WIDOWS (2018)

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Instant Family (2018)

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)

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

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

1.5_4 stars.png
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beautiful Boy (2018)

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mid90s (2018)

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Daredevil: Season 3 (2018)

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Old Man & the Gun (2018)

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Hate U Give (2018)

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

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

3.5_4 stars.png
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Kindergarten Teacher (2018)

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First Man (2018)

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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?

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.

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.

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.

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.