MOVIE REVIEW: The Way Back

Rating: R / Runtime: 1 hour and 48 minutes

Director Gavin O’Connor is a master of the sports drama, previously hitting home runs with films about both MMA and ice hockey. Like in those films, his newest is a story that uses the backdrop of athletic competition for a character study. Jack Cunningham (Ben Affleck) is a blue-collar worker and alcoholic, separated from his wife, and drinking his way through life one beer at a time. One day, Jack receives a call from his alma mater, a Catholic High School where Jack was once a basketball star destined for collegiate glory, asking him to come in for a chat. It’s then that Jack is offered the head basketball coaching position for the rest of the season, where he will take over while the current coach recovers from illness. Jack, who has never coached before, reluctantly accepts and must find a way to connect with and teach the young undisciplined and under-talented players of the team, all the while still struggling with his addiction and a haunting past. 

In “The Way Back”, Jack’s alcohol use is front and center much more so than basketball. He always has a beer or a fifth of vodka in his hand, to the point where it might almost seem indulgent on the filmmaker’s part. But what Gavin O’Connor does is never let us forget that alcohol is a part of Jack’s life at all times. Jack is seemingly a good person, not one of the usual physically violent alcoholics we are used to seeing in the movies. His addiction is shown for what it is, a disease that can’t be controlled without intentional steps and help. A disease that finds a person drinking on the job, drinking on the drive to the bar after work, and then carrying a beer can into the shower because having a drink in hand has literally become a physical part of who the person is. Jack, like all alcoholics, drinks for a reason. Jack is angry about his past, something he can’t escape, and like so many who struggle with alcoholism, it has him in a dangerous downward spiral that is ruining his life.

Most films in this genre drive toward a final “big game” in which the sports team or individual must compete at the highest level, overcoming whatever obstacles were in their path to get there and earning redemption along the way. “The Way Back” is slightly different, instead alternating more often than expected between the excitement of Jack’s coaching up his team during the basketball season and the dramatic revelations about pieces of his past that have come to define him and lead to his current relationship with alcohol. O’Connor certainly still gives us time with the team. We get to know the various kids, their strengths and challenges, and a few of them are developed in meaningful (though fairly cliche) ways. But their stories are never the focus of the film. It’s always about Jack, and his life mirrors that of a real one, with ups and downs, wins and losses, belief that things have gotten better and devastating mistakes. It’s a relatable and smooth-transitioning narrative, one that never stopped being compelling.

Affleck’s performance is right there with the best he’s ever given. It’s an emotionally affecting, and clearly very personal, one that rarely goes over-the-top but has power in its subtlety. Coach Cunningham’s journey with the team is inspiring, even as we see his character flaws gradually revealed. It’s easy to have empathy for and root for his redemption, something I craved even more than seeing the team have success. Credit should also go to O’Connor and cinematographer Eduard Grau, whose outstanding use of beautiful close-ups really draws the viewer into some very vulnerable moments, both on Affleck alone and in deeply affecting scenes between him and his estranged wife Angie (Janina Gavankar). The film’s score by Rob Simonsen is absolutely gorgeous and almost ever-present, strings and piano keys nudging our hearts in various directions as Jack’s journey is made.

“The Way Back” is not without its typical sports cliches in the personalities and stories of the basketball team players, but it is also a film that completely subverts them when it comes to its overall primary character arc and ending. It’s an addiction drama about how we cannot change the past, but how we can affect the future, one step at a time, and of the impactful part relationships and passions play in that process. It is simultaneously a feel-good basketball story with a dose of exciting in-game action, some hearty laughs, and plenty of sincere feels.

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Aaron White is a Seattle-based film critic and co-creator/co-host of the Feelin’ Film Podcast. He is also a member of the Seattle Film Critics Society. He writes reviews with a focus on the emotional experience he has with a film. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter to be notified when new content is posted.

MOVIE REVIEW: The Invisible Man (2020)

Rating: R / Runtime: 1 hour and 50 minutes

Going back to its original roots as a novel by H.G. Wells and one of the original Universal Pictures Classic Monster Movies, the story of “The Invisible Man” involved a man whose experiments make him unseeable and eventually lead to a descent into madness and violence. For this modern reboot of the film franchise, writer/director Leigh Whannell brings the character crashing into the #MeToo era by centering this story on not The Invisible Man himself, but rather his primary victim. Whereas previous entries have been all about how a person deals with the effects of a strange new ability, Whannell’s film focuses on the perspective of those who suffer from a maniac’s abuse of power and control.

The film opens with an absolutely stunning night-time sequence of Cecilia Kass (Elisabeth Moss) suspensefully escaping the gorgeous, isolated home she shares with her brilliant, extremely wealthy, Optics scientist partner Adrien (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). Right from the start, Whannell lays out the kind of experience this film is meant to be, relying on skillful precision in cinematography by Stefan Duscio and a powerful, terrifying score by Benjamin Wallfisch to always keep the audience intensely on edge. Cecilia is a woman who we immediately understand is the victim of awful and frequent abuses. She is clearly terrified and we hold our breath while silently praying she gets away from a man we literally know nothing about yet. And this is merely the beginning.

After living in fear for a few weeks, Cecilia learns that her ex has committed suicide, and she is free to begin healing from the horrible domestic and sexual abuse we learn he committed. But she doesn’t really believe it, and it isn’t long before mysterious things begin happening, signaling to her that someone, or something, is stalking her from outside her view. It should come as no surprise to anyone that’s seen much of Moss’ filmography that the actress is as good as they come, and her performance here ranks among the best she’s ever given. For most of the film, she is in a growing state of panic, slowly losing her sanity, and displaying every emotion one could possibly imagine a victim of these evil crimes might experience. Her ability to convey fear, distrust, and deep deep pain via facial expressions and voice inflection is incredibly impressive and also extremely difficult to watch. 

Despite support and assistance from loved ones like her sister, a childhood friend who is conveniently now a police officer, and his teenage daughter, Cecilia struggles mightily when no one believes her claims that an invisible man is out to get her. The terror he eventually begins to reign on her is some of the best supernatural horror you’ll see. It’s minimalistic for so long in a way that makes the special effects extremely impactful when they do happen, and the same can be said for the film’s reserved use of physical violence. For most of the film, it’s emotional and psychological abuse that Cecilia faces the most, but you can always feel the intensity building to something. Eventually, there are a few spots where brief outbursts of bloody action occurs, often in rather shocking fashion. The film is never too gory, though, so viewers fearing an all-out slasher flick need not worry much. 

I can’t express enough just how wound tight “The Invisible Man” is from start to finish. This is a pressure cooker of a thriller where your body is constantly clinched as you are made to feel as if you know where this hidden assailant is at all times, just waiting for the moment when something extreme is going to happen. Sure, it’s got its share of jump scares, but most are effective and play very well with an excited audience, as does the action choreography, a continuation of the great work Whannell did in 2018’s “Upgrade”. Fight sequences with The Invisible Man are especially wonderfully crafted and very memorable.

“The Invisible Man” puts a new spin on a classic horror property with a sci-fi twist, plenty of surprises, and an all-too-real story from the perspective of someone who is tormented by her long-time domestic abuser. It is not always easy to watch, and trigger warnings definitely apply, but for those who can stomach the painful brilliance of Moss’ exceptional traumatic performance, catharsis and a genuinely unnerving but entertaining experience is to be had. Universal has finally figured out what a new line of monster movies can look like, with truly evil and unredeemable villainous fiends and social metaphors delivering a contemporary vision all their own. Let’s hope this is the start of a great franchise and not just a splendid flash in the pan.

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Aaron White is a Seattle-based film critic and co-creator/co-host of the Feelin’ Film Podcast. He is also a member of the Seattle Film Critics Society. He writes reviews with a focus on the emotional experience he has with a film. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter to be notified when new content is posted.

MOVIE REVIEW: Onward

Rating: PG / Runtime: 1 hour and 54 minutes

Coming hot on the heels of Pixar’s Best Animated Picture Oscar victory for 2019’s unwanted yet somehow still exceptional “Toy Story 4″, “Onward” is the first of two original stories by the revered studio to hit the big screen in 2020. With fairly light marketing going in, many will find themselves entering a theater in the same position that I was – unexpectedly unexcited. But fear ye not, good peoples of Earth, because that Pixar magic is alive and well (literally in fact, because ya know this story is about wizards and stuff).

“Onward” is a beautifully colorful film set in the fictional city of New Mushroomton, part of a world full of fantasy creatures like centaurs and sprites, that despite once being filled with magic and champions on heroic quests is now taken over by scientific and technological advancement. Mastering magic was “too hard” and innovation for convenience won the day. The story centers around two elf brothers, Barley (Chris Pratt) and Ian (Tom Holland) Lightfoot, who on Ian’s 16th birthday are given a present from their deceased father. This gift is a magical item that if used correctly will allow the boys to spend one last day with their Dad, which both of them desperately desire. Because he passed away from illness while they were young, Barley barely remembers their time together and Ian has no memories of his own at all. It’s something that both haunts and drives him, as he continually makes lists of things to accomplish in life hoping to make his father proud. In the old days, an epic quest was a staple of someone’s 16th birthday and after Ian’s attempt to use the item goes terribly wrong, the brothers set off to retrieve a mythical stone so that they can try again. Before the sun sets, of course. Every good quest needs a time limit.

To reveal any twists and surprises of the story would be completely unfair because the emotional journey Pixar takes viewers on is a truly wonderful one. Pratt and Holland have perfect chemistry as the brothers, who in lieu of a true antagonist for the film have a relationship that is both loving and also filled with many differences of opinion that lead to some exciting situations. Barley is a walking mishap who drives a van named Gwynevere, spends his time in role-playing games or protesting the destruction of historical sites, and generally reminds everyone he comes in contact with about how magic used to rule the land and they’ve gotten away from their true nature. Ian, by contrast, is smart but timid, socially awkward, and thinks his brother’s obsession is mostly lunacy. It makes for a ton of great banter throughout the film as the two embark on a daring quest that features all of the elements you might expect, including but not limited to finding a quest giver to get a map, solving tricky puzzles, and overcoming dangerous beasts with legendary weapons of power.

Yes, “Onward” is basically Dungeons and Dragons or World of Warcraft with a heartfelt and deeply poignant story of brotherhood and parental loss layered into that world, and it’s incredible just how powerful the emotions it evokes are! Make no mistake, at multiple points during the fun adventurous quest full of monsters, spells, and swords, the tears will flow and the heart will pound. This dramatic quest for family grieving is non-stop clever and charming along the way, and with “Onward” Pixar has a truly magical start to 2020 with a film that families (and especially fantasy fans who will enjoy the film’s many references) are going to find themselves enchanted by.

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Aaron White is a Seattle-based film critic and co-creator/co-host of the Feelin’ Film Podcast. He is also a member of the Seattle Film Critics Society. He writes reviews with a focus on the emotional experience he has with a film. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter to be notified when new content is posted.

MOVIE REVIEW: A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon

Rating: G / Runtime: 1 hour and 26 minutes

There is something I find sincerely appealing about stop-motion animation, be it in the style of Laika or Aardman, who utilizes a beautiful and detailed claymation technique. Both styles of animating take significantly longer than CGI or even hand-drawn technique and is a big reason why these studios can’t pump out new films at the rate Disney and Pixar do. The first “Shaun the Sheep” film came out over four years ago and grossed over $100 million at the box office. This sequel was inevitable, but crafting it took time. 

“Farmageddon” is, in a nutshell, a remake of Spielberg’s “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial”, with a much cuter alien and an overwhelming amount of references to other famous science fiction films and television sprinkled throughout. The extra-terrestrial, in this case, is Lu-la, a small light blue and pink alien with telekinesis and a powerfully loud/forceful belch. Her space ship lands in a forest and while she’s out exploring, it’s not long before the government sends Agent Red and a team to examine the landing and seek out answers.

Back on the farm, Shaun and his sheep family are living their normal everyday lives, being trouble-makers and fighting with Bitzer the farmer’s sheepdog. When Lu-la stumbles across Shaun and the group, they embark on an adventure of discovery with the goal of ultimately hoping to find Lu-la’s ship so that she can return home. There’s not a lot more to be said about the plot, although Agent Red does have some backstory that provides a reason for why she is so driven. It culminates in one of the sweeter moments of the film and is a welcome character development choice to take her beyond just the typical cookie-cutter governmental baddie. 

Those concerned about the silent nature of Shaun the Sheep films should honestly not be worried at all. I remember being incredibly surprised at how much I loved “Shaun the Sheep” back in 2015 despite the lack of dialogue and in “Farmageddon” I didn’t even miss it. The soundtrack and score show up perfectly, and sound effects are used to greatly enhance the already incredibly expressiveness of the claymation. Because this film is playing so heavily off of sci-fi films of the past, there are frequent musical cues that callback to famous themes, and it was a joy hearing one each and every time. Additionally, the aforementioned soundtrack does a wonderful job of occasionally letting the lyrics being sung help tell the story of what is happening on-screen at that moment. This tactic is used sparingly, but with great success.

References to favorite sci-fi properties are plentiful, and though the story of “Farmageddon” is tender, easy to follow, and full of hilarious goofy action, picking out these moments will be great for major fans of the genre. For one thing, there is the required mention of Area 51. Then the “Alien” tie-is done in a brilliant way that makes it kid-friendly. There are also “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”, “Signs”, “2001: A Space Odyssey”, “Dr. Who” references and more. Agent Red even has a sidekick robot named Muggins that looks like a combination of Wall*E and Johnny 5 and serves as equal parts investigative partner and filing cabinet. This robot will quickly win kids over and is easily one of the film’s highlights. 

“Farmageddon” may not possess the deepest of storylines but that makes it accessible for everyone. With plenty for older geeks to enjoy along the way, this is a rare G film that parents and kids can sit through and enjoy equally together. It moves at a breezy pace and the cute factor is off the charts. This cosmic adventure is all-ages entertainment at its best. Pull up Netflix, hit play, and enjoy.

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Aaron White is a Seattle-based film critic and co-creator/co-host of the Feelin’ Film Podcast. He is also a member of the Seattle Film Critics Society. He writes reviews with a focus on the emotional experience he has with a film. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter to be notified when new content is posted.

MOVIE REVIEW: Sonic the Hedgehog

Rating: PG / Runtime: 1 hour and 39 minutes

Let me just get this out of the way up front. I can confirm that Sonic does indeed go fast! Very fast, in fact. Almost as fast as the studio lept into action and changed the CGI animation of their titular character after extreme internet backlash following the original trailer’s release. That choice was a wise one, removing the creepily human similarities that made the character look very different than its video game origins. The newer design of Sonic is much more approachable, relatable, and adorable, and it likely salvaged Paramount’s chance at having the Sega game adaptation become a success. 

It’s no secret that films based on video games have been more miss than hit, and there are a number of understandable reasons why this is the case. Low budgets at times, a lack of talent or star power, or misunderstanding the market desire for a film version of a game to name a few. The list goes on. But one very real challenge that many adaptations face was something that “Sonic the Hedgehog” can actually count as a strength. The video game style of Sonic, you see, is not extremely narrative-driven, and thus the character is much more of an open slate with which to explore a new storytelling medium. Most casual audience members will simply go into the film knowing that Sonic is a cute furry blue hedgehog-like creature that runs super-fast and collects rings. The film smartly wastes no time in quickly getting most of its lore dump out of the way, showing us see where Sonic came from, explaining to us the power of these iconic collectible rings, and introducing Sonic’s nemesis. 

With the background in our rearview, “Sonic the Hedgehog” can get down to the business of crafting an adventure for the blue devil in the modern world. Sonic (Ben Schwartz) lives a lonely existence. He inhabits a small cave in the forest outside of small-town Green Hills, MT and enjoys watching Tom and Maddie Wachowski (James Marsden and Tika Sumpter) from afar, but he constantly dreams of a world in which he is not alone and can interact with the local humans. Eventually, that happens. After an emotional outburst sets off a special power Sonic was unaware that he has, the government comes calling, sending in their egotistical genius scientist Dr. Robotnik (Jim Carrey) and his legion of drones to capture and study what they believe in an alien specimen of great value. The majority of the movie is made up of Sonic and Tom on a quest to keep him safe, having hilarious and exciting encounters while developing a growing friendship that neither quite knows how to handle. All the while they are chased by the evil, mustache-twirling Robotnik. It’s a performance by Carrey that calls back to his comedic brilliance of the past with him commanding the screen and delivering deliciously ridiculous dialogue in the perfect tone of a video game villain. While Marsden definitely does solid work, even with some slight emotional nuance, and Sonic is competent though unspectacularly voiced by Schwartz, this is Carrey’s movie through and through. True to his name, he carries the film and keeps it enjoyable throughout.

Action pieces in the film are a mixed bag. Some are exciting and others exist only to generate hearty laughs and play with Sonic’s speed in interesting ways, like a slow-motion bar fight that is reminiscent of Quicksilver’s memorable moment in “X-Men: Days of Future Past” or comparable sequences in any number of iterations of The Flash. You probably won’t remember the specifics of any action a day or two later, but it’s never boring and the kids are going to love it. What is more surprising is how emotionally resonant the heart of the film is. Despite some really on-the-nose references to family, Sonic clearly desires one and we want that for him. By the end, you may even find yourself tearing up a bit at some of the sweet character interactions that occur. 

Film adaptations of video games have been so bad for so long that the low bar has reached a point that isn’t honestly that hard to clear. “Sonic the Hedgehog” is certainly nothing special, but it’s a perfectly fun new version of the character to spend an hour and a half with that both scratches the nostalgia itch with its frequent references to the source material and is modern enough to keep younger audience members engaged at the same time. The end of the film teases a sequel and maybe the biggest endorsement of this film I can give is that I truly hope it happens.

** There are two scenes at the end of the film, one of which is mid-credits that you don’t want to miss! **

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Aaron White is a Seattle-based film critic and co-creator/co-host of the Feelin’ Film Podcast. He is also a member of the Seattle Film Critics Society. He writes reviews with a focus on the emotional experience he has with a film. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter to be notified when new content is posted.

MOVIE REVIEW (Blu-Ray): First Love

Rating: R / Runtime: 1 hour and 48 minutes

Japanese director Takashi Miike is nothing if not prolific. “First Love” marks his sixtieth film in the past twenty-four years and tells the story of Leo (Masataka Kubota), a terminally ill young boxer, who by accident or fate bumps into Monica (Sakurako Konishi), a young drug-addicted prostitute, and is unwittingly caught up in a crazy night of chaos on the streets of Tokyo between warring Japanese and Chinese gangs. All of this is brought on by a young Japanese gangster named Kase (Shōta Sometani) scheming with Otomo (Nao Ōmori), a corrupt cop, to steal and sell yakuza-owned drugs in order to ignite a mafia war between the Japanese and Chinese factions. Stories like this, of course, would be quite boring if everything went according to plan, and so as you’d expect the night goes to hell quickly, and in true Miike form – violently. 

American viewers coming to Miike’s films for the first time may see a resemblance to Quentin Tarantino in the way that the director uses violence. For large parts of the film’s running time, it maintains a dramatic noir-like tone, with small doses of comedy, but in a few specific scenes, he unleashes an explosion of bloody violence. The yakuza are known for wielding swords as well as machine guns and heads quite literally roll at one point. The action includes gunfights, sword fights, martial arts, and body parts flying, and though prevalent, is not non-stop, but scattered throughout in a way that makes the film’s pacing work well. Miike is always building to something, and the climax is full of the stylistic action choreography fans of series like “John Wick” will enjoy. The film’s score and sound design are also noteworthy. Both are exceptional at mood-setting and suspense-building, and contribute much to the film’s action pieces in terms of amping up the excitement, as well.

Emotionally speaking, “First Love” does have at its core a romance brewing, but it’s subtle and not in your face or overly unrealistic in the way that many love stories are. The relationship is one of two people finding redemption, overcoming despair and addiction, and finding something worth fighting and living for together. When the sun rises after this deadly night, lives will have been changed forever, and the ways in which Miike connects us to his characters throughout the film leaves viewers very invested in both their individual and collective future. 

“First Love” is a thoroughly engaging modern-day Asian gangster film. Its blend of action, drama, comedy, style, and violence make it an entertaining watch and a fantastic introduction to Miike’s filmography. 

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Blu-Ray Bonus Features: 

The only two bonus features on the Blu-Ray disc are three film trailers (“Ip Man 4: The Finale”, “The Divine Fury”, “Freaks”) and an English language audio track. English dubs of foreign language films are notoriously terrible, but while I wouldn’t recommend watching the film with this track on, I can also say that it is one of the better ones I’ve ever heard. Again, I say “better” only relative to the fact that most are completely unbearable to listen to. It is, however, solid enough that I was able to get through the entire film and not lose enjoyment because of the voices. You definitely will lose a lot of context and expression, but the track is there for those who prefer it.

“First Love” was provided by Well Go USA Entertainment for this review. You can buy the film on VOD, Blu-Ray, and DVD on February 11, 2020.


Aaron White is a Seattle-based film critic and co-creator/co-host of the Feelin’ Film Podcast. He is also a member of the Seattle Film Critics Society. He writes reviews with a focus on the emotional experience he has with a film. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter to be notified when new content is posted.

MOVIE REVIEW: Birds of Prey

Rating: R / Runtime: 1 hour and 49 minutes

As sold by its marketing, “Birds of Prey” is a total blast of glittery, violent, girl power from start to finish. Picking up soon’ish after the events of “Suicide Squad” (though you have no need to see that film in order to follow this one), Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) has had it with her Puddin’, a.k.a. The Joker, and is ready to end their relationship for good because she’s tired of being taken for granted. This presents a major problem for Harley, though, because without the fear that Joker strikes in her enemies as protection, a whole host of people she has wronged are about to come calling. Among these are crime boss Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor) a.k.a. Black Mask and Gotham City PD detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez). Montoya is a cop who has been passed over despite her accomplishments in police work while her male co-workers take the credit and advance ahead of her. To her, bringing in Harley is part of a bigger case she’s been chasing, and this woman takes law and order seriously. Sionis is just another rich, eccentric, nasty, evil underlord, flanked by his loyal servant/muscle Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina), who wants to own everything and everyone in town, Harley included.

The overall script is honestly pretty silly and all over the place. In less than two hours it tries to focus on Harley’s life of independence, Renee’s frustration with lack of support from the police chief, and Sionis chasing down a diamond that has been inadvertently stolen by a young orphan street thief named Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), as well as introducing us to the superheroines Dinah Lance (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) a.k.a. Black Canary and Helena Bertinelli (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) a.k.a. The Huntress. It’s in these backstories where the film falters most, as its structure takes the approach of using flashbacks frequently to tell us who these people are once we’ve already been introduced to them. The same thing happens a couple of times with Harley and in every single instance, it robs the film of precious momentum. It also should be noted that while this film is called “Birds of Prey”, this is really the Harley Quinn show, and there is much, much less attention given to the other characters for most of its running time. That’s okay, though, because Robbie’s performance as Harley is as nuanced as ever, really outpacing the rest of the cast, and she does a great job of taking the character through new emotional ranges while never ceasing to provide the clever, hilarious dialogue and unpredictable decisionmaking we expect. If there is an MVP among the supporting cast, it’s definitely McGregor. The veteran actor is clearly enjoying himself and having a blast going full comic book with his performance. It works great in the context of the film, although if he’s supposed to be more powerful or scary as his alter ego Black Mask, that was not conveyed well at all and rendered any time his supervillain identity was used a pretty big letdown.

Director Cathy Yan reached out to Chad Stahelski, director of the “John Wick” series and founder of the renowned stunt work studio 87Eleven, to help with vision for the film’s action scenes, and it definitely shows. The action choreography is awesome and shot beautifully by acclaimed cinematographer Matthew Libatique. The color palette being mostly muted with the exception of big, bold splashes makes the film visually striking. It always looks great, and seeing it in IMAX was a treat. The soundtrack kicks major ass and like the frequent kinetic action, it is almost always on. This is a rock and roll concert of a comic book film that is unlike any you’ve ever seen, but that does remind in many ways of movies that came before like “Tank Girl”.

“Birds of Prey” is not shy about its empowerment message and all of the characters here have suffered abuse of some kind by men. These women are all about taking their lives into their own hands and making their own way, a strong and positive thought. It’s fun to see a film get to go wild with his idea and serve as a catharsis for many women in audiences who will likely relate to what those on-screen have gone through. I did, however, find the film’s lack of balance to bring it down just a notch. There is not one single male character in the film who isn’t in opposition or causing harm to the ladies in some way (be it physical, emotional, or even just a small act of betrayal). Not one. It paints an unrealistically cruel world in which every male is a villain and that is going to be tough for some viewers to watch. For those willing to reflect on how that makes them feel and why, I think there can be value, but on the surface, it was a choice that somewhat lessens the ability for the movie’s message to translate into real life.

Despite some nitpicks and its big structural flaw, “Birds of Prey” is an incredibly funny and exciting film to watch in the vein of Marvel’s fourth-wall-breaking “Deadpool” series. It serves as yet another unique entry into the DC comic book universe that provides a stylistic experience and delivers its story from a perspective that we haven’t seen before. There may not be a ton of depth worth mining in this ultra-violent (yet somehow not super gory) comedic affair, but “Birds of Prey” is one helluva badass female-led blockbuster that is a great addition to superhero cinema.

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Aaron White is a Seattle-based film critic and co-creator/co-host of the Feelin’ Film Podcast. He is also a member of the Seattle Film Critics Society. He writes reviews with a focus on the emotional experience he has with a film. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter to be notified when new content is posted.

MOVIE REVIEW: The Last Full Measure

Rating: R / Runtime: 1 hour and 50 minutes

Once upon a time, I served for many years in the United States Navy. One of the heights of my career was being selected for advancement to Chief Petty Officer, a position of unique and particularly valued leadership. Before we could officially be accepted and wear our anchor collar insignia, we spent a summer being schooled in Naval history, toughened through increased physical fitness exercises, and eventually participated in a time-honored tradition that tested our mental, emotional, and physical limits while forcing us to rely on each other in ways that strengthened the bond of brotherhood between us all. As part of our Naval history training, we were required to learn about the many Medal of Honor (MoH) recipients who served in the Navy and Marine Corps. I remember vividly being at PT (physical fitness training), well before the sun had risen, reciting MoH citations verbatim in the push-up position, unable to recover and stand until we’d remembered every detail precisely. Now I know that some of you reading this will probably be thinking how cruel this sounds, but its effect on us was profound. These methods hammered home the importance of remembering and honoring those who came before. It wasn’t about having knowledge for the sake of it, we were being trained to pass down the Naval history from our generation of Sailors to the next, ensuring that the sacrifice and valor of all the man and women awarded the MoH was never, ever forgotten, or taken for granted.

“The Last Full Measure” tells the story of a man who was forgotten, though, at least in terms of being remembered equal to his action. Airman William H. Pitsenbarger was a U.S. Air Force Pararescue Jumper who served as a medic in the Vietnam War. On April 11, 1966, he entered a war zone and tended to injured men until they could be evacuated safely via helicopter. When the last helicopter was forced to leave due to heavy enemy fire, Airman Pitsenbarger waved it off, choosing to stay with the wounded infantrymen still fighting off a Viet Cong assault. Despite being wounded several times himself, he continued to treat others in any way he could and distributed ammo to those who could still resist before ultimately being killed. The battle was one of the most deadly of the war with Americans suffering heavy losses, but due to Pitsenbarger’s courageous actions at least 9 men were able to return home alive.

For his actions, Pitsenbarger was awarded the Air Force Cross. The film follows the efforts of the men he saved, his parents, and an initially reluctant Department of Defense staffer Scott Huffman (Sebastian Stan) to see him recognized with the Medal of Honor, the United States of America’s highest and most prestigious personal military decoration. Over the course of the film, Huffman visits many of those whose lives are owed to or were impacted greatly Pitsenbarger, with him slowly learning about their trauma from the war and the possibly covered up true events of that fateful day. Director Todd Robinson, who has worked on this project for 20 years, utilizes flashbacks to the battle in order to depict Pitsenbarger’s actions in a way we can visually understand. Admittedly, Robinson has not mastered his craft, and the film suffers from clunky transitions between past and present and some overly melodramatic camerawork at times. But Robinson’s passion for sharing Pitsenbarger’s story with the world shines through every frame and the emotional acting of this stacked veteran cast, which includes such heavyweights as Sam Jackson, William Hurt, Peter Fonda, Christopher Plummer, Ed Harris, Dianne Ladd, and Bradley Whitford. Backed by a beautiful, tender, and moving score by composer Philip Klein, I spent the second half of the film in uncontrollable tears, powerfully moved by the brotherhood, fatherhood, valor, and integrity I saw on display. 

Some critics have already faulted the film for not dealing harshly enough with the governmental concealing of information that took place and for not taking a clear enough stance on the war (as well as the mistakes revealed to have been made in Operation Abilene), but that is not the point of Robinson’s film. It is clear from the start that what Robinson wants us to do is akin to what I experienced in my aforementioned Naval training. He wants us to learn. To observe. To feel. And to remember. It would be difficult to come away from this film not wrestling with how we see these survivors struggle to cope or moved by the reverent way in which they push to see the man who gave his life for theirs honorably remembered.  The emotional swells of the film are in service of crafting a memorable experience, and to that end, I must say Robinson has achieved resounding success.

“The Last Full Measure” is certainly more heavy on drama than fighting, setting it apart from the majority of its genre kin. It is a story of perseverance paid off. A tale as much about the psychological and physical wounds of our veterans that lived as much as the heroism of the one who did not. Of healing and finding peace. And a call to stand for what is right in the face of politics that wish to suppress the truth. For everyone but those with the most cynical of hearts, “The Last Full Measure” is a fully moving experience and an admirale tribute to the effect that one man’s sacrifice had on so many. 

You can read William H. Pitsenbarger’s full Medal of Honor citation by clicking here.

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Aaron White is a Seattle-based film critic and co-creator/co-host of the Feelin’ Film Podcast. He is also a member of the Seattle Film Critics Society. He writes reviews with a focus on the emotional experience he has with a film. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter to be notified when new content is posted.

MOVIE REVIEW: The Gentlemen

Rating: R / Runtime: 1 hour and 53 minutes

Director Guy Ritchie’s career has taken one very strange path. Debuting in 1998, his first two feature films (“Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” and “Snatch”) were foul-mouthed, offensive, comedic British crime flicks that featured boxing, gangsters, drugs, guns, money, and a wealth of quotable dialogue. Then in 2009, Ritchie sort of reinvented himself with the Robert Downey Jr. led “Sherlock Holmes”, employing a slick and ultra-stylistic filmmaking method that left the gritty streets and blood and guts behind for high-speed action photography with a recognizable shine. This style would continue in several other big-budget PG-13 flicks such as “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.”, “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword”, and most recently Disney’s live-action remake of “Aladdin”. But throw all that kid-friendly stuff out the window now because “The Gentlemen” is Ritchie returning to his roots in all of their wonderful, excessive, questionable glory.

There is a plot in “The Gentlemen”, but like many of Ritchie’s films, it is circular and also told through heavy use of flashback. Essentially, you have Micky Pearson (Matthew McConaughey) who is an American turned British drug lord looking to sell off his marijuana empire, and the film tells the story of how that attempt to make a deal goes down. Mickey’s primary two partners are his bodyguard Ray (Charlie Hunnam, who looks staggeringly similar to Conor McGregor in this film) and his strong, sexy, and powerful wife Rosalind (Michelle Dockery). Most of the film follows the unreliable narration of a private investigator named Fletcher (Hugh Grant) who is trying to bribe his way into $20 million pounds with information on some of Mickey’s adversaries. I could go deeper into the plot, but the truth is that it just doesn’t really matter that much. I won’t recall the specifics of it in a few days. The joy in watching Ritchie’s latest film isn’t from learning what happens, it’s from seeing the characters play it out. 

Casting in the film was fantastic, as each actor seems to be thoroughly enjoying chewing up Ritchie’s obscene and sometimes shocking gangster dialogue. Grant, in particular, is a standout as a man who thinks he has all of the cards and is wittily revealing them throughout the film. It’s a quirky and downright hilarious performance that reminds me of his role in “Paddington 2”, only this time with some serious homoerotic sizzle. Colin Farrell also stands out as Coach, the mentor of a group of young boys at a local boxing club who unexpectedly gets mixed up in Mickey’s dealings. It’s fun to watch him play a good guy skillfully, and like Grant, hilariously, navigating a world of gray to black. Henry Golding also shows up as a tough guy, a way you’ve never really seen him before that was (mostly) a lot of fun to watch. And last but not least, McConaughey anchors the proceedings, oozing with confidence and charm, while also carrying the ruthless demeanor of a lion just beneath the surface, as you’d imagine one would have to do in order to build a multi-million drug empire and sustain it in a world ripe with double-crosses and in-fighting among competing kingpins. And somehow, McConaughey is probably the least interesting of the bunch. 

“The Gentlemen” is full of racist jokes and vulgar cockney slang. It might just set the record for most times the phrase “fuck off” and the word “cunt” is used in one film, and on nearly every single occasion they got a hearty laugh from the audience. It’s all in the delivery and this cast is on their A-game, supplying quotable and memorable moments at every turn. It’s easy to get lost just enjoying your time with the characters and not worry at all about the plot. There is plenty of violence, too, but aside from a few brief and super dark turns, most of it is depicted in a way that plays up the comedy.

It’s difficult to say much about the story because there are many twists and turns in the movie, perhaps too many in fact, but they do make for some fun surprises. Just know that you’re in for a very coarse bunch of dialogue, delivered from the mouths of sharply dressed men (and one woman), a ton of style, frequent side-splitting humor, and some of the most entertaining performances you will see in a theater this year. “The Gentlemen” definitely is not the film that Ritchie’s PG-13 fans will likely adore, but it is a return to his early form and it’s exciting to see him bringing another original (even if familiar) vision to cinemas once again.

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Aaron White is a Seattle-based film critic and co-creator/co-host of the Feelin’ Film Podcast. He is also a member of the Seattle Film Critics Society. He writes reviews with a focus on the emotional experience he has with a film. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter to be notified when new content is posted.

MOVIE REVIEW: Color Out of Space

Rating: Unrated / Runtime: 1 hour and 51 minutes

The best independent films do more with less. When there isn’t a massive budget to fall back on for special effects, the importance of storytelling and conveyance of mood become amplified. Operating on a $12 million budget (which I’d assume a decent chunk of went to star actor Nicolas Cage), Richard Stanley has crafted a gnarly, yet intoxicatingly beautiful aesthetic in “Color Out of Space”, which fits the bizarre nature of this story perfectly. The tale comes from an H.P. Lovecraft short story of the same name. We follow the Gardner family, who have not too long ago traded city life for a rural family estate located near Lovecraft’s famous setting of Arkham, Massachusetts. Nathan (Cage), the father, is a wannabe gardener and farmer who raises alpacas and is trying to embrace this new country life, while his wife Theresa (Joely Richardson) is doing her best to work from home via the home’s bad internet connection while recovering from breast cancer surgery. They have three children, all with their own sort of strange qualities. LaVinia (Madeleine Arthur) we first meet in the middle of some kind of Wiccan ritual that she hopes will heal her mother and eventually lead the family back to the city. Her practice of magic and dabbling in the occult continues throughout the film and leads to some pretty horrifying decision making. Her brother Benny (Brendan Meyer) likes video games, smoking weed, and helps out around the house without too much fuss. And then there is her younger brother Jack (Julian Hilliard), who is a bit of a mama’s boy still and gives the film a vessel for some freaky child-based horror. There’s also an old hippie living out in the woods who seems to notice problems with nature before everyone else and a young biologist named Ward (Elliot Knight) who pops in and out of the story and serves as a sort of documentarian for the events that take place.

The first half or so of the film, before things get really weird, I found myself very engaged. Family drama is explored and when the mysterious meteorite crashes into their yard a good amount of time is spent on slowly revealing various sci-fi anomalies that mess with the characters’ sense of sight and sound. Of course, this is based on the dark mind of H.P. Lovecraft, so horror is part of the story’s DNA and once it comes, the situation gets nasty quickly. There is definitely some gore, but it’s far from overwhelming and contained to just a few scenes. For the most part, it’s the psychological nature of horror explored here, a staple of Lovecraftian storytelling, and a general haziness of time and space that overwhelms the family as the alien color begins to permeate the landscape and their lives. Cage is given the opportunity to get nuts in a few scenes, but unfortunately, it felt almost out of left-field, very forced, and not a natural reaction I expected from his character. Perhaps if he had gone all-out crazy and stuck to that versus oscillating back and forth between sanity and insanity it would have played better for me. It’s in the second half of the film, where the color from the meteorite is taking over, where I didn’t find myself enjoying it nearly as much. As mentioned earlier, the look of the film is mesmerizing and the score by Colin Stetson contributes strongly toward setting that important mood. I just didn’t care about the characters much at all, and I didn’t find the film to be saying anything vastly important about humanity and nature. It’s a tale of aliens or elder gods or whatever you want to think of them as showing up without any explanation as to why and ruining life for this family in a horrific way. The story is just lacking a bigger picture view that I think would have given it much-needed weight and stakes.

“Color Out of Space” is Stanley’s first feature film in over two decades, though, and it proves the filmmaker most famous for being fired from “The Island of Doctor Moreau” still has talent worth sharing with the world. The visuals alone are worth seeing this movie for and it never dips into lackluster boring territory, even if it doesn’t reach any memorable heights either. “Color Out of Space” is the kind of unique sci-fi and horror film that we deserve to see more of. Though the vision of their directors may not blow every viewer away, seeing something this different from mass-market blockbusters is always a treat.

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Aaron White is a Seattle-based film critic and co-creator/co-host of the Feelin’ Film Podcast. He is also a member of the Seattle Film Critics Society. He writes reviews with a focus on the emotional experience he has with a film. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter to be notified when new content is posted.