but only hold that of the terrorist responsible. They hope for him to continue leading the country out of the darkness that engulfed them, the same darkness that encapsulates Viljer as he recovers from life-threatening injuries. He combats the dreams and the nightmares alone, as he and his brother attack that ever-so-popular trait to hide away in our masculine bravado in the midst of extreme pain. His brother punishes himself for the idea of escaping unscathed, pondering the reason as to why he got out unharmed but his brother and his friends didn’t. What makes him so valuable?

It’s these sections that the film finds it's most moving and poignant footing. While Viljar is missing a few critical marks in his performance, I can still resonate and tangibly grasp the emotion invoked by him. Greengrass could have let the camera linger on him in these moments, steadily and methodically shifting throughout the scenery, but he cuts and splices. It’s his style though, and he owns it, and he uses to make a vital picture about difficulty and necessity, one that inadvertently juxtaposes one countries tragic past with that of America’s contemporary horror. It’s a film that provoked moments of weeping from me, as I stem from a generation that has lost many of its friends from unwarranted and inexplicable gun violence. How long before a massacre such as this one occurs? How long before we turn on the news and see a death toll higher than any other? How long before we begin to confront this problem head on?

How long?

Private Life (2018)

   Director: Tamara Jenkins With: Paul Giamatti, Kathryn Hahn, Kayli Carter, Molly Shannon, John Carroll Lynch, Denis O’Hare, & Emily Robinson.  Release: Oct 5, 2018 R. 2 hr. 3 min.

Director: Tamara Jenkins
With: Paul Giamatti, Kathryn Hahn, Kayli Carter, Molly Shannon, John Carroll Lynch, Denis O’Hare, & Emily Robinson.
Release: Oct 5, 2018
R. 2 hr. 3 min.

 

Storytelling is designed to examine humanity. It is meant to analyze our desires, our regrets, our ambitions, our dreadful nature, or what have you; we use the fabric of fictional creativity to provide some surrealistic viewpoint on life, and Tamara Jenkins does just that with “Private Life.” She, like Debra Granik, has seemingly been absent from the scene of filmmaking for a while, eleven years to be exact. And right out of the gate she returns with a bang! Ever so tenderly examining the so-called “obsession for something better,” in this comedy-drama about two married, forty-something, New Yorkers who are longing to become parents.

Rachel (Kathryn Hahn) is 41, and Richard (Paul Giamatti) is 47. She is not as fertile as she used to be, and his sperm seemingly can’t stick to anything relating to the term “egg.” He only has one testicle, and it happens to be blocked; least to say, it's a tragic state of affairs for a couple desperate for a child. It also, just so happens, to be a comedic goldmine for the filmatic comedic stars of Christmases past. You know, those actors that we used to see so frequently that when they faded away from the silver screen we seemingly never noticed, expecting for them to pop up at some point in time. Actors like John Carroll Lynch and Molly Shannon who apparently turned to TV land, and boy is it rewarding to spend time with them once again.

Along with the superb casting, Jenkins does a tremendous job in molding a genuine atmosphere. We get the sense from the start that this is couple’s marriage is hanging by a thread, that long-time issues have been swallowed up by their obsession for fertility, described as “fertility-junkies” at one point by their friends. We see this first hand, provided front row seats to their montage of waiting room-living. Watching them become tested, prodded, drawn, and recommended a multitude of solutions with no kinship behind them, producing this feeling of disorientation for a couple that is already detached from the world around them. Maybe it's that, or perhaps it's their aching inhibition. Each of them seemingly seems fatigued, lost, stumbling through the motions of life. They’re distracted, despondent, and ever-so lacking the spark needed to feel whole. We know this by the sheer drop of the hat transformation we witness when they take in their niece Sadie (Kaylie Carter).

She, like them, is an artist. Rachel is currently a writer attempting to finish her novel, and Richard was once an acclaimed actor and theater manager. Each of them shares that innate intrigue in artistry, reading many books and speaking eloquently but directly. Sadie’s parents are nothing like this, Richard’s brother Charlie (John Carroll Lynch) and his second wife Cynthia (Molly Shannon) stem from a different point of view. Charlie is mostly in support of his step-brother, providing a hefty amount of financial help when needed. Cynthia, on the other hand, is more of a helicopter parent, far more focused on herself sometimes than that of the success of her children.

She doesn’t understand the bold nature of her daughter. She’s perplexed by it even. So Sadie decides to move in with those who comprehend the struggles she’s experiencing, all the while she’s ever-so accidentally insulting them. Naively insinuating that they have become cemented into an unwinnable situation, she realizes that she is now inhabiting the cliche that she continually grilled in fiction and the lives of others. Simultaneously, the film ever-so-subtly juxtaposes the out of the city family of Charlier and Cynthia with that of the inner city grind of Richard and Rachel, as if they are glimpsing their potential future when they visit. Realizing that if they leave the city, does it mean they surrendered? If they fail to conceive, does it mean it was all for nothing?

It fabricates this duality of life that is so easily overshadowed by the simplicity of the average blockbuster movie, how you can be both a good and bad person, and how that duplicity of perspective leads to something intriguing and relatable, and it's what Jenkins is leaning on. Providing your stereotypical twists and turns along the way of her story, Jenkins is, more importantly, fabricating intricacy out of simplicity, universality out of specificity. It’s a terrific hat-trick that you see on a collective basis, but one that is sure to jazz up most, if not all, aspiring writers because it's a plot that is far harder to pull off than it sounds.

At the same time, she’s chronicling that upper-middle class of white culture. Her eye for detail is extraordinary in this endeavor, she’s empathetic but never begging for the audience’s sympathy. She’s aware of the shortsighted, pettiness of this couple. Echoing how they’re so wrapped up in their personal drama that they fail to appreciate what they have, and I wish she honestly leaned harder into that. Jenkins provides some refined humor, admitting the awkwardness of the dilemmas that arise and embracing the self-demeaning pokes and prods made through clever screenwriting from the former Oscar nominee, but the real-world relatability that could have been set forth is left untouched almost. Sure, she states it and emanates the conversation to be had, but there is something inherently fascinating to be discovered in the construction of these characters.

She regains her footing though in their depiction, both visually and narratively. Manifesting this lived-in environment that delivers with sincerity, reminiscent of Azazel Jacobs’ “The Lovers” in that way, tethering together the sensations of both realism and fiction. We feel as if we could meet someone like that of whom we see on screen, how we both overreact and under-react to the events that occur in our life. How we can sometimes apologize for being rightfully mad about something; it’s astonishingly relatable.

She also succeeds in crafting a portrait of urban life, creative people living beyond their means, afraid to let go of their youthful dreams of the big city. She paints these silhouettes together, skipping over them with devilish arrogance as if she’s aware of how talented she is when it comes to painting a picture of someone else. Deftly aware of the boxed-in beauty that arises from the inner city, sometimes she cuts the film together with snaps and snippets of the New York city sidewalk, and in others, she’s broad and grand of with her affinity for the urban style of living.

All in all, Jenkins has crafted a return to form for both herself and the simplicity of small but genuine stories on film. She, herself, is at fault at times here for me, never fixating on the more striking subject matter and pushing the film far too long. But, the film she’s made echoes many of us, film aficionados' frustrations in the absence of recognizable theater. How audiences continually suggest that the movies about present-day adults of every social class are not worth leaving the comfort of their home and the living couch. If it's not massive or cinematically eventful, the point of spending money seems futile.

But, when a story such as this one is told in a compelling and even-handed fashion as it is by Jenkins, who’s adroit with her operatic imagery as she is with her cultivated dialogue, and she allows us to laugh at these characters while our hearts concurrently ache for them to either succeed or begin to introspect and interpret the deep-rooted stifles facing them. It is a work of old, echoing that antiquated style of storytelling where acting becomes as essential as the camera. It’s a playwright in some ways, but one that is just as immersive as any blockbuster, and furtively so. It’s a reminder of how something small can feel large and vital to who we are, how something ever-so minuscule can make the difference. It's flawed, yes, but so is life, and that is one thing, among many others, that Jenkins gets so emphatically correct in her proficient portrait of desire. How sometimes, you can want something so badly, that the journey to get there begins to overwhelm and, in some ways, possess who you are. It’s fundamentally identifiable, how great is that?

Venom (2018)

   Director: Ruben Fleischer With: Tom Hardy, Michelle Williams, Riz Ahmed, Jenny Slate, Ron Cephas Jones, Scott Haze, & Reid Scott. Release: Oct 5, 2018 PG-13. 1 hr. 52 min.

Director: Ruben Fleischer
With: Tom Hardy, Michelle Williams, Riz Ahmed, Jenny Slate, Ron Cephas Jones, Scott Haze, & Reid Scott.
Release: Oct 5, 2018
PG-13. 1 hr. 52 min.

 

Blaming studios isn’t usually a proper critique, it's generally hamfisted by those who believe themselves to be better decision makers than those who have taken financial risks on unproven projects, but Sony is often the exclusion to this argument. Their track record is not one of prominence when it comes to superhero filmmaking, Sam Raimi’s films aside as one of the few filmmakers allowed to invoke his style without regard, Sony has continually stifled itself from matching that of everyone else’s success. Seemingly attempting to follow a blueprint that they didn’t invent as if DC’s films weren’t a great example of this failed idea, Sony appears to decipher criticism and box office fizzles for a reason to continue. What can you do for someone who refuses to see the writing on the walls?

Nevertheless, 30 years after his first appearance in David Michelinie & Todd McFarlane’s “Amazing Spider-Man #300,” Venom has finally made his way to the silver screen once again since his clumsy mishandling in 2007. His story is altered into this jokingly quirky recluse who’s choices become dependant on the runtime of the film. The character, himself, has always had sprinkles of humor, more specifically dark humor. Fleisher and the four credited screenwriters (Scott Rosenberg, Jeff Pinkner, Kelly Marcel and Will Beall) capture that essence of the character, but haphazardly invoke into a mannerism that feels transformed or divulged into something twisted like that of the gooey symbiote itself. It becomes that of an uneven extravaganza from there, one in which Hardy’s character, investigative reporter Eddie Brock, is characterized as that of a cool-guy rockstar instead of the nose to the ground journalists of reality. Yet, he amusingly is continually attempting to control this menacing black blob inside of him, stumbling and stuttering in hopes that he’ll regain his footing in the midst of this battle for sanity.

The film sets up his battle for stability by counteracting that arc with an Elon-Musk-like/evil genius stereotypical bad guy in that of the mad billionaire Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed), a powerful and connected individual who after being ambushed interviewed by Brock, gets both Eddie and his then-fiance fired from their respective places of employment. The film divulges into this accelerated version of a standard superhero flick that echoes the inconsistencies of a franchise like “Transformers,” which seems to have influenced the stylistic choices made in crafting the action sequences.

It’s an intensely far more violent version of something like “Fifty Shades of Grey” in which the missteps in storytelling that occur allow you to notice the absurdity of this real-world reflection. You begin to see how the film and the character seemingly forget about the foreclose notices and due payment warnings, which would typically be classified as nitpicking, but when the artists accidentally uncover that escapism-filled sheeth, you begin to see things more clearly.

Before I go any further though, allow me to iterate that Tom Hardy is applying as much as he can to this moldable piece of clay. He as both an actor and creator is pulling, scraping, and shaping this character into something intriguing ambiguous, a prolific symptom of the archetype. Notoriously known for giving every role his unconditional commitment, Hardy has exhibited his ability for digging in deep and inhabiting the skin of someone, or, in this case, something else. And if you're going to “Venom” to see Hardy’s depiction of the character, then carry on my good fellow and enjoy the exuberance that he’s forcefully applying to the screen despite the hiccups he combatants.

The same can be argued for someone like Riz Ahmed who broke out with his jarringly subtle, but overwhelmingly compelling performance in HBO’s mini-series “The Night Of.” So, that said, it be a bit unfair for me to blame the shortcomings of this so-called “anti-hero” story on that of the actors, each of whom is doing some good work here. I’ll admit, Michelle Williams, despite trying her damndest, feels miscast for this sort of film. Like that of a wallflower in the midst of the spotlight, it fabricates a contradictory tone that is of no fault of hers.

That said, “Venom” remains one of the worst films I’ve seen this year, at least in the sense of the blockbuster format. I am not gonna rival this film’s misfires with that of the veiled racism of “Peppermint” or the faulty neo-realism attempt from Eastwood in “The 15:17 to Paris.” Because this film is bad like that of a dirty room, it's merely messy, and that mess can provide a bit of fun at times. Like that of how the film seemingly is scampering past essential storytelling beats, a cliche of Sony’s work at this point. The film will enact moments that feel as if they belong in the story, but the moment that explains that role is absent, which makes for some unpurposeful comedy.

It’s an inscrutable, sticky mass of erratic CGI. Screaming, flailing limbs, and barely detectable imagery that attempts to produce some semblance of chaos in action, but it feels more like a splattered vision. Matthew Libatique, the same man I praised yesterday for his sensational work in Cooper’s “A Star Is Born,” is forcefully pushed into a studio-style craft in which his touch is lost amongst the fray for a finished product, which inevitably seems to be the central problem at hand with “Venom.” A studio running as fast as it can to the finish line, not taking the time to care about who they trample over in the process.

I think it's fair to say, that whenever a “comic book” film’s opening credits state “In Association with Marvel Studios,” we all gulp with minor expectations as to what we're about to watch. Sony and Ruben Fleisher’s “Venom” is a film that vindicates that hesitance, a film that so blatantly misconstrues the identity of the character at hand that it's hard to fathom someone claiming this piece of work as a so-called “passion project.” The Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde archetype are purposefully crafted for interpretation, but to mascarade the two-face tendencies of the character for demolishment of its severity; now that’s a parasite.

A Star Is Born (2018)

   Director: Bradley Cooper With: Bradley Cooper, Lady Gaga, Sam Elliott, Andrew Dice Clay, Rafi Gavron, Dave Chappelle, Michael Harney, Anthony Ramos, & William Belli. Release: Oct 4, 2018 R. 2 hr. 15 min.

Director: Bradley Cooper
With: Bradley Cooper, Lady Gaga, Sam Elliott, Andrew Dice Clay, Rafi Gavron, Dave Chappelle, Michael Harney, Anthony Ramos, & William Belli.
Release: Oct 4, 2018
R. 2 hr. 15 min.

3.5_4 stars.png
 

Bradley Cooper’s “A Star Is Born” is presumably going to be the stand-out feature of the Oscar season, one in which audiences and critics both agree. Though this story has been told three times prior, nearly eighty-one years later, Cooper has provided the third remake of William A. Wellman’s pleasantly touching movie, and it’s undoubtedly the best rendition thus far. Despite Judy Garland’s 1954 exceptional one-woman show that fabricated one of the decades best and Kristofferson’s adept performance for a movie not matching his abilities, Cooper has crafted something genuine, palpable, and passionate.

The film opens with that tone of passion, the camera trailing behind Cooper as he wanders to the stage as rockstar Jackson Maine, an alt-country singer with a bit more heavy guitar and bit more of a kick to his lower tones of backroad poetry. From the get-go, Cooper establishes an intimacy to his film. Crafting a triple play as writer/director/actor, Cooper wisely allows the skilled cinematography of Matthew Libatique to roam freely; closing the distance between the lens and it's subject, jittering with energy; formulating into this aggressively invasive style that we’ve seen in Libatique previous works like “Mother!” and “Black Swan.” While the camera revolves around Cooper, we know that he’s seemingly picked-up the skills needed to be believable as a guitarist, convincingly stringing the chords with violent precision, I assume.

Not a music critic, so I may be wrong on that front, but where I gain my footing, as does Bradley, is when we see him depart from the roars of the crowd. Barreling into the backseat of his transportation, reaching for a big bottle of whiskey and unhitching his diseases’ guilty pleasure. We watch him attempt to produce some sort of small talk with the driver, trying to masquerade his apparent alcoholism with charm, pinpointing on that unsaid truth that the simplest admittance can be the tallest hill to overcome for someone in the trenches of war with their addiction.

He then asks to be dropped off at a bar, attempting to escape from the tension of the vehicle. He’s stumbles into a drag club, merely craving another drink. It just so happens, our curtained feminine star is preparing to execute a jaw-dropping version of Edith Piaf’s “La Vie en Rose.” Before that, our broken star finds himself greeted by her companion Ramon (Anthony Ramos), amusingly asking Jack if this bar is the place for him, but Jack is merely hunting for a drink, so he enters and is wowed by this inter-sexual community that engulfs the foreground, a societal update made to this aged tale. Ramon attempts to charm him away, hoping he’ll stick around to bear witness to his friend’s, Ally (Lady Gaga), performance.

And from the first vocal expression, Jack is transfixed on this stranger of a woman. Gazing at her as she sashays her way around, inevitably, roaming her way to the bar. She lays down, kicking her legs out like that of a 60’s jazz singer, flaunting her sexuality with vigorous femininity and she eventually locks eyes with the drunken idol. The contact of their eyes is felt, it's ineffable.

Not long after, Jack is swayed to go backstage. Bewildered by the scenery in an apparent out-of-comfort-zone moment, Jack focuses on the beautiful woman in front of him, charming with his innocence, boyishly perplexed. Soon one of the drag darlings makes a move towards Jack, ultimately pleading for him to sing her a song, no care for the song choice, she just wants the dashingly handsome star’s attention. He plays a heartfelt song of his own, and as Ally comes out witnessing this transgression of events, his vocals rise, and their eyes mirror one another as an emotional spark is ignited and never extinguished throughout the rest of the runtime.

This is merely the start of Cooper’s musical love story, and it only gets better from there; picking up in both rousing and effective fashions. When Ally eventually steps onto the stage with Jack at her side, it's magical. A moment in which female empowerment explodes onto the silver screen, Ally stirs with an authentically nerve-racking yet awe-inspiring duet with that of her new found companion. There is natural chemistry to that of Gaga and Cooper, feeling as if they feed off each other’s craftsmanship; Cooper learning from Gaga’s musical artistry and Gaga picking up vibes set forth by that of Cooper’s intoxicatingly smooth performance.

Gaga does seemingly have a natural affinity for this arc though, her background echoing that of one in which her talent was buried beneath her beauty. Merely promoted as another pretty face instead of the musical professor she is, Gaga nails the blend of doubt and courage that a debuting musician encounters. She’s not a muse of sorts for Jackson though; she’s a force of nature set ablaze by the world and Jack himself. Raging across the country and inflaming the world around her, transforming from the apprehending waitress known as Ally to that of the rising pop-star: ALLY.

Of course though, like the previous films, the core of the film’s story is about one star rising and another plummeting. Over the course of the film, Jack allows his demons to overtake whatever space is left, invading the remaining corners of his life. He watches from the sidelines as the star he uncovered rises to prominence, eventually following to a deep low in which Dave Chappelle, presumably a previous driver for Jack, strolls onto the frame and carries the troubled star home. He offers advice, pleading with him to see the beauty in simplicity, to see the so-called “port” standing before him. Jackson can’t stay still though, even though he tries his damndest. He’s an addict though, one who won’t fruition his addiction to the surface. Self-sabotaging his career and kamikazee-ing his personal life in the process, and Cooper avoids as many cliches of alcoholism as possible, maintaining that genuinely, down-to-earth character. It’s a masterful performance, one that predominantly plays defensive, balancing out Gaga’s exhilarating performance with a gentle eloquence.

It’s a pushing and pulling relationship they share, each of them grasping at each other for breath while simultaneously drowning one another. The film approaches an emotional conclusion that is easy to predict, and some will be moved by this nonetheless. While it's a tranquil tragedy, handled with the precision of someone meaning nothing more than goodwill to those of us who have passed through the moats of self-destruction. It’s one that doesn’t hit appropriately for myself. It's a profoundly personal nitpick and one that I can’t shake, as if it's an itch in the pit of my soul. This resolution to Jack feels unearned as if it was a forced finale for a culmination of self-disgust. Though the original and initial remake finalized in similar fashions, so Cooper is merely matching his story with theirs, it’s an ending to a life story, not the few chapters that we bear witness to.

As I said, it’s a rooted particular blemish for myself that most others will not see. That’s what makes film criticism subjective though, but even cynics cannot rip this one apart, there’s too much that’s been done right by Cooper here for them to sound legit. It’s a film about people in its purest form, as is the typical prognosis for movies constructed by actors-turned-directors as we saw earlier this year with John Krasinski’s “A Quiet Place.” As in that film, Cooper directs his cast with pure proficiency, getting some of the best work from Sam Elliot in years, as “A Star Is Born” proclaims the power of people.

It professes the power of song as well, echoing the immeasurable poignancy that twelve notes can manifest between people, how something so simple can manipulate emotion in such a dominating manner. While it's communicating that consensus of musical appreciation, it also satisfies ticket buyers looking to relate to those who they see on-screen; making sure that they will leave the theater affected by these strangers whose lives became apart of our entertainment. Yes, this story has been told several times before, but Cooper and Gaga find a way to make this feel fresh and nuanced, producing rhythmic poignancy with ease. It's a loud and impactful endeavor, one that finalizes in silence; its a generously heartbreaking triumph, one of the years best.

QUINCY (2018)

   Director: Rashida Jones & Alan Hicks With: Quincy Jones Release: Sep 21, 2018 NR. 2 hr. 4 minutes

Director: Rashida Jones & Alan Hicks
With: Quincy Jones
Release: Sep 21, 2018
NR. 2 hr. 4 minutes

 

“There are only two kinds of music,” Quincy professes. “Good and Bad.” Though he’s not the first to make such a statement, he’s not wrong, and he’s responsible for a lot of the good parts. Quincy Jones, for those unfamiliar, is, quite possibly, the most successful and influential musician of all-time. The mind behind any and every hit of music’s past, and, if possible, he probably be behind many of today’s contemporary greatness. The second solo-feature documentary of the iconic music industry giant is directed by none other than his daughter, Rashida Jones, who alongside that of Alan Hicks, constructs a ridiculously accessible perspective at the genius behind music’s past and music’s future.

It indeed is quite incredible in how far Quincy allows us to go, allowing the camera to invade almost any and every cranny of his life. Rashida might be a strong proponent of that, and her recognizable face as a star in her own right from the popular sitcom series “Parks and Recreation,” provides a cozy atmosphere for those unfamiliar with this legendary conductor, and by the end of it's runtime, you’ll feel more comfortable spitting knowledge about his fascinatingly extraordinary life.

Growing up in the south side of Chicago in the 1930s, Quincy had an entirely different perspective on the racial clashes than those of today. His grandmother was a survivor of slavery’s yore, his father experienced the silenced but outright racism of the mid-20th century and his mother was something of a different story. Diagnosed with schizophrenia, dementia praecox, he witnessed his mother be forcefully harnessed into a straight jacket. She was imprisoned to a mental asylum, his father would warn him and his siblings of the danger she presents to them, how she somehow forgot what her children meant to her. Echoing the investigations put forth in that of Liz Garbus’ “What Happened, Miss Simone?” Analyzing that prevalent diagnosis that our most prominent artists arrive from crippling backgrounds, simmering on that ever-so thought-provoking inquiry of “do you have to be broken to make great things?”

It’s one of the many sub-plots hatched from this provocative recounting of Quincy’s amazing life-stories. When he begins to tell his inceptions into music, and you allow the knowledge and the sheer proministic outset of his career to sink in, a grin is sure to arrive upon your face from the mere preposterous occurrences that he embarked upon as a young artist. From tickling the ivories with his good buddy Ray Charles to jamming out with Lionel Hampton, to joining the spark of Bebop in 1950s New York; Quincy was birthed into music in a way that few can relate too, and this was just the beginning.

Soon he would meet a Queen in that of Diana Washington, and by her side, he would accomplish hundreds of arrangements and recordings with icons of Jazz like that of Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Sarah Vaughan, Clark Terry, Dizzy Gillespie, and his buddy, Ray Charles. Later he would study with the “Queen of classical music,” Nadia Boulanger, where he learned there were only 12 notes to all of music and that it was merely about innovating and manipulating those notes to manifest something remarkable.

The other recountings of Quincy’s career are just as incredible as his beginnings. The whole time, the icon’s music proliferates the foreground, the funk of “Sanford and Son” and the sereneness of “Body Heat” are a two of the many that provide this musically ignited atmosphere, as Quincy tells us the stories. Evolving, innovating, creating, and producing some of America’s best.

The mind behind Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” the number-one selling album of all-time, and “We Are The World,” the best-selling single of all-time. Quincy Jones is, obviously, one of music’s most prominent living and breathing creators. But, the documentary doesn’t rely on that alone. Rashida and Alan dive into the meat of the man behind that music, reaching to find the history behind the father of 7 children, the grandfather of 6 grandchildren, and the great-grandfather of 1 great-grandchild.

Near the end, we bear witness to an interview in which Quincy is asked: “is there anything, that you think, you tried to do and didn’t succeed at?” Quincy pauses and cheerfully responds with one word “marriage,” and that’s probably the correct answer. Apart of four divorced marriages and one brief affair, Quincy was not one for keeping the love to himself. The thing that makes this cheerful though, is that all of these relationships were mended and reunited, but it's still a preposterous thing to consider an artists passion, and it's dominion over one’s life. Quincy is an example of this notion, every relationship crumbled beneath his unrelenting work ethic, his artistry overtaking his soul and leaving behind everything else.

Quincy eventually narrows it down to one key proponent for his relationship shortcomings; his mother. Without a woman to mold him into a man, he spent his life running away. Fearing to stand still, dreadfully crippled by that of his past, petrified to freeze and standstill in the warm bosom of father time. We see a recounting of the footage taken when he revisited his childhood residence for the first time since 1944, nearly four and a half decades later. He sits and wanders throughout the remnants of this broken household. He finally pauses, rests upon the staircase and forgives his mother. It’s a poignant and empowering frame of a man’s life that is built by music but fundamentally underlined by the absence of a mother.

It’s one of the most elevating moments of Jones and Hicks doc, but it's not all by it's lonesome. During this retelling and examination of one of music’s most infamous members, the contemporary background is centralized around Quincy’s health stifles and his road to the debut of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. He was asked to produce this monumental occasion, we watch this occur in real-time as he begins to plot the guests to attend, from then President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama to Will Smith to Oprah Winfrey; a pure celebration of black prosperity and how much ground we, as a country, have to go.

As a white man, who has fallen in love with the artistic components of black culture. Attempting to resonate with the messages professed by poets like Tupac Shakur, The Notorious B.I.G, and Kendrick Lamar. Or, musical authorities like Miles Davis, Ray Charles, and Stevie Wonder, and, of course, filmatic masters like Spike Lee, Marlon Riggs, and Ryan Coogler. It’s a part of meritocracy that I recognize is not my own, but that doesn’t mean it's not my responsibility to fight alongside them. To use my privilege to raise those without my advantages, and this finale of black excellence is a reminder of my role in the grand scheme.

Speaking of black excellence, and I’ll finalize my token of praise to this masterwork of chronicling a musical icon with this, what strikes me most with that of “Quincy” is the impact he had as one man on that of the fabric of American culture. For more than 70 years, he’s been at the forefront of every novelty in the industry.

With over 2900 songs and 300 albums recorded, 51 film and television scores, over 1000 original compositions, 79 Grammy nominations, 27 Grammy award wins, 7 Oscar nominations, and a pivotal first-comer for the black community at the Academy Awards. Quincy has put together a collaboration of monumental successes, and it's compelling to realize just how young American pop culture is, that one man could be so impactful on its entirety of existence. He truly has lived “a life beyond measure,” and Rashida Jones and Alan Hicks know how to reiterate that life with flair.

Leave No Trace (2018)

   Director: Debra Granik With: Ben Foster, Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie, Jeff Kober, Dale Dickey, & Dana Millican. Release: June 29, 2018 (Limited) PG. 1 hr. 48 min.

Director: Debra Granik
With: Ben Foster, Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie, Jeff Kober, Dale Dickey, & Dana Millican.
Release: June 29, 2018 (Limited)
PG. 1 hr. 48 min.

 

I’ve said before that due to where I live, some of the lower-budget remnants of the cinema arrive at my doorstep rather tardy. It’s a shame too because it additionally construes that I am not the only one late to the party, which inevitably means that films like Debra Granik’s “Leave No Trace” will fly under the radar for most. It’s a remorseful realization because it's quite a gem.

Her 2010 breakout film, “Winter’s Bone” was a bleak, but compelling. Providing the launching point for then-unknown actress Jennifer Lawrence, an assertive performance as a 17-year-old girl trying to keep her family together in the economically tarnished Ozarks. Her follow-up, “Stray Dog,” was a documentary centering itself around the psychological strifes of Vietnam vet and activist Ron Hall. It leaves a bit of a stick in my craw to know that it's been nearly eight years since we’ve seen a feature-length work from such a talent like Debra Granik, perhaps it's her work’s absence of a message, her lack of contribution to our burdensome socio-political demand. Or, maybe it's that her donation is ever-so-subtle and gentle, that it merely breathes in and out of our attention.

Her new film, “Leave No Trace,” adapted from the 2009 novel, “My Abandonment” by Peter Rock, argues that point. Combining elements of her previous endeavors, but, ultimately, fabricates something of great nuance. Fusing the narrative facets of the young girl living off the grid, alongside the troubled veteran living with PTSD, “Leave No Trace” is, at times, heartbreaking. In others, it's uplifting. Granik is examining humanity in a way it's rarely seen nowadays, something of rarified air because of the times in which we reside. It’s emotional instructing us, pondering upon the casual kindness we innately carry, it’s simply sublime.

The film starts in a forest of proliferating wet trees and moss, a thick wall of green surrounds our nomadic travelers. It turns out to be a public park in Portland, Oregon, as we meet Will (Ben Foster) and his 13-year old daughter Tom (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie). We first see them in that survival mode, scrapping, forging, and gathering supplies to help them survive amongst the beauty of this Eden-like area in which they live, it’s not precisely an unhealthy living. Debra Granik is demonstrating an innate gift here, breathing into these spaces of forestry with cinematic spirit, making these spaces of blooming wilderness feel vibrantly, and palpably alive.

She treats the characters in the same vein, producing a melancholy to everything we witness during this journey by laying the groundwork early. The opening sequence unfolds with little to no dialogue, giving us this intimate sense of their routines, their wordless form of communication, their natural bond as father and daughter. They sleep in the same tent, cuddling up for warmth as the rain pours down. They walk into town to buy groceries, visit the local VA to make money selling prescriptions drugs to the local tent city veterans. The life they live is hard, but the love between them is apparent. Foster and McKenzie seem almost symbiotic here, remaining in sync, seemingly mentally connected, you believe their relationship, and, more importantly, you feel it. Their chemistry is intimate, breathed into, feeling matured somehow. Granik achieves this through that groundwork I mentioned earlier, rooting her tale, in reality, focusing on the details.

McKenzie echoes that old-school movie star presence; she’s depicting a constant duality in her character as both wise and naive, fragile and tough. She holds every close-up, delivering a startlingly confident performance that is equal to Fosters, who is subtly effective. Providing one of the best male performances of the year, Foster is exhibiting a change of pace. Instead of the flashy and splashy livewire character he usually plays, Foster is channeling a calm misery, casually revealing this developing impression of anguish, a deepening investigation into his trauma; he is merely impeccable in his performance.

Their world is fragile though, falling apart rapidly when a jogger spots Tom one day, cops come and raid their makeshift camp, bringing Will and Tom in for questioning. The forest gives way to the well-meaning but incompetent human bureaucracy, Granik positions this peculiarly. The expectation would be to push in on the cruelty of such a system, a frequent truth, but Granik examines these character culture shock to the world around them. They interact with individuals who try to understand them, not ridicule, not insult them, but empathize.

“Leave No Trace” is filled with quiet moments like this, casually tossing acts of human kindness across the screen with a purified essence to them. People are cruel sometimes, yes, but sometimes their kind too. Granik realizes this and applies it to the film effortlessly, treating the story with a feather-light touch. She directs with a gentle touch that’s as gentle on the audience, never moving, cutting, or deliberately stretching the silence without cause, without reason, while grounding the film with guerilla-styled cinematography. Michael McDonough’s provides a documentary-like look, remaining effortlessly still but charged with this vigor of authenticity and affection.

That genuine touch rears it's head on a casual occasion too, many critics have begun to inquire if the background actors are actually actors? Or, are they merely ordinary people acting out their everyday lives. Either way, it just relates back to the honesty illustrated by Granik, merely allowing the story to unfold at its own pace. The questions she raises are answered at their own will. She’s implicit, not explicit.

The critique of society is in there too, the mistreatment of wounded warriors, the constant inattentiveness to their pleas for help; never putting our money where our mouth is. On the flip side, Tom is a child. The culture needs to care about her too, reacting almost oppositely of her father. Instead of remaining firm in what she believes like that of her father, Tom is torn in two, between her curiosity of the culture hidden from her and the love she has for her father. To say McKenzie is a great discovery is an understatement.

Another understatement is to say that my critiques with the film are merely nitpicking. Yes, they do hold it back for me, making those last-minute tears feel slightly pulled upon. I needed some questions answered, a bit more time with these two characters, a bit more of this fracturing relationship. But to say that Granik did something wrong is a bit of a stretch. She's crafting an immensely moving portrait of the love a father and daughter share, and how they can’t bear to be apart. Simultaneously, she’s reiterating the intricacies of the ever-so-popular mythic trope of the so-called “outsider.” That ever-so prominent investigation into those who choose to stray away from societal expectations, those who remove themselves from the constraints of conformity. Will and Tom are neatly spliced into this classification of identity, the thought of them becoming separated is shattering.

Will is keeping his demons at bay, but he knows the clock is running out. Tom is growing up. She will soon embark on her own adult quarrels and struggles, her independence is surging, and it's something Will can’t grasp.

It’s a triumphant tragedy, a duality of excellence, one that’s unique and universal, painful and hopeful, poignant and good-natured. It’s a tender glance of what we’ve been and who we could be; a must see film during these trying times. It’s a shame it won’t be seen by a wider audience; it deserves our attention.

Hold the Dark (2018)

   Director: Jeremy Saulnier With: Jeffrey Wright, Alexander Skarsgard, Riley Keough, Julian Black Antelope, James Badge Dale, Tantoo Cardinal, & Savonna Spracklin. Release: Sep 28, 2018 R. 2 hr. 5 min.

Director: Jeremy Saulnier
With: Jeffrey Wright, Alexander Skarsgard, Riley Keough, Julian Black Antelope, James Badge Dale, Tantoo Cardinal, & Savonna Spracklin.
Release: Sep 28, 2018
R. 2 hr. 5 min.

 

The agreement between artist and audience has seemingly been a give and take sort of a scenario, us giving the artist our time and money, in most circumstances, in exchange for a good story. Sometimes that agreement isn’t always held up and our time feels wasted, “Hold the Dark” is one of those times. That’s not to say that Jeremy Saulnier’s newest feature is a travesty, but it is a misfire. The young, fresh voice behind the likes of taut grizzly thrillers such as “Green Room” and “Blue Ruin,” has found himself losing his way in the midst of the gore and the darkness of this cold, bleak thriller.

There are too many good things occurring throughout the film to dub it a waste of time per say, Saulnier is too much of a craftsman to allow that to happen as seen in his past endeavors, and “Hold the Dark” isn’t any different in that way. His fingerprints can be found on every inch of the surface of this film, his keen eye gains significant assistance from veteran d.p. Magnus Nordenhof Jonck (“Lean on Pete”). Fabricating this cold and breathable atmosphere where you begin to sense the chills and shivers of the frigid landscape exhibited on screen. Bundling up and enwrapping yourself with the nearest blanket during your at-home viewing experience, the Netflix original makes for a great viewing experience in that manner, producing a visual treat of a movie.

The story can’t be praised in the same vein for me. Adapting William Giraldi’s novel, familiar Saulnier collaborator Macon Blair transports us to a bleak and barren snow-covered landscape of Alaska, in which Native American tribes have founded a small-knitted village amongst the cold. The use of that setting, as I stated, is quite masterful. Not only in how the camera investigates and incites questions about the setting; how it came to be? How it was settled upon? But, also in how Saulnier can incite us to investigate the mystery occurring in the foreground of our story. How he’s able to leave behind just enough breadcrumbs to lead us upon an off-the-beaten-path trail that analyzes the differences between cultures, ethical contrasts, and the intricacies of human behavior.

Where the story begins to take hold of those riffs of the themes that we’ve already taken notice of is in the character of Russell Core, depicted subtlely and brilliantly by Jeffrey Wright. He’s asked by Medora Sloane (Riley Keough), a native resident, to investigate the disappearance of her son, presumably taken by wolves. She has already accepted the potential of his death but still asks for his help in discovering whatever remains of her once bright-eyed little boy.

From there, violence seems to feed off of itself. Each incitement of atrocity feeds into a different heightened event of blood spill and consequence, like that of a domino ladder of tragedy. This violence intensifies upon the return of Medora’s military veteran husband, Veron (Alexander Skarsgard), who begins to unleash something inhuman in the area. Our intellectual hero adapts and overcomes at a rather rapid pace, but never stepping out of the realm of possibility.

Where “Hold the Dark” takes itself farther than anticipated, and without needing to do so, is when it begins to attempt to transform a simple cat and mouse thriller into a symbolical tale of evil being both irrational and logical. While Saulnier has achieved at this style of alteration before, his desolate, cold setting manifests results that are humorless, bleak, and unforgiving. It’s a story that could potentially benefit from such design, but it actually achieves the opposite response. Producing a story missing its jolt of energy in that of its unrelatable formulation, we rarely take the time to get under the hood of these characters, merely scratching the surface of the screenplay’s potential.

The pacing plays some role in the film’s humdrum effect as well, meandering and slogging it's way to an unrewarding conclusion, and the performances are no different. Dale is the only one with any sense of energy, not to say that the rest of the performances are bad, but they’re absent of charisma by design. Wright, Keough, and Skarsgard merely wander throughout the dread of their environment, straying and roaming their way through the austere tone. It develops a numbing experience, one missing its humanity, which may be the point. The film continually refers to our potential for savagery, our probability to both go bonkers and immoral in reaction to just one bad day, one bad decision. Saulnier exhibits these thematic intentions in how the the film occasionally explodes with stunning violence and grotesque imagery that made the young filmmaker famous.

While I recognize his goal, and his aim is on point, the story being told is not the one you want when it reaches its finale, feeling just out of the reach of a commentary or another well-tinkered thriller. In those past works, Saulnier grabbed his viewers and refused to loosen the grip for a second. Sure, he’s ambitious in his efforts, fearlessly diving into the terms of the dark subject matter at hand, but by the end, he’s demanding far too much of us. Pleading for us to see through the fog of wintertime and the inevitable brutality at hand, but we, as the audience, have to feel like we’re getting something back for our effort, and that never happens in “Hold the Dark.”

It’s too easy to check out of the narrative, too easy to drift off from the events occurring on-screen, too easy to think of better places for the story to go; it’s just too easy to look away. It’s a brutal slog of a film, one that doesn’t feel worth it in the end.

Night School (2018)

   Director: Malcolm D. Lee With: Kevin Hart, Tiffany Haddish, Rob Riggle, Taran Killam, Romany Malco, Keith David, Loretta Devine, Megalyn Echikunwoke, Yvonne Orji, & Anne Winters. Release: Sep 28, 2018 PG-13. 1 hr. 51 min.

Director: Malcolm D. Lee
With: Kevin Hart, Tiffany Haddish, Rob Riggle, Taran Killam, Romany Malco, Keith David, Loretta Devine, Megalyn Echikunwoke, Yvonne Orji, & Anne Winters.
Release: Sep 28, 2018
PG-13. 1 hr. 51 min.

 

It can be an aggravating notion to be a fan of someone. To share an affinity for his or her’s work as an artist, or their personality, or their craft that got them to the silver screen. All of us have that person as fans of the cinema, for some, it's someone like Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, an actor whose box office success clouds his mediocre performances. His repetitive depictions of similar archetypes of male bravado, the same can be said for someone like Kevin Hart. The number one selling stand-up comedian of the modern era, someone who is clawing and scratching his way near the top of all-time comedy lists. Firmly squaring his name up against legends like that of Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy and Jerry Seinfeld, but Kevin Hart has a persistent stench of second-rate comedy on the silver screen.

In comparison to his unabashedly successful stand-up career, his acting has never quite lived up to what it should’ve been, leading to many, fairly, criticizing those who proclaim his prominence as a comedian. It’s that one scratch on the final product, the one blemish on the paint job, the one crack in the mirror, or whatever other idioms you want to use to clarify that there is one thing missing from his resume of success, and Malcolm D. Lee's “Night School” is no different.

This time around, Hart depicts Teddy Walker, a high school dropout who happened to find his way in life to surmount some success. Though hanging on by a thread and living paycheck to paycheck, Teddy seems to have a good thing going. He’s got a bright future as a salesman, a loyal best friend, and a stunningly gorgeous wife who is also a successful career woman herself, but that’s not the point is it. Throwing that dose of shade aside, things, of course, go wrong somehow, in this case, it involves Teddy miraculously surviving a gas explosion, one that occurred mere feet away from him.

From there, he’s out hunting for a job to continue pretending to impress his fiance, the fiance that is more successful than him. Attempting to be a subversion of the male bravado admitting it's shortcomings and that the old-fashioned mentality of the man providing for the woman, “Night School” becomes a see-through attempt at comedic filmmaking. Add in the redemptive path for Teddy to earn his GED so that he can afford the fancy and expensive things he thinks his fiance desires, and you begin to realize how ridiculously unnecessary this film is.

Ridiculous? Yes, this is all ridiculous, but hey, it's a comedy right? Isn’t that the point? If so, then “Night School” has some form of learning disability itself, unable to grasp what makes a good comedy, like that of relatability. It’s hard for us to get a grip on the characters we see on-screen, the few jokes that reveal a blemish of painful truth are sped through as if they’re not worth mentioning. Like that of Carrie’s (Tiffany Haddish) hilarious reasoning for teaching these night classes, stating she needs money for things like “rent” and “antibiotics,” hinting at that painful truth of underpaid teachers that thousands of people can relate too.

As for the rest of the characters, they’re shells of tangible people, like that of Mila (Anne Winters) a juvenile delinquent looking to stay out of jail, or Stewart (Taran Killam), a vengeful high school principal that Teddy was mean too when they went to school together. The rest of the characters feed off of stigmas and tropes that we’ve seen before which is the best way to describe “Night School,” something we’ve seen before. Whenever you can walk into a theater and predict everything that will occur on the silver screen before the lights even dim down, that’s not a sign for something of high-quality entertainment.

Sure, Malcolm D. Lee's direction is competent enough to pass the eye test. The comedy has its moments of giggles and grins (specifically from Haddish most of the time), and the film attempts to maintain some semblance of socio-political relevance, and for those things, I have awarded it. But, it's this overarching sense of passive imagination that manifests this false belief that film is no longer what it used to be as if movies were never this mediocre.

Maybe it’s just me though. There were plenty of laughs around my theater. Many enjoying themselves and having a good time, and more power to them. I was not one of those lucky members of the audience; I couldn’t help but feel the inherent deja vu of everything occurring on-screen. From the cliche broken heart trope to the predictable path of redemption, it’s all just so blatantly predictable and unapologetic for it too. Why should it say it's sorry though? It’s not the first to construct a film of uninventive efforts, nor will it be the last.

All stories are inevitably about people or some fictional representation of people. Providing us with some metaphorical or surrealism glance at an authentic human perspective, showing and teaching us about things we didn’t know about ourselves. This is the great divide for me between great movies and those that are merely passable, the element that makes the difference between a film like “Fate of the Furious” and “Mad Max: Fury Road.” While high exalted films provide differing attitudes and aspects on the human experiences, mediocre filmmaking, or passable movies, look at the human experience through that of the eye holes of movies themselves. Always feeling bizarrely reminiscent of something we’ve seen before, not just with that of its story, but the emotion produced from that narrative.

It’s no longer an homage or a reference as much as it is an echoing of dim alternate reality that doesn’t reflect us but reflects our cinematic knowledge of things we’ve seen before and will, inevitably, see again. As a fan of Kevin Hart, it's hard to see him become a stagnant gatekeeper of this aged old tradition of lackadaisical but repetitive pursuit for fabricating emotions that we’ve felt before from both better and more original artists.

Hart, alongside Haddish, are talented individuals who provide the best part of this film and that is color. The continuing battle for representation on the silver screen, the ongoing effort to make sure that kids who don’t look like me can see themselves reflected on the big screen. If only those people fighting for them were creating something of nuance, putting their creative and talented mind to work, steering the conversation because it can't be ignored when your one of the highest grossing movies of the year. Well, those artists do exist, their names just aren’t Kevin Hart.

Fahrenheit 11/9 (2018)

   Director: Michael Moore With: Donald Trump & Michael Moore. Release: Sep 6, 2018 R. 2 hr. 8 min.

Director: Michael Moore
With: Donald Trump & Michael Moore.
Release: Sep 6, 2018
R. 2 hr. 8 min.

 

If I haven’t said it yet, Michael Francis Moore is a genius. The veteran documentarian from Flint, Michigan has crafted yet another reminder of the America we think we know, is, actually, not what it seems. He, himself, is quite liberal, which is sure to make any of my Trump-voting Americans feel #triggered. Before you read on, if liberal and progressive policies upset you, then please scroll your mouse to the top left corner of your screen and click on the red “X.” However, if you are an open-minded Trump voter with that spark of curiosity swelling inside your mind, then read on.

Let me start off by agreeing with Michael Moore in his assertion of who is responsible for where we are, though you can rightfully point your finger at the money-grubbing Republicans and the cowering Democrats, you must also look in the mirror and take responsibility for the blame. I, for one, was not one of the 137.5 million Americans who voted on November 8, 2016. I sat it out as a uniformed, uninspired, rebellious nineteen-year-old. Little did I know that Trump would actually become President, and Moore makes that blow a little easier to handle, painting this well-oiled flashback to the campaign trials in which every news outlet, including Fox News, discredited the so-called “self-made Billionaire” from New York.

Excusing his boasting of sexual harassment for “locker room talk,” his past evidence of racism for “a different time in America,” and his proclamations as a future President as “nothing to be worried about.” What Moore is doing here, more than anything else, is reminding us of what the facts are, taking the first hour of his film to let us know where we are, and how we got here. Beginning with his assessment of Donald Trump’s rise to stardom, juxtaposed with that of Flint, Michigan’s governor Rick Snyder.

This is where many critics said Moore was missing the point, focusing on a small issue and not the bigger one staring him directly in the face. As if the 10,000 led poisoned children were not a big problem, Moore reminds us that this was not normal! This was a big deal in every shape of the phrase. This was a precursor of what’s to come, a sign of the bell beginning to toll. For Flint residents, Donald J. Trump’s Presidency was not something of nuance, but more another blow beneath the belt. The Poisoned, forgotten, and the left behind impoverished town of minorities was forgotten and used as a military exercise in the summer of 2015.

The fact that we as, democratic touting Americans, were not enraged by these events is a point made by Moore to warn of what's to come if we don’t pay attention come November. Before we get there though, Moore runs more point into the ground in the best of ways. Drilling this idea of a government abandoning its people for donations from big businesses, and he’s not only reminding us of the shady actions of the Right but the Left as well.

Looking back on the reaction the 44th President afforded the people of Flint when he decided to visit the town pleading for his help, the town that helped vote for his Presidency in both terms, the town he abandoned and politically told to their faces “your not important enough to me.” I, for one, am someone who’s praised the actions of Barack Obama, especially his recent ones. He is someone I believed to be flawed, but benevolent. After seeing this, after watching his actions, I can no longer continue my tenure of Obama supporter, #Notmypresident.

From there he expands to other issues, ones that matter to Moore, and should matter to us. The teachers’ strike in West Virginia that sparked the fire for many more to come, the Parkland Kid's “March for our Lives,” and the rise of sweeping movements to repent past injustices. Moore is fiery, intense, and pissed off in these soliloquies of a broken system, both Republican and Democrat. Proving the point that “Fahrenheit 11/9” is an essential film to watch for any American, it's the most significant film of the 21st century.

Moore makes a good argument as to why, reminding us of how issues such as poisoned children, poverty lined teachers and stopping school shooting are not partisan, they are empirically epidemic. He tells us that we, as Americans, are liberal and proud. The majority of significant research studies proving that we are a Pro-life, Pro-diversity, Anti-gun, Anti-Capitalist nation that seemingly has yet to see any of these widespread beliefs become policy. How Democrat after Democrat has “compromised,” how Republican after Republican has changed the narrative. He is the reassuring voice that echoes our sentiment for a new day in America.

He speaks to many professors and historians to remind us that this is not normal, that Trump’s actions of censoring the media, the law enforcing bodies, the people, is one of authoritarian. Comparing his rise to that of Hitler's. Of course, it's not a direct comparison, and some have forgotten that point and criticized Moore for professing such a bold statement. But, the problem is he’s right, not in that Trump will call for the genocide of six million blacks or Hispanics, but in his mentality and rise to power, how it equates to authoritarian, to that strong arm ideology.

It’s not a mute point; it's an extreme one meant to catch the attention of deaf ears. One that invites you to ponder “how did we get here?” The answer revolves around the disenfranchisement of voters, how, despite every county in West Virginia voting for him, the superdelegate system un-appointing Bernie Sanders for the nominee. How our election system relies on that of Electoral College, a final vestige of the Constitution constructed to appease former Slave states after the Civil War. Composing a point that you can’t have a democracy if the popular vote doesn’t elect the winner, a problem that should also become unimpacted by the party line.

A line that Moore continually reflects towards and reminds us of it's immediate and impending doom in two months. Which is where my one and only flaw with Moore’s multi-faceted doc lye, not that he is wrong that our democracy is hanging on by a thread, a democracy that is rightfully stated to be less than fifty years old, because when women and color people can’t vote, it's not really a democracy is it? He’s right to make a call for panic, when you turn on the news and see that an accused rapist will, most likely, assume the position of a lifetime appointed role as Supreme Court Justice; it’s hard not to cry wolf.

I resonate with Moore’s fear, the messiness of his filmatic construction. The sporadic, fight or flight style that calls for your immediate attention. After all, Moore argues for us to care about something, to no longer stay quiet on issues, but become the unapologetic, and emphatic voice for change. When we remain silenced, societies crumble, despots rise to power, and a four-term Trump presidency becomes a reality. However, now is not a time for dissolution and dread for what’s to come, it is now time to act. Moore ends the film with a grim portrait of contemporary America, and while he touches upon it, he fails to run into the ground that there is change on the horizon.

There are home-grown, grass-rooted, feminine empowered, and diversified embodiment of change that resides on the horizon. Names like Richard Ojeda, a U.S Army veteran running a grassroots campaign, with a cross-country truck driver as his campaign manager. A Muslim-American female democratic primary runner with another non-PACs campaign, who was once kicked out of a Trump rally for protesting. (I can’t remember her name for the life of me, sadly) Then there’s Beto O’rourke, the home-grown Texas democratic runner in the election for governor, who is forward-thinking and without PACs.

I feel Moore’s pain, I feel his regret, his pessimistic attitude. But, I am filled with hope, hope that Moore may discredit as misinformed, but the activist turned electorates inspires me, and November has become that much bigger of a month for me, and America, thanks to Moore's blatant, unforgiving, and honest reminder of the state of emergency we find ourselves apart of. It's time for a change. #TimesUp

The House with a Clock in Its Walls (2018)

   Director: Eli Roth With: Jack Black, Cate Blanchett, Owen Vaccaro, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Sunny Suljic, Colleen Camp, Lorenza Izzo, & Kyle MacLachlan. Release: Sep 21, 2018 PG. 1 hr. 44 min.

Director: Eli Roth
With: Jack Black, Cate Blanchett, Owen Vaccaro, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Sunny Suljic, Colleen Camp, Lorenza Izzo, & Kyle MacLachlan.
Release: Sep 21, 2018
PG. 1 hr. 44 min.

 

“The House with a Clock In Its Walls,” admittedly, is reminiscent of a basic, but delightful, adaptation of one R.L. Stine’s kiddy horror “Goosebumps” books. It's inherent familiar of the child fantasy pictures of old, something we never get that much of in today’s superhero and universal cinematic climate. It’s a kid-friendly horror-fantasy in the simplest of formats, becoming an elemental, but a watchable piece of “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” level sorcery.

That’s not a juxtaposition with the childhood brilliance Columbus adapted from J.K. Rowling, rather a reference to how smooth and transparent “The House with a Clock In Its Walls” can be. The plot sums it up, we meet Lewis (Owen Vaccaro), a newly orphaned pre-teen who is adopted by his magical uncle Jonathan (Jack Black). From that logline alone, you can tell where this is going. It's treated as such by Eli Roth, former horror director, who’s scene-to-scene pacing establishes the characters, but fails to encapsulate the magical qualities/potential of the world they inhabit. He skips past those moments, the giggling snippets of a kid learning how to accomplish basic spells, the moment that fabricate not only the charm for the character, but also produce that ever-so-necessary world building. Teaching us spells along the way, as the boy begins to embrace that of the Warlock skill trait.

No, those moments are reserved for the Blu-ray, I’m guessing. That’s not to say that Roth fails to manifest a world worth visiting, because he does just that. Talking dummies, a timbering household filled with creeks and irks in its walls, a mystery that, while fundamental, is investing. On top of that, he got hold of a stellar cast ranging from Jack Black to Cate Blanchett, “The House with a Clock In Its Walls” should be an undeniable, family-friendly hit.

To be fair, in some ways it accomplishes what it sets out to do, entertaining the family audience. It has everything the family could ask for, cutesy creatures, scares and thrills, and adult-ish banter that is sure to crack a grin at least once. It’s a film that reaches back into the past, pulling back those nostalgic trips of potty humor and childhood adventure, where we witness that rote story about a pre-teen misfit finding his place in the world. Struggling to make friends, learning the life lesson of standing out instead of blending in; we’ve seen it before, but not in a good while. These kinds of tales feel in short supply these days, and maybe for a good reason.

Sure, some of the jokes are quippingly good, and the trip down nostalgic lane can always produce a good time, if only it lasted longer than the thirty-minute tenure. It’s short-lived magic, where eventually we have to start asking “where is the new stuff?” Familiarity is a great asset when crafting a film, but, ultimately, you got to do something on your own, and Roth and screenwriter Eric Kripke seem unable to do so.

The longer the film goes on, the more and more predictable it becomes. With that said, you might be asking why there is a positive grade above, and to be honest, it stems from the fact the film is quite pleasant. Yes, it's ever-so-easy to guess where the story is going when Jack Black turns to the screen and tells the kid not to open his secret bookcase. Spoiler: He opens it. We know these things are going to happen, it's accustomed, it's a reliable magic trick, like that of pulling a quarter out one’s ear. When you figure out the secret behind the trick though, it becomes something of a party favor more than that of magic, but hey, it's still a party favor.

The worst of “The House with a Clock In Its Walls” doesn’t stem from the writer of “Supernatural” though, (seeing what he's written, does it come to much of a shock that the movie is predictable) it stems from that of Jack Black. He’s the one thing keeping this film going at times. There is a mediocre, but pre-cursing performance from Sunny Suljic who I can’t wait to see later this year in Jonah Hill’s directorial debut feature “Mid-90s.” Cate Blanchett struggles to maintain the energy needed to deliver her flat one-liners, but her soft-spoken charm makes her a warming side-show. It was nice to see her be the smoking gun of the show though, nothing like seeing a woman in charge on the big screen.

Owen Vaccaro delivers in highs and lows, showing potential to be a great actor, while also needing to learn still a few lessons of the trade that he hasn’t quite captured the grasp of just yet. Jack Black though, he was the locomotive behind this engine, he could have been the driving force, the one steering the car. “Could have.”

He has his quips and adult-ish banter with Blanchett, but as he showed last year in “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” he has much more to offer than one-liners and funny voices. Everything is drawn up for him too; the one-man-show-style performance seems to belong to a character like Jonathan, an oddball who often seems to live in a world of his own, merely sharing it with someone else. It’s both his fault for not winding up enough, and the script he’s given for not being precisely easy to work with.

It’s a shame too, to watch Vaccaro struggle to find the right pitch at times, it would have been great to have a veteran like Black show him a lesson or two. But, it seems more like Vaccaro is teaching the lessons instead of Black, a charming but backward facing turn of events.

Life Itself (2018)

   Director: Dan Fogelman With: Oscar Isaac, Olivia Wilde, Antonio Banderas, Annette Bening, Mandy Patinkin, Jean Smart, Olivia Cooke, Sergio Peris-Mencheta, Laia Costa, Alex Monner, Lorenza Izzo, & Samuel L Jackson. (English, Spanish dialogue) Release: Sep 21, 2018 R. 1 hr. 58 min.

Director: Dan Fogelman
With: Oscar Isaac, Olivia Wilde, Antonio Banderas, Annette Bening, Mandy Patinkin, Jean Smart, Olivia Cooke, Sergio Peris-Mencheta, Laia Costa, Alex Monner, Lorenza Izzo, & Samuel L Jackson. (English, Spanish dialogue)
Release: Sep 21, 2018
R. 1 hr. 58 min.

2_4 stars.png
 

Many confuse the idea of emotion with that of sadness, characterizing something sad as just that, sad. This sort of simplification can become egregiously misguided in filmmaking, where something like a boy losing his mother is no longer a tear jerker as much as it is yawn initiator. The key to an excellent sad scene is two-fold, both in how you choose to place it within a film’s structure and how we, as an audience, arrive at that juncture. For example, think of Oskar Schindler’s cry of guilt in “Schindler’s List,” (sorry in advance for spoiling a 25-year-old movie) it's heartbreaking plea for clemency, a man begging to be forgiven for not doing as much as he could have. It’s one of cinema’s most bitterly sweet triumphs, and one that is not shared or used to inspire Dan Fogelman’s “Life Itself.”

Not to be confused with the breathtakingly superb documentary on film critic legend Roger Ebert, “Life Itself” is a surface level attempt at a drama. It’s a soap-opera at best, which is not necessarily a knock against the film, some of the audience members in my theater were quite fond of the predictability of the drama, which is in all good fun. Some of us like to have the ending spoiled, to know what’s coming and still feel it's effect beside the fact of foreseeing it's arrival, it's why audiences still pour out in droves for a jump-scare horror flick.

Nonetheless, it wasn’t my cup of tea, as you can see. It’s not exactly a bad movie, as much as it is an unnecessarily complicated one. It stars Oscar Isaac as Will; he depicts a disheveled man who’s experiencing the aftermath of some trauma. The film begins with what seems to be a live-action act out of the screenplay he’s writing, with a surprise cameo from Samuel L. Jackson who narrates this opening stunt. When it ends in a horrific circumstance, we cut to find this gorgeously bearded Oscar Isaac in a coffee shop, abandoning his day’s work for a refill of caffeine, booze, and Xanax. He then disturbs the peace of the area, attempting to provide a less than average acapella cover of Bob Dylan’s “Make You Feel My Love.” Will then reluctantly saunters to his therapist’s (Annette Bening) office for a mandated session, from where he spills the beans on why it is that he’s just so gloomy.

It, of course, is quite sad. It revolves around his wife’ (Olivia Munn) absence, a child he’s never met, and his grim experience while being institutionalized, but before we can begin to settle into this character, BANG!, our story abruptly comes to a finish. We then cut to a dour and turbulent childhood of this orphaned little girl, Dylan (Kya Kruse as a child; Olivia Cooke as an adult). And just as we begin to settle in once again, we cut to the other side of the world and are introduced to Mr. Saccione (Antonio Banderas), a landowner in Spain. He sits down with a hard-working employee named Javier (Sergio Peris-Mencheta), a soft-spoken laborer, who is then told Mr. Saccione’s life story, a story that is not reciprocated by Javier. He’s a simple man, one who’s life ambitions center around fruitful labor and the love of a family, something that Mr. Saccione begins to envy.

After seeing that his boss spends too much time with his wife and his son, they take a trip to his son’s most wished upon destination, New York City. There they laugh, experience a new culture, and witness a traumatizing event. This is not something easy for Javier’s son to get over, it keeps him up at night, waking from recurring nightmares. This conflict breeds catastrophe as the perfect family seemingly crumbles underneath the weight of one man’s jealousy for being unable to provide like that of his boss, who’s romantic charms play a great deal in his decision to abandon his family. From there the story becomes noticeably on-the-nose, increasingly and purposefully sadder, and we, inevitably, watch it all become connected by some meta-like belief that everything interacts with one another on this grand scheme we call “life.”

It’s a whole lot of gibberish if you ask me, and many others seem to agree. The film’s low Tomatometer is a testament that this film isn’t getting a whole lot praises from critics, and many audience members will see that as harsh or a sign that they are out-of-touch with what audiences like, but before you post your rant on Facebook, allow me to play devil’s advocate. First off, it’s not that the film is bad per say, Oscar Isaac is turning out another great performance, along with the rest of his cast members, including Olivia Munn, who deserves a shot prominence. The cinematography, while bland in design, provides some riveting work in style, maneuvering itself in ways that are similar to that of a person’s eyes, glancing and darting across the screen in a remarkably seamless fashion.

Fogleman is trying here as well, and for those of you who don’t churn out over 100 movies a year, you don’t understand how rewarding that is to see. To know that the filmmaker is trying to make you have a good time, he just got mixed up along the way; that’s a pleasant sight to see. But, he is a bit of a melodramatic as is seen with his hit NBC series “This is Us,” a show built on a story’s high and lows. When you catch onto that whiff of style, the story becomes predictable, which is never something a critic wants to be able to conjure when watching a film. It’s party-pooper, a foul play, a bad prank. One that seemingly ruins the best of what a filmmaker has to offer, and that’s what happens with “Life Itself.”

Its plot remains see-through, attempting to mask itself by never settling upon a story to follow, it merely skips to the next scene before things get to cliche. And unlike television, the sporadic treatment of characters isn’t usually a wise move when developing their depth over the course of two hours, it manifests this barrier between the audience and the silver screen, keeping us at bay like that of an invisible stop sign as we wait for the traffic to pass.

This isn’t all to say that if you enjoyed the tear-jerking extravaganza that you are wrong for doing so, you can choose to love whatever you like, this is merely a response to those who feel that critics are out to get them, to rain on their parade. While you may have found the emotion to be impactful, to be forthcomingly familiar, some of us failed to get passed that stop sign I mentioned.

We watched from afar as you got to sit down and sip on the melancholy, because for me, “Life Itself,” ultimately, is forcing a reaction. As if someone is pulling at you to cry, begging for tears to roll down your face, which, if anything, is not a cause to weep. It’s a kind of narrative manipulation that doesn’t work for everyone, certainly not for me.

Assassination Nation (2018)

   Director: Sam Levinson With: Odessa Young, Suki Waterhouse, Hari Nef, Abra, Bill Skårsgard, Bella Thorne, & Joel McHale. Release: Sep 21, 2018 R. 1 hr. 50 min.

Director: Sam Levinson
With: Odessa Young, Suki Waterhouse, Hari Nef, Abra, Bill Skårsgard, Bella Thorne, & Joel McHale.
Release: Sep 21, 2018
R. 1 hr. 50 min.

 

The secret to a good social satire is dark but honest humor. Being able to balance that line between offensive and authentic relevance to the times, something Sam Levinson’s “Assassination Nation” ignores almost completely. It’s a repugnant, vile, toxic dose of idiocy and irritating example of atrocious filmmaking. Confusing satire and dark humor for an excuse to be outright racist, homophobic, transphobic, misogynistic, sexist, and utterly ignorant of its own sinful behavior. It’s the kind of film you only see once because no other filmmaker besides someone like the repulsive so-called “filmmaker” Dinesh D'Souza would fabricate such an abhorrent work.

The needlessly self-serious, gruesome, modern-day spin on the 17th century Salem witch hunt begins with a fair warning for its abusive dialogue, cautioning the audience for possible hate speech, violence, and inexcusable depictions of rape and abuse. Other films have crossed these thresholds before, and, like that of comedy, there should be no restraints on creativity. The limits lie in that of the intention to harm or to parody, something “Assassination Nation” fails to pinpoint. It’s not using homophobic hate speech to showcase the stigmas and stifles opposing the LGBTQ community like that of “The Miseducation of Cameron Post,” nor is it using racist dialogue in exchange for emphasizing the relevance of systematic racism like that of “BlacKkKlansman.” No, “Assassination Nation” seemingly spouts off this nonsense and callous dialogue for the hell of it, attempting to be daring, to be relevant, and, to no surprise, it does the exact opposite.

The central character in this atrocity is Lily (Odessa Young), an 18-year old, opinionated high school senior. Channeling that ever-so-annoying depiction of the extreme aura of indifference, like that of a genius in slutty outfits, Lily acts like she’s above the law as if she’s figured the game of life out before even beginning to play it. She’s rightfully sent to the principal office for her pornographic class drawings at one point, she shrugs it off and launches into a feminist tirade explaining the difficulty for women to exist in the misogynistic world of social media expressionism. Stating “It’s not about the nudity, It’s about the thousands of naked selfies you took to get just one right.”

A weak argument, for someone who confuses the empowering #MeToo movement for an excuse to be a delinquent. Is it shocking to discover that the screenplay was written by a dude, confusing the galvanizing rise of feminism for a teenager’s excuse of wrongdoing! Moving forward, her principal lets her off the hook, unable to rationalize the mute point she’s making, and Lily is set free with a warning as she scampers back into a film that, like her argument, fails to calculate the rationale behind her argument. It’s not that she’s wrong per say, social media is a sexist and toxic environment in favor of approving impossible standards, measuring people’s beauty by a number of likes. She’s also correct in stating that it's wrong to equate nudity to sexuality, but her drawing doesn’t sound off those points, rather antagonizes them, like that of the rest of “Assassination Nation.”

It’s attempting to outline our ersatz existence in this digital age, but it immaturely flings touchy subjects out at the screen without exposing the depth and thematic significance they deserve. Like watching a child attempt to critically examine the complexities of social inadequacies, unable to conceptualize the intricacies of every social dilemma that occurs in the 21st century. Unable to comprehend that there aren’t two sides to every story, some have one right answer, others have five to six stories, and “Assassination Nation” makes everything out to be free-for-discussion, permitting itself to cross any barrier and any line in the sand. Offending, frustrating, and triggering everyone and anyone it can in exchange for attention, not to deliver a message of prominence, but rather for awareness of a problem that is evaluated by both better filmmakers and better people.

From the get-go: we laze with the four leads: Bex (Hari Nef), Sarah (Suki Waterhouse), and Em (Abra) as they philosophically gossip and stroll through the dark and empty hallways of their school. Their superficial senior lives are treated with feverish cinematography, the camera attempting to force energy into the screen by lighting the film with bright and obscene colors that distract with their annoying redundancy and an aggravatingly busy soundtrack to boot. Meanwhile, we learn about Lily’s anonymous sexting with a shady guy named “Daddy,” apparently making the feminist movement proud (once again, remember a man wrote this). She’s attempting to escape her abusive relationship with Mark, depicted abusively by Bill Skarsgard, who degrades and verbally assaults her self-esteem with no remorse, so she reaches out for assurance. The only problem is that an online vigilante seems to be on the loose, exposing a homophobic conservative politician for a closet-crossdresser, and characterizing the principal as a pedophile for taking pictures of his six-year-old naked daughter in the bathtub.

It’s attempting to criticize the “SJW” movement as both irrational and erratic, and it definitely can become those things, but “Assassination Nation” paints these dilemmas in such a broad and unjustifiably extreme spectrum that it’s absurdly foolish. Where it truly gets crazy though, is when Lily becomes the sole focus of the hacker, making her out to be solely responsible for the illegal hacking of half of Salem’s private information. Forcing the town into a vengeance-filled craze, making Lily and her friends the hate-filled targets of a murderous rampage that echoes the satirical stupidity of “The Purge.” It’s baffling intense and seeks to make up for its offensive wrongdoings by shoddily crafting a female revenge story in the midst of its finale, an apology letter that is both unwelcomed and fuel for the fire.

“Assassination Nation” is the type of film that sparks hatred for the hell of it, like that of Milo Yiannopoulos, it attempts to expose the holes in political correctness by becoming a hate-speaking douchebag, but like him, “Assassination Nation” does not apologize for this. It continues it's bashful treatment of beliefs, orientations, ways of life, in a hectically overdone style that confuses itself for the vigilante instead of the commenting troll. It’s an unforgiving online mob mentality brought to life in the worst of ways, with nothing to show for its egregious mistakes other than one well-filmed sequence of events.

It's loud and unfocused, flagrantly spouting off Trump-like ignorance like it's speaking truth to power. It’s an excusable, abomination of satirical cinema that should be thrown to the wayside by critics, yet shockingly some seem to think of it as an “undercooked thesis on contemporary mass hysteria.” It's a shame to watch intelligence get tainted by propaganda lunacy, despite that not being much of a surprise. In today’s day and age, even the worst of the worst have a few supporters behind them, and 2018, and “Assassination Nation,” are no different.

The Predator (2018)

   Director: Shane Black With: Boyd Holbrook, Trevante Rhodes, Jacob Tremblay, Keegan-Michael Key, Olivia Munn, Thomas Jane, Alfie Allen, Sterling K. Brown, Augusto Aguilera, Jake Busey, & Yvonne Strahovski. Release: Sep 14, 2018 PG-13. 1 hr. 48 min.

Director: Shane Black
With: Boyd Holbrook, Trevante Rhodes, Jacob Tremblay, Keegan-Michael Key, Olivia Munn, Thomas Jane, Alfie Allen, Sterling K. Brown, Augusto Aguilera, Jake Busey, & Yvonne Strahovski.
Release: Sep 14, 2018
PG-13. 1 hr. 48 min.

 

Shane Black’s “The Predator” is a set piece of entertainment. It doesn’t use substance as much as it just lets you see the blood and guts of the action and the cracks of the comedy; it’s a blast. It wastes no time, jumping straight into the thick of things, like that of its hero. Little time is wasted, playing both like an homage to the action of the 80s and something that feels decisively contemporary. It’s not trying to mimic as much as if it's attempting to live in the same essence of McTiernan's “Predator.” It’s exactly what you want from a film called “The Predator.” Does that equal to one of the best movies of the year? No, but it does make for some buttery popcorn fun.

Wasting no time as I said, Black opens the film in the midst of a galactic chase. One bigger predator ship chasing a smaller one as a warp hole opens, transporting one of them to our atmosphere as they crash down into a forest that so happens to be the stage for a drug-bust/hostage rescue. A sniper named Quinn McKenna (Boyd Holbrook) is on the job when he notices this crashing unknown craft flying towards his location as he soon finds himself face to face with one of the galaxy’s most dangerous “Predators.”

He lucks out, using the alien’s weapons against him, then stealing parts of his technology for evidence and sending it home. Instead of arriving in his P.O. box, it goes straight to his doorstep leading to his presumably autistic son to discover it. Assuming it's a gift from his dad, Rory (Jacob Tremblay) slices open the package to find a predator mask and weapon.

While this is occurring, Dr. Casey Bracket (Olivia Munn) is brought in to examine the predator that McKenna took down. She meets the smug leader of this “project stargaze,” Traeger (Sterling K. Brown), who reminds us that this isn’t a reboot but rather a continuation of the story following “Predator 2.” As predicted though, things go awry, which seems to be the biggest problem with Black and, fellow 80s icon, Fred Dekker’s screenplay in that of how it struggles to surprise. We know what's going to happen before it happens, which is never a good thing.

What remains unpredictable throughout the film is the comedy, as when the shit hits the fan we are introduced to the goons of therapy group 2. The bus that McKenna is placed on allows us to meet this self professed ragtag team of “Loonies,” including the suicidal Nebraska (Trevante Rhodes), the hilarious Coyle (Keegan-Michael Key), the terret stricken Baxley (Thomas Jane), the Irish Lynch (Alfie Allen), and the sweet Nettles (Augusto Aguilera). This group of ragtag sociopaths band together to save McKenna’s son when he learns that he has the devices, manifesting a cat and mouse thrill and shrill adventure between these soldiers and the upgraded Predator.

Casting aside the backstage dilemma that Black needs to answer for, “The Predator” works as a film that is easy to take for granted, producing a mobile pace that jumps from point A to point B to point C at a pace that is both ferocious and exciting. He gives just enough time to the characters for us to care about them for just a moment, just the right amount for us to care about their outcome.

He’s assisted greatly from a talented and charismatic ensemble though, ranging from Olivia Munn’s quirky brilliance to Sterling K. Brown’s charming hostility. Keegan is on-fire as the comic relief as expected, but he’s assisted greatly by Thomas Jane. Holbrook and Rhodes have their strength’s amplified by Black, fabricating a buddy-cop duo that is begging for its own feature film, perhaps from the same director considering his success with the subgenre in the past. (“The Nice Guys” & “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang”)

A lot of what elevates “The Predator” is Shane Black, but he’s also true to form by allowing practicality to take center stage as much as possible. He recreates the first Predator with the makeup and props of the eighties, feeling tangible and tactile. He doesn’t just lean into the past though, the new and improved Predator is recreated digitally, becoming this eleven foot tall beast of a creature. He’s smart, fast, and one “beautiful mothereffer" as Munn puts so perfectly. It’s one of the many references to the past films, but Black never relies on our nostalgia, he leans into the future of a possible franchise re-birth. Making a portion of character motivations center around global warming, Black allows the film to feel modernized, but Black knows how to give us fans what we want. He brings back the 80s “kids know more than the parents” trope and echoes its brilliance with ease; it's an easy sell for me as a huge fan of the eighties “kid discovering mysteries” kind of movies.

No, “The Predator” isn’t one of the best films of the year, nor is it better than its predecessors (“Predator” & “Predator 2”). It does surpass every film that followed those, beating out the shotty remake from 2010 and the subpar versus films. It struggles to maintain realism at times, and the adrenaline pacing can work against the film’s best efforts sometimes, but “The Predator” knows how to balance parody and tribute. Black is both making fun of his first feature acting role and exhibiting his love for the franchise.

All that said, the backstage news has presumably led to critics punishing the film for its director’s wrong choices, and while that is fair, I am not such a critic. I condemn his decisions and cheerfully praise Munn’s actions, but “The Predator” is a good movie for me. It’s both entertaining and exhilarating. It’s not absent of its shortcomings obviously, but when you allow a Predator to be as bloody and violent as possible, reminding us of how dangerous and merciless these creatures can be, the fanboy inside of me grins from ear to ear. Add in some Predator dogs (Yes! I said Predator Dogs), and I will just shut up, and you can take my money!

A Simple Favor (2018)

   Director: Paul Feig With: Anna Kendrick, Blake Lively, Henry Golding, Ian Ho, Joshua Satine, & Bashir Salahuddin. Release: Sep 14, 2018 R. 1 hr. 57 min.

Director: Paul Feig
With: Anna Kendrick, Blake Lively, Henry Golding, Ian Ho, Joshua Satine, & Bashir Salahuddin.
Release: Sep 14, 2018
R. 1 hr. 57 min.

 

“A Simple Favor” is a film that walks a tightrope between melodrama and parody. It’s a thriller told with a generous sense of humor, humor that is twisted and self-referential of the suburban mom caricature. That ever-so-perfect mom. The one who cuts the crust off the edges, remembers everyone allergies including the children who don’t even belong to her. That mom that volunteers for anything and everything, desperately pleading to be a part of every waking moment of her child’s life. That’s the kind of mother that we see in Stephanie (Anna Kendrick). She’s the mother who makes every other parent feel like crap as if they are not trying enough.

She’s a single mother too. Both her husband and half-brother died in a horrific car accident; so that mama work-ethic is due in part to her keeping busy, refusing to be reminded of the grief that she has somewhat buried beneath her desire for friendship. She even runs a popular vlog, where she shares recipes, parenting tips, and how-tos for the everyday single mom out there. This super-mom persona seemingly stifles her from developing any sense of meaningful connection with other adults though, both romantically and friendly. That is until she comes across Emily Nelson (Blake Lively), a stunningly beautiful and alpha-like woman who seemingly allows no BS to slip by. She invites Stephanie over to her dazzling high-town house, just outside the hustling and bustling city of New York.

There, they exchange confessions. Drinking high-class martinis, and chit-chatting their stresses away. Least to say, Stephanie is star-struck by all of this. It’s not hard to see why either, Emily is that distinct kind of beautiful, striding around the screen in her red high heels and pin-stripe suits making sure all the attention is on her, like that of graceful painting brought to life. It’s the Manhattan dream to her, especially when she, like us, is swooped off her feet by Emily’s husband Sean (Henry Golding).

The handsome and smooth-talking charmer from “Crazy Rich Asians” graces us with his stunningly dapper presence once again, making all of us drool of course. Here he depicts a once-great writer, responsible for one New York Times Bestseller that has seemingly kept him from writing ever again. It’s also inherently enigmatic for Stephanie, both of these people seem to be piercingly contrasting to the stereotypical out of the city mom, they have threesomes, drink away their problems, and Emily is more unique than thought possible. She isn’t only stunning to look at, but her personality blows you back as well; swearing, and speaking directly to Stephanie. She’s intimate, encouraging, and seductive wrapped into one alluring package.

Some curious red flags go up while we are introduced to this gorgeous woman though, freaking out when her picture is taken, seemingly telling stories like that of a pathological liar, and when she suddenly disappears, it becomes more and more apparent that she was not an average person. As a former artist who used to paint her describes “I’ve never seen such a beautiful girl wanna be so invisible.” It becomes a mystery that isn’t worth solving. The breadcrumbs lead to conclusions seen from a mile away. It doesn’t take much to figure out where everything is going; it's the opposite of something like “Gone Girl." Never surprising us, but making it fun to participate in the hunt for the truth.

It’s what gives “A Simple Favor” this smooth edge to its classy grandeur, shifting fluidly from a bad and predictable mystery to an entertaining dramatic comedy with the charismatic woman taking charge of the story. It’s one of Paul Feig's best talents as a director. The acclaimed mind from films such as “Bridesmaids” and “Heat,” showcases his innate ability to work with strong and engaging woman once again. He gives them space to work, rightfully allowing them to take center stage, to be apart of the creation. There’s room for him to build off of, room for him to mold things, room for him to bounce off their spontaneity, improvisation, and behavior.

The plot isn’t intricate; it’s channeling the comedies or spy capers of the 60s as made apparent in the stylization of the opening credits. Designed funkily, single color stilettos and purses moving along in these angular cut-out shapes and frames that collage together in French-pop sort of way. Establishing that high-town mood from the get-go, relying on songs from artists like Serge Gainsbourg and Jean-Paul Keller to paint something ever-so similar to Guy Ritchie’s “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” He speeds past the twists and turns, running over them like the speed bumps that they could become, a wise but noticeable maneuver from Feig. He knows the screenplay can be shredded if given too much leeway, so he remains reserved, relying on style and charm rather than substance and drama.

That’s not to say there are no radiating messages made by the screenwriter (Jessica Sharzer adapting from Darcey Bell’s novel). Emily points out wrongful female habits, like that of the constant insistence on apologizing for things that aren't their fault, or confusing beauty for strength. But the super-mom turned feminine detective aspects are over-blown; never ridiculed or pointed out for their innate ridiculousness, a missed opportunity.

Besides those kinds of missteps, the actresses are on fire here. Kendrick funnels that shy, awkward, and quirky happy-go-lucky attitude that makes her so effortless to yearn for, to resonate with. She executes that kind of character with ease, but she takes it up a notch from her performances in the “Pitch Perfect” films, able to introduce a more dagger edge to that plucky attitude. Lively is no different. She inhabits that ruthless yet charming persona, able to become sexy and detached, intimidating and provocative, like that of a thorned rose.

They are the gas that fuels the car, keeping this locomotive of charm going down the tracks which inevitably is where “A Simple Favor” nestles itself. It doesn’t try to outdo good mystery films like that of “Gone Girl,” nor does it try to match the classy dramatic crime films of the 60s like “Murder on the Orient Express.” It finds it's lane and drives the speed limit, coloring inside the lines. The best way to decide if a film is good or not as a critic, at least for me, is whether or not you had a good time, and I can answer that question with affirmation. It’s not going to be a prominent favorite for female lead filmmaking when the year reaches its end, nor does it do anything shocking and surprising. “A Simple Favor” merely entertains and satisfies, and that’s all you can ask for sometimes.

Castle Rock (2018)

   Creators: Sam Shaw & Dustin Thomason Credits: Executive Producers: J.J. Abrams, Scott Brown, Tamara Isaac, Stephen King, Mark Lafferty, Sam Shaw, Dustin Thomason, Michael Uppendahl, & Colin Walsh. Cast: André Holland, Melanie Lynskey, Bill Skarsgård, Jane Levy, Sissy Spacek, Scott Glenn, Adam Rothenberg, Noel Fisher, Ann Cusack, Chosen Jacobs, & Terry O'Quinn. Release: July 25, 2018 TV-MA. 10 Episodes. 1 Hr.

Creators: Sam Shaw & Dustin Thomason
Credits: Executive Producers: J.J. Abrams, Scott Brown, Tamara Isaac, Stephen King, Mark Lafferty, Sam Shaw, Dustin Thomason, Michael Uppendahl, & Colin Walsh.
Cast: André Holland, Melanie Lynskey, Bill Skarsgård, Jane Levy, Sissy Spacek, Scott Glenn, Adam Rothenberg, Noel Fisher, Ann Cusack, Chosen Jacobs, & Terry O'Quinn.
Release: July 25, 2018
TV-MA. 10 Episodes. 1 Hr.

 

The name Stephen King can invoke a multitude of responses, both positive and negative; even neutral. He’s an author that many will recognize, but may struggle to put the finger on his most recent works like that of “The Outsider,” a chilling novel worth reading on a mid-Sunday afternoon with a cup of coffee. He, like his books, has generated a polarizing perspective, with some acclaiming him to be one of the best writers of the 20th century, and others deeming him a hack. Whichever side of the conversation you land on, “Castle Rock” is a show that can change your outlook on the iconic author. 

The show centers around Henry Deever (Andre Holland), who begins the show in the midst of defending a man facing criminal punishment (the death penalty). Questioning how you can sentence a man to death with even the slightest amount of doubt? It sets the tone for him as a character, someone who doesn’t precisely cheer on for the demise of humanity, rather analyzing the world as the complex hoshbog of moral values that it tends to be. From there we cut to Shawshank, we meet Officer Dennis Zalewski who is a jailer. The former warden recently committed suicide by driving off a cliff into Castle Lake with a rope anchored to the stump of a tree knotted around his throat. 

The new warden asked for him and a colleague to clear out a cell block for usage. While investigating, they discover a shriveled but young man trapped within a cage. He’s silent, seemingly traumatized for his forced stay inside a cell, treated like that of an animal. When they ask for his name he replies “Henry Deaver,” an interesting response considering we’ve already met someone with that name as the story is set afoot as to solving the question of who this man is? How does the real Henry play into this? Why was he locked away by the old warden? How will the town itself play a factor? Most of those questions will be answered, but the majority of our curiosity is generated in the latter half of the season when new inquiries are manifested from the second half of a season that is sensationally brilliant for its bulk. 

For those who are die-hard King fanatics, “Castle Rock” is a show that is meticulously assembled for you. Each episode opens with cut out pages from many iconic King novels as the opening credits play. The cast consists of Sissy Spacek and Bill Skarsgard who have each depicted infamous novellas for King. (Spacek as “Carrie” and Skarsgard as “IT”) Among them is a healthy alumni from past King productions like Terry O’Quinn (Silver Bullet), Melanie Lynskey (Rose Red), Ann Cusack (Mr. Mercedes), Frances Conroy (The Mist), and that’s not all. The sheriff of the town is Alan Pangborn, depicted genuinely by Scott Glenn, who’s previously been played by Ed Harris (Needful Things) and Michael Rooker (The Dark Half). Key plot points are residing around Shawshank Prison and The Mellow Tiger. Along with key references to events that took place in this universe, like that of Jackie Torrence (Jane Levy), the niece of the infamous crazy-wielding ax murderer known as Jack Torrance from Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining.” It’s all connected to a multitude of King memorabilia, like that of a collector’s museum where every turn reveals a snippet of the Author’s past and how they seemingly connect to one another. 

Fair warning though, the narrative unfolds at the pace of molasses, slowly and sloppily sprinkling details; leading  you to ask questions more in line with “why am I watching this show” than “what’s gonna happen next?” It plays like that of a cover band, beginning their set with more of the familiar hits than their stuff, referencing names and locations as if to shout “remember this?” That’s not to say there is no actual narrative occurring until the latter half of the season, rather that the show doesn’t drill into the nuts and bolts of that story until the fifth episode. 

But, for those who weren’t either familiar with the “King of Horror” or share scorn for the popular genre writer, “Castle Rock” has some great things for you too. Yes, the easter eggs and references may go over your head or irk you with their production line assembly, but “Castle Rock” tells a story that will incite and invoke curiosity. It’s a good mystery built into an assembled tribute act, one that occasionally runs the risk of relying on its inside baseball knowledge more than a well-written narrative. It’s an anthology series though, meaning each season will connect in broadness but differ in the details. It’s a new story occurring in the same universe, which is why the first few episodes feel more fixated on fabricating the world that the characters inhabit more than the character and stories themselves. When the story does get going though, it’s an emotionally evocative journey that is both a great mystery and a traditional horror story in one. 

The series most notable elements derive from the screenwriting. It’s the kind of story that develops and molds and mutates over the course of the season in a meaningful fashion in which the surprises are earth-shattering. The reveals are dumbfounding, and the majority of the emotion produced is genuine, but each show has a standout quality, and this one is two-fold in both it's direction and performances. The camera work is cryptically radiant. Working like that of a crisp page-turner, each frame and cut tugging at your collar to lean in closer to the screen. It’s a masterwork of editing as well, though not on par with HBO’s “Sharp Objects,” few shows can compare to that level of editorial mastery though. 

What may be seen as cheap tricks, can also be seen as timeless tools. Transitioning sets in one-shot maneuvers, how a character walks from one place to another without a cut, mimicking that of a stage play. Some savvy film geeks consider this as a low totem, but for me, it's always brilliant, primarily when it serves the purpose of the story, like that of episode seven “The Queen.” An episode that swings and wanders through timelines, investigating the legitimacy of dementia, providing an expressive tour into a woman’s regret. Every show has their best episode and this the episode that reflects the best of what the show offers, a sci-fi/fictional outtake on a relatable issue that is constructed with splendor. 

It’s a tour de force of an episode where we focus on Henry’s mother Ruth, depicted by Sissy Spacek in an episodic performance worthy of an Emmy. Throughout the season she confronts the disease of dementia, forgetting the face of her own son at one point. The episode provides insight into those feelings of traumatization lingering through memories and how those memories teach her things she didn’t know, translating how the past affects the present. It’s framed, designed, and executed with a precision that ends with a reanalyzing of moments that crush the heart. Crumbling you into a mess of tears and sobs, realizing the hidden truth lying in front of you all the while. It's truly a masterwork of television. 

The episodes that follow struggle to match that level of expertise, but the best moments occur in Episode nine in which the story is given a whole new framing, forcing us to re-contextualize everything we know. It’s a genius maneuver that is immediately refuted by the show itself in a finale that echoes the authenticity of Stephen King. Marc Bernardin, writer & geekdom enthusiast, worked on the show and described the process of writing for the show as “pulling and choosing the elements that we like, but making an original story that feels like a Stephen King book, but isn’t really.” 

In that mindset, the ending feels like a King novella. As a self-admitted fan of both the man and the creator, King has consistently struggled with resolutions. He has his exceptions like that of “IT” and “The Green Mile” and his short stories, but for the bulk of his career, it has been his single-biggest weakness. He can manifest a heavy amount of tension through genius character development that builds to a large and compelling story that inevitably dwindles to a finish, the same happens with “Castle Rock.” 

It’s a show that delivers dramatically; boasting clever and understated performances from Holland, Skarsgard, Spacek, Lynskey, Glenn, and much more. It lives in the right vein to carry that essence of a Stephen King riff, understanding and updating his concepts of everyday American evil in one of his best adaptation in recent memory. As a horror story though, as a mystery, it works like a bad twilight zone episode; making promises and then all but going out of its way to breaking those promises. A grand bait and switch that makes us feel like a catfish victim, hooking us into a concept that isn’t nuanced but transforms the story into something transfixing, but it's all for nothing. 

It’s a big ruse, a big joke, an “I can’t believe you fell for it” kind of moment that finalizes a show that captured and gained steam over its tenure, inevitably concluding in shambles of disappointment. Each episode feels as if got better and better on each successor, delivering new themes, new references, and new places for this intertwining story to explore. 

It peaks in its near-season finale, an episode that wows and delivers a soaking amount of anticipation to set-up the finale, but when you reach the final credits, it's a moment where you feel empty. Asking for answers to be filled in, pleading for your time to be rewarding, but it's an ending that nearly crumbles the show if it weren’t for the previous entries being so staggeringly excellent. Endings are important, and hopefully, our next visit to this treacherous Maine town doesn’t let us down near as much.

MANDY (2018)

   Director: Panos Cosmatos With: Nicolas Cage, Andrea Riseborough, Linus Roache, Ned Dennehy, Olwen Fouere, Richard Brake, & Bill Duke. Release: Sep 14, 2018 R. 2 hr. 1 min.

Director: Panos Cosmatos
With: Nicolas Cage, Andrea Riseborough, Linus Roache, Ned Dennehy, Olwen Fouere, Richard Brake, & Bill Duke.
Release: Sep 14, 2018
R. 2 hr. 1 min.

 

Writer/director Panos Cosmatos describes his second original feature as an “expulsion of the things I was feeling,” it forces me to ask: what the hell was this guy feeling when he wrote this? Jokes aside, “Mandy” is one of those few films that is quite hard to watch and analyze. It’s heavy, both emotionally and literally. Panos has crafted a love letter to heavy metal, to 80s horror/sci-fi, to the post-apocalyptic genre; even self-referencing the enigmatic character that Nicolas Cage has become. It’s a stylish, visceral, and mad-house version of a film that is unrelentingly unapologetic for it's “against the grain” mentality. Some have compared it to an 80s heavy metal album cover brought to cinematic life, but that’s merely the style of “Mandy.” The emotional depth, heartfelt homaging to Panos influences, and the blending of a “slow-burn” artsy stylized tale of a journey into the depths of hell and a blood-soaking climb out of it.

Least to say, “Mandy” is not a film for everyone, nor should it be. There are plenty of blockbuster features and mediocre productions that are meant for everyone to “enjoy” throughout the year. It's the perfect kick-off for Oscar season, the time of the year where films focus a bit more on storytelling, on craftsmanship, on conveying meaningful messages.

“Mandy” does all of those things, but in a way that is inherently unique to a specific crowd, one that grew beloving films from directors like George Romero and Sam Raimi. Falling in love with those mid-80s sci-fi films that were both egregious and fascinatingly intriguing, like that of “The Fly” and “Scanners;" the movies that inspired the filmmakers of today that felt tangible in style, as if you could reach into the screen and pull something out of them. This is what Panos is channeling, at least in part. He’s also channeling his affinity for films like “After Hours” and “The Road Warrior,” conveying that “Kafkaesque” design while exhibiting his fidelity for the post-apocalyptic craze that sci-fi seems to generate endlessly.

With all of that said, “Mandy” is a tough film to capture tonally and even narratively, but I’ll do my best. Nicolas Cage stars as Red Miller, a peaceful lumberjack, residing in the outer rims of nature with his wife, Mandy (Andrea Riseborough). One day, Mandy catches the eye of a cult leader, one whose power is made up of ego, whose connections with an eerily demonic framed biker gang, which resemble that of the hounds of hell. Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roache), this zealot figure, conjures the hounds to steal away this woman, someone whose absence from his side makes him feel “naked.” In what is a horrifically stylized scene, these “things” kidnap Mandy and Red and take them back to Jeremiah’s residence in exchange for the sacrifice of one of the members of Jeremiah’s flock.

There, Red is tortured with his mouth gagged by being wrapped in razor wire, his hands restrained by the same material. Inside, Mandy is drugged by that of an insect’s venom and attemptively seduced by this cult fanatic in a scene that is hallucinantingly transfixing. It’s reminiscent of the production used in Alex Garland’s “Annihilation,” in how that film becomes hypnotic in that of it's framing and sound design. After Jeremiah’s charms work to no avail, Red is forced to watch an event that traumatizes him deeply, breaking that essential link that keeps us from going insane on everyone around us, shattering the moral compass entirely.

Cage goes home, dripping with blood, attempting to forget about the events that occurred. He awakes in the middle of the night, startled by a nightmare as he then proceeds to drink an entire bottle of booze while in his underwear, howling like that of a primordial beast. It’s a scene that is shot spaciously, we're encompassed by the distance between Cage and us something that dwindles the more prolonged the scene goes on because we’re witnessing a great bit of acting, conveying a man losing his mind to insanity, driven by grief.

While a few laughs and chuckles generated from the audience around me, I was mortified by the visual. It’s like watching the molding of a serial killer, a man no-longer seeing the world as something primarily benevolent, rather re-contextualizing his surrounding like that of objects in need of destroying. His eyes are filled with rage and a thirst for violence. Like a character off of an “Iron Maiden” album cover, as he sets out on a path of vengeance. Forging a grim reaper-like Scythe, as Nicolas Cage is set-off to embrace that infamous craze in which at one moment he slits someone’s throat and open his mouth, his tongue extended down to his chin, as blood spews all over his face.

The violence is insanely brilliant, but also bizarrely cautious. There is so much of the craziness that I love, but it shockingly falls short when it comes to blood and gore, at least at first. I do wish it started out at full-speed though, despite the final fights making up for it altogether. Nonetheless, the heavy metal comparisons become apparent at this time. As we are watching Red work his way through both the demons that Jeremiah conjured and, inevitably, the fanatic disciples themselves, but the nightmarish creatures that Red faces play out like songs on an album. Each of them is episodically cast in extremity; long color-saturated takes with shadows and bright colors being sharply constructed, like that of a marriage between Tarantino’s “Grindhouse” and Metallica.

Cage is at his best here. The former academy award recipient has become exotic in his decision making as an actor, taking on challenges in all shapes and sizes. He’s the proverbial idea of an actor brought to life, someone who speaks of acting like that of a spiritual experience, and he delivers something of an otherworldly performance as Red. He’s ranging from the subtly charming figure to the emotionally devastated man to the kooky but intimidating stoic hero. He’s everywhere, and anywhere the screenplay asks him to go, merely reverberating to watch. As is his counterpart, Linus Roache who is calmly chic. He speaks in poems, riddles, and monologues and his last moments as the character he is exceptional. Acting like that of a man treading water before he drowns, doing anything and everything he can to survive.

The performances, like that of the film itself, are walking a tightrope, one that is assisted by the last dose of brilliance to come from the late Johann Johannsson, one of the best to compose. His final film composition is incredible. The score is a series of screeching, violent noises that add to the tone, to the spirit of “Mandy.” His work alone is a justification of a theatrical viewing, the last great remnants of an artist lost too soon.

“Mandy” is indefinitely unique, but the magic stems from the passion of a fan exhibited by Panos Cosmatos. The way he mimics that of his favorite filmmakers through his heightened camera maneuverability, injecting energy into the silver screen like that of Raimi and Scorsese, two of his biggest influences. He’s over-loading a film with love letters, homages, and symbolizing exposes of male-ego, grief, and the deep-rooted infatuation fabricated by religious leaders. Some will say it's crazy for crazy sakes, and in some ways, they’d be right.

It feels like that of a fable turned biblical tragedy, becoming a fascinating genre exercise of both horror and action. Like that of “Evil Dead 2,” “Mandy” is something of an amalgamation of genres. It’s both invigoratingly bad-ass and downright terrifying, a perfect concoction of good vs. evil in a twisty but realized vision from the prolific mind of Panos Cosmatos.

Peppermint (2018)

   Director: Pierre Morel With: Jennifer Garner, John Gallagher Jr., John Ortiz, Annie Ilonzeh, Juan Pablo Raba, Jeff Hephner, & Cailey Fleming. Release: Sep 7, 2018 R. 1 hr. 41 min.

Director: Pierre Morel
With: Jennifer Garner, John Gallagher Jr., John Ortiz, Annie Ilonzeh, Juan Pablo Raba, Jeff Hephner, & Cailey Fleming.
Release: Sep 7, 2018
R. 1 hr. 41 min.

 

What should’ve been a subtle, but brilliant dark comedy on our socio-political status as a country is mutilated into a shoot em’ up, straight to DVD action film starring Jennifer Garner. It’s the kind of movie that makes sense for someone like Pierre Morel to helm. Continuing to feed off of the audience favoring that was brought to him from the enjoyable but brainlessly constructed “Taken,” Pierre struggles to make “Peppermint” much more than a feminized version of “Death Wish.” Screenwriter Chad St. John doesn’t have that stellar of a career either, and his work here is an example as to why, not being able to see the brilliance seeping through the cracks.

In “Peppermint,” a widowed and bereaved woman who seeks vengeance on the cartoonishly caricatured Latino drug-dealers who killed her husband and young daughter in a drive-by at a carnival. They do this after their leader, or “jefe,” learns that the husband and his friends were planning on stealing from him, it's a message that reads: “don’t cross the boss.”

This generic traumatic event sends Riley North (Jennifer Garner) on a rampage, a former blank employee who in a matter of five years, despite glaring psychological trauma that she never treats, can master the techniques needed to bring down a large and well-organized drug operation. Admittedly silly, Pierre and John make it out to be ever-so intense as if she is the grim reaper coming to force these sinners to pay their debts. Riley’s mental imbalance is so well known - shown through a matter of sped-up, over-exposed, and out-of-focus camera work - that nobody in a position of authority believes her to be a murder or a vigilante of some kind.

Nonetheless, audiences are supposed to root for Riley and her crusade on the joint-smoking, booze-drinking, gun-toting criminals who were never punished because the system is corrupt. So she and her mass arsenal are forced to get justice by force, to, for lack of a better phrase, “drain the swamp.” I don’t mean to be on-the-nose, but John is obvious in his intentions and craftsmanship. He simplifies the world around Riley so that her actions seem justified, never asking us to look past the tattoos and the gang mentality, rather to lust for their demise. He and Morel paint this black and white world, one that is meant to suggest that if you live life the “right way” you’ll be happy if you don’t then you're a scumbag. Crime is, sadly, not as simple as that. If it were, cops and lawyers lives would be a lot easier, but crime is not color-coded despite what many members of Trump-America would believe.

A presumably shared belief by both John and Pierre, as they stray away from complex and ingenious subjects of conversation. Like that of Riley’s privilege, how her “responsible” gun-owning actions are ironically viewed differently than the “criminal” gun owning Latinos. No, in their minds, Riley is a white woman whose sole purpose is to set the system right, to fix what is broken, to rail against the stereotypical Latino gangsters who work at a pinata store. If you were wondering why we, film critics, beg for diversity and fresh voices in filmmaking, this is why.

So that we don’t have to see the age-old cliche of the white person being held down by the criminal man of color, despite that relationship being the other way around on a more common occurrence. Morel and John even attempt to pencil in her representation of the common folk, how her self-image justifies her actions as a working-class martyr. She’s not a rich housewife like her former friend Peg (Pell James), a snobby mother who tells of Riley and her daughter (Cailey Fleming) during a flashback. Riley is supposed to be a symbol of Los Angeles’ fed-up frustration towards corruption, and the continuous mistreatment of middle-class America. How her injustices are echoed through the forbearance of old-testament like justice, I guess Morel and John are unfamiliar with the saying: “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”

It’s this cynical and psychotic behavior that tends to suggest that the idea of justice presented in “Peppermint” isn’t exactly one that both makes sense or solves the problem, instead of medicating a symptom of the issue. Riley is meant to be an underdog, fighting the uphill battle of gun-heavy bodyguards, a high-powered lawyer, a corrupt judge, and the untouchable head honcho Diego Garcia (Juan Pablo Raba) who resides at the top of the mountain. So it’s up to Riley to de-corrupt the system with bullets and bloodshed, but unlike Frank Castle, another pantheon of Red-Blooded American Avengers, the pathos for her revenge never gains steam.

First off, the men responsible for her situation are killed off-screen. The ones made out to be the trio responsible, the ones we're supposed to root against, the ones who did the crime; we never get to see them receive their punishment. Instead, were lead to witness the demise of the higher-ups. It’s misconstrued as a revenge plot, the film work behind it isn’t exactly any better obviously with most of the action being equivalent to that of “Taken.” With quick-cuts and satisfactory framed set-pieces that are embodied by Garner who, despite her strong efforts, is unable to become believable as an action heroine. Unlike female badasses such as Charlize Theron, Michelle Rodriguez, and Gal Gadot, Garner is unable to match that ferocity, that feminine fierceness that is needed to become both feared and believable as a female outlaw.

All of this, on top of the distorted image of so-called “justice,” is what leads to “Peppermint” feeling like a shotty spin-off of a Tucker Carlson wet dream. Riley’s actions seem far more monsterish than anti-heroic. She threatens to stab Peg at gunpoint for merely being a nuisance, she toys with a so-called “corrupt” judge despite his reasoning for dismissal making sense, and she threatens to kill a man for doing his job as an alcohol salesman. But this is never seen as a woman out-of-control, rather a heroine serving out justice.

Morel often seems desperate and pathetic in his attempts to make us care for her, as we see that her boss forces her to work late on the date of her daughter's birthday party, mere days before Christmas no less, and her husband is the ever-so-innocent and “good man” that refuses the temptation of theft to be with his family. Hearing all of this, how could you not root for Riley in her revenge path for the slaughter of these two innocent, good-natured, Americans? Meanwhile, the antagonists are characteristics through cheeky surroundings, and racist straw men caricatures, with the over-usage of tattoos and so-called Mexican styled furniture of De Los Muertos, designed homes that become tacky and obscenely ridiculous.

Morel attempts to cover up his racist slanderings with the gender-neutral and racially diverse group of detectives and FBI agents that hunt down this one-woman rampage. But it's to no avail, though Garner attempts to give everything she can to a film undeserving of her presence, Morel and St. John seemingly shout their opinions on what is “wrong” with America. Blaming the left-wing ideologies of rehabilitating criminals, thinking the only way to solve injustice is to put down the abusers once and for all. It's an ugly strain of modern America, insisting that your being bullied if someone tells you that you are bullying them, it's all hoshpog nonsense that sadly resonates with proportions of middle-class White-America.

In the end, Garner becomes the very thing she’s fighting. She’s unwittingly bolstering the same unfair system of power she hates, no matter how many people of color are forced to have her back and ignore the systemic favoritism towards her actions from a country that has lost its way. At one point in the midst of a flashback, Riley tells her daughter: “you can’t go around punching people who are jerks, then your just as bad as they are.” It begs the question, if she’s piling up bodies for breaking the law, what does that make her? It certainly doesn’t make her a hero.