Movie Reviews
Wednesday , December 19 2018

2018 Films

(based on non-festival, U.S. theatrical/internet release date)

22 July.  This docudrama of the 22 July 2011 terrorist attack in Norway, the subsequent trial, and the PTSD struggles of a survivor, coming from the director of the immediate and visceral United 93 (2006), is a shockingly unremarkable aggregate of familiar beats.  Seven years on, in a political environment within Europe and the U.S. where the parties on both the Left and Right have increasingly abandoned the center and the Right is winning at the extremes, surely there is something more to be said in a two and a half hour piece that so clearly aspires to be contemplative.  (Grade: C)

American Animals.  The form: playful docu-biopic a la Bernie (2012) … The draw: comi-tragic levels of criminal ineptitude a la Fargo (1996) … The characters: middle-class college boys battling ennui a la [pick one, any one].  (Grade: C)

Annihilation.  Well I can understand why Paramount ceded distribution to Netflix after writer/director Alex Garland and company refused to make post-test screening changes:  this sci-fi mystery, with early teases of a coy ecological fable, turns positively inexplicable by the third act (a la Under the Skin (2014)).  Revisit required.  (Grade: B)

Ant-Man and the Wasp.  On the plus side, this big summer funfest sports my favorite cast of any MCU subfrancise (Paul Rudd, Judy Greer, Evangeline Lilly, Michael Pena, Michael Douglas, Michelle Pfeiffer, Randall Park, and Laurence Fishburne, and the ridiculously charming Abby Ryder Fortson).  And for my money, this series has some of the most interesting action sequences (particularly Lilly’s Wasp, who wields her mix technological and physical prowess as confidently as any superhero I’ve seen on screen).  Unfortunately for Hannah John-Kamen (who is probably a great actress), the villain (Ava/Ghost) – who is given a four minute expository flashback as backstory – might just be the most perfunctory and underwritten of the entire MCU; and yet, her (and I would emphasize gender) malady/power could have made for a far more subversive and compelling character.  I feel like the MCU just cannot allow directors to get more than one or more elements right without unnecessarily sacrificing others.  With Black Panther, good performances and novel costume/set design gave way to horrible CGI.   And here, we get an even more disappointing mix.  (Grade: C+)

Avengers: Infinity War.  Seriously though, do you realize how much overpopulation contributes to so many of the world’s problems?  Environmental degradation.  Socio-political strife.  Really bad traffic.  (The more you know …)  (Grade: B)

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.  Well, I reckon they couldn’t just call it “Irony and Death: The Anthology.”  (Grade: C+)

Beast.  Ultimately, I’m not sold on the murky denouement of writer/director Michael Pearce’s debut; however, I am sold on the visceral textures of actress Jessie Buckley’s debut performance – one of the most effective (and seemingly effortless) of the year thus far.  (Grade: B)

Beautiful Boy.  To some, this biopic may very well feel like a dramatic breath of fresh air within the field of this year’s Oscar bait.  But for me, awareness raising is probably the least interesting and least engaging form of narrative cinema.  And this film seems to have no purpose beyond making the belabored case that addiction is a disease and not a choice.  (Grade: C+)

BlackKklansman.  Spike Lee, thy preaching has reached thy congregation, and just in time to counter a whopping dozens of white supremacists gathering in Washington D.C.  I would submit that Dave Chappelle’s 5-minute riff on this particular narrative is far more potent, in its simple sublimity, than this 135-minute lecture.  Does anybody remember laughter?  (Grade: C)

Black Panther.  To be honest, the trailer was really disappointing.  But what this Shakespearean fantasy lacks in terms of pulling off the overly ambitious CGI/action sequences, it makes up for inspired costumes, makeup, and production design.  Add in the gravity that Chadwick Boseman brings to the title role and a distinct independence from the Avengers thru-line, and I predict that Black Panther will turn out to be 2018’s Wonder Woman.  (Grade: B)

Blindspotting.  With a dose of the same vibe that energized Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989), this love letter to contemporary Oakland transcends its trailer’s drive-by approach to marketing political topicality to be funnier – and more nuanced in its use of tension – than advertised.  Yes, it’s ultimately didactic, and it’s message is ultimately simple (if not easy); but it all works (including a final confrontation that really shouldn’t) because its filmmakers are going for much more than a predictable sense of tragedy.  (Grade: B)

Blockers.  I just love Leslie Mann. Really, that’s all there is to it.  (Grade: C-)

Bohemian Rhapsody.  *shakes head*  If the stone cold classic that is A Night at the Opera could stand to lose a track, it is most certainly “Sweet Lady” and most certainly not “I’m in Love with My Car.”  (Grade: C)

Border.  I had high expectations, but this really did nothing for me – emotionally, allegorically, or otherwise.  (Grade: C)

Burning.  What’s a metaphor?  (Grade: B-)

Can You Ever Forgive Me?  I’ve been eagerly awaiting Marielle Heller’s follow up to Diary of a Teenage Girl (2015), especially when I read that Melissa McCarthy would be portraying the writer turned forger of literary letters, Lee Israel.  On the screen, McCarthy’s Israel is an authentically watchable and frustrating character – as difficult to love as to hate, even setting aside her indulgences in what might be one of the most victimless of crimes.  And Heller and company never really allow the humor to temper the overarching melancholy, as one might expect in this kind of narrative with this particular star.  But while I would hardly call Heller’s sophomore effort a disappointment, ultimately there is a listlessness to this film that lands it firmly in my file labeled “appreciated more than enjoyed.”  (Grade: B-)

The Captain.  Having gone in blind, I was genuinely shocked by the this-is-a-true-story text that came up at the end of the film, which is set in Nazi Germany toward the end of WWII sans the Jews.  Amidst the rather preachy fare occupying the arthouse at the moment, The Captain offers a sober reminder about the nature of humanity that certainly warrants contemplation: there can be a fine line between surviving in desperation and the exertion of cruelty.  (Grade: B-)

Chappaquiddick.  With this particular biopic (covering Ted Kennedy’s fateful and mysterious car accident that resulted in the drowning of a young woman in 1969), director John Curran faced two significant hurdles:  (1) stoking audience interest (not wholly unsympathetic) in a central character who is about as white and privileged as it gets; and (2) generating drama from a narrative that revolves largely around indecision.  Curran ends up striking a precarious balance:  amidst what is essentially a tale of political scandal, he also reminds us that a young woman of great potential suffered a really horrible death; and with nothing less than a shot at the U.S. presidency at stake, he never lets his characters indulge in histrionics or melodrama.  But ultimately, this modest little film succeeds (for the most part), thanks in no small part to the wonderfully subtle lead performance by Jason Clarke.  (Grade: B-)

The Cloverfield Paradox. This surprise release from Netflix has me feeling so nostalgic in all the wrong ways: a poorly written retread of Event Horizon (1997) shoehorned into the Cloverfield franchise, exemplifying just what “direct-to-video” meant back in the ‘80s and ‘90s.  Consider the goodwill spent, Mr. Abrams.  (Grade: D)

Crazy Rich Asians.  It’s the end of the world as we know it / And I feel fine … To be sure, there is an undeniably infectious energy to this patriarch-free romantic comedy, even if the tropes that it depends upon are as worn out as they come and the elegantly steely Michelle Yeoh outclasses the two lead performers.  Yet amidst all of the critical and commercial celebrations over the “alternative” cultural milieu, I found those Crazy Rich Asians — their sense of fashion and social discourse, their patterns of consumption, and even their values and religious tendencies — to be remarkably similar to Crazy Rich Americans.  That is to say, in serving up its bread and circuses (Hollywood’s low-bar response to demands for DIVERSITY NOW!), this film is ultimately a testament to the gaudier side of cultural imperialism.  (Grade: C+)

Damsel.  Here’s a tip for processing the Austin Chronicle film ratings/reviews that appear on metacritic: always deduct one to two stars for “local” artist adulation … And here’s another tip: for a far more potent (read: less anesthesizing) #MeToo-inflected genre exercise, see writer/director Coralie Fargeat’s Revenge (2018) … And here’s one final tip: if you find yourself in the mood for a different kind of Western, which (coincidentally?) shares a major character/plot point with this movie (sans the thematic pandering), catch up with writer/director John Maclean’s Slow West (2015).

Deadpool 2.  Domino!  (Grade: C+)

The Death of Stalin.  Political humor is tough. I couldn’t do it. There’s such a fine line between pointed and on-the-nose, between funny absurdity and trying-to-be-funny absurdity. And for me, the harder a filmmaker treads in the waters of Dr. Strangelove, the more awkward and uncomfortable it feels … So a few years back, I tried watching an episode or two of Veep and found it just wasn’t for me. The Death of Stalin didn’t make me a Iannucci convert.  (Grade: C+)

Disobedience.  I complain a lot about films that don’t stick the ending.  It’s clichéd.  It’s unearned.  What not.  And rightfully so.  I could also say a lot about Disobedience.  It’s too abbreviated.  It’s too slow.  What not.  But one thing it does have going for it is a great ending.  (Grade: B-)

Eighth Grade.  Like waiting in line to ride a rollercoaster.  (Grade: B)

Faces Places.  Set aside the May-December “friendship” between co-auteurs “JR” and Agnes Varda (with too much scripted cuteness to come across as authentic) and the hagiographic nostalgia for the French New Wave (of which I’m not a fan) and what you’ve got left is an exercise in pasting giant pictures of faces on places, which would actually be fine with me but for Varda’s need to womansplain the significance of it all.  (Grade: C)

A Fantastic Woman.  Empathy machine, to the extreme.  As one might expect from the title, the aspect I appreciated the most about this somewhat pedestrian stroll though a grief narrative is the lead performance by Daniela Vega as a (trans) woman dealing with her own humanity and her own reality on her own terms (and not on the terms of any particular audience).  And that is what makes for compelling cinema.  (Grade: B)

Fahrenheit 451. … didactic – adjective – 1. intended to teach, particularly in having a moral instruction as an ulterior motive (“a didactic novel that set out to expose social injustice”) 2. in the manner of a teacher, particularly so as to treat someone in a patronizing way (“slow-paced, didactic lecturing”)  (Grade: D+)

First Man.  The Premise: The man who represented humanity in what I am confident will be the species’ greatest achievement was not a charismatic conqueror, but a pilot/engineer who lived in a house in the burbs, with throwaway curtains and paneling on the walls, and like so many of us, unceremoniously buried life’s pain and loss in his work.  The miracle machines that took him along the rocky road to that pinnacle were creaky and claustrophobic.  And the co-worker who ended up accompanying him to that end was a bit of an asshole.  In the same way that reality more often than not defies hagiography, so too does director Damien Chazelle.  And if there is a weakness to this film—or more specifically, a reason not to recommend it to your parents or grandparents who look fondly upon the likes of The Right Stuff (1983) and Apollo 13 (1995)—it is the degree to which Chazelle takes that defiance.  Narratively, the moments of “human drama” are spare and the sequence of events the film portrays (from 1961-1969) are sporadic.  Visually, Chazelle leans heavily on handhelds and closeups, bathed in a digital graininess that suggests a period home movie aesthetic, which in turn reflects a certain struggle for intimacy with its main character.  Simply put, it’s a relatively sober affair for the subgenre.  But for those who are patient and who are looking for something different from a biopic of this ilk, Chazelle’s approach—along with a big assist from musical collaborator Justin Horowitz—makes the big payoff feel that much more earned.  Based on his last two films, I am a reluctant, and yet unabashed, fan of Chazelle.  And while First Man is certainly not my favorite, it does mark a departure from Chazelle’s comfort zone and proposes that he may be a much more interesting director than many have assumed.  (Grade: A-)

First Reformed.  “How often we ask for genuine experience when all we really want is emotion.” … No matter how inclined a viewer is to peel away the layers (with environmentalism, and Christianity’s blind eye thereto, being the most superficial and transparent), one cannot deny the fundamental nature of Paul Schrader’s First Reformed as an introspective narrative about introspective narrative.  And in this respect, I don’t think I’ve witnessed a filmmaker struggling so broadly and so deeply with his own contradictions – with his own hope and despair – in quite a while.  Nor have I struggled so much with a film in quite a while – not because I’m a human who needs to believe in a god, but because I’m a human who needs to believe in humanity. … Ignore the filmspotters’ burdensome comparisons to Bresson and Bergman.  This Ozu-like re-riff on Schrader’s own Taxi Driver/Travis Bickle is best considered, I believe, as a product of its time – a very personal contrast to the political post mortems of so many of Schrader’s contemporaries (see, e.g., The Post).  (Grade: A)

Foxtrot.  The less said about Foxtrot the better. … SO I will just say that it’s been a long time since I’ve seen a film that so artfully juggles tones (from Asghar Farhadi, to Jim Jarmusch, to Kenneth Lonergan…) … BUT SERIOUSLY, this film (which took second to The Shape of Water at Venice) lost out to Loveless for an Oscar nomination? I mean, this film has got Oscar written all over it! (And it just happens to be a pretty great movie too.) … (Oh yeah, the whole Israeli military thing.)  (Grade: A-)

A Futile and Stupid Gesture.  I admit it, I fell for it.  (Grade: B-)

Game Night.  Above-average casting/performances and above-average cinematography/direction elevate a below-average narrative.  (Grade: B-)

Halloween“Gotcha!”  (Grade: B+)

The Happytime Murders.  The red band trailer oversells the red band content of what is essentially a Muppet movie (read: a well-branded play on a well-worn genre).  Whether Brian Henson’s riff on this beloved franchise is too offensive or not subversive enough is beside the point to me (I enjoyed and appreciated Sausage Party, so …) — it is simply not funny enough, often enough.  (Grade: C-)

The Hate U Give.  #BlackLivesMatter: The After-School Special. (Grade: C-)

Hereditary.  I understand the effect this horror movie is having on audiences looking for something fresh, especially considering how the trailer coyly sets up a nice little red herring.  Notwithstanding the last minute marketing reset from the arthouse (where I originally saw the trailer) to the cineplex (where I eventually saw the movie), Hereditary feels very much like an A24 production in the tradition of The Witch, which is to say – in a complementary way – that this is not going to satisfy the mainstream audience that reveled in The Quiet Place or The Conjuring.  Rather, the intended effect is a sustained unsettling of the viewer.  (Indeed, a certain car accident sequence is probably the most unsettling thing I’ve seen in the cinema in recent memory.)  But whereas The Witch managed to keep its audience in such a delicious state for 1hr 32mins, Hereditary goes for an oppressive 2hrs, 7mins – all without any kind of breather.  And as well composed and performed as Hereditary is, a film should never induce a palpable sense of exhaustion.  (Grade: B+)

Hold the Dark.  In the interests of full disclosure, I will say that director Jeremy Saulnier’s last two efforts (Blue Ruin, Green Room) made my top 10 lists in each respective year.  And there is nothing disappointing here in terms of cinematography or editing (or for that matter, the performances).  But as with I Don’t Feel at Home in this World Anymore (which was similarly released directly to Netflix last year), I have to say that, as amiable an actor as he is, Macon Blair is simply not a disciplined screenwriter.  Besides exhibiting little control over the story itself, Blair’s attempt to make every other line of dialogue sound mysterious, poetic, and enigmatic grows tiresome before we even get to the end of the first act.  (Grade: C-)

I Feel Pretty.  Yeah, it’d be great if Amy Schumer’s latest feature film had narrative beats that were as bold as its central conceit.  And perhaps Schumer’s unique brand of square-peg feminism plays best in a short-skit format.  But I have to say this is my favorite of her starring turns, as it feels most like an expression of Schumer herself (a comic who’s always been self-depricating in a way that only a woman who knows she’s got game could be).  And it’s pretty damn entertaining to see/hear Michelle Williams having this much fun.  (Grade: B-)

The Incredibles.  Déjà vu.  (Grade: B-)

Isle of Dogs.  From three months of trailers, it was evident that Isle of Dogs would represent Wes Anderson’s second shift from diorama-ish productions to animated dioramas, and to be honest, Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) is far from my favorite Anderson film.  But at a clip of one film every three years, it’s not like Anderson is flooding the market with his uniquely quirky aesthetic, and at this point in my life, going into a new Anderson film (mostly) blind is one of my most cherished cinematic experiences. … The first act of Isle shows Anderson adding new elements to his familiar palettes, which makes for an exhilarating fan experience; by the second act, the diminishing returns start setting in; and by the third, it’s difficult to ignore the modulations between the more forced and the more perfunctory aspects of the narrative.  There’s always a bittersweet taste to Anderson’s films, but Isle ultimately settles in a place that’s a bit too sweet for my tastes (coming from one who has Moonrise Kingdom (2012) in his top 100).  In exiting the theater, I also couldn’t help but wonder (as I often have over the last year) how this story would have unfolded if Donald Trump wasn’t elected?  And I’m pretty sure that I would like that film a bit better. … Still, Anderson’s misses are more interesting and entertaining than so many other directors’ hits, and as far as I am concerned, the bottomless well of goodwill for Anderson will persist.  (Grade: B)

Juliet, Naked.  Although Juliet, Naked certainly doesn’t rise to the heights of High Fidelity, this Nick Hornby adaptation isn’t quite as cute or predictable as the trailer suggests either.  And although Hornby mines some low-hanging fruit when it comes to Generation X (e.g., Ethan Hawke ‘90s one-album wonder is a shout out to the mythically departed Jeff Buckley, right down to the name of the character’s mysterious first daughter), the cast (Rose Byrne, Hawke, Chris O’Dowd) ended up charming me anyway.  (Grade: B-)

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom.  Rumors of haunted houses and such are grossly exaggerated.  And I’m finding it harder and harder to have big dumb summer fun at the movies.  (Grade: C-)

The Kindergarten Teacher.  Sometimes it’s a fine detail in the writing that really contextualizes a film.  In The Kindergarten Teacher, our would be protagonist walks in on a professor and teacher’s assistant pondering over a poem generated by a computer algorithm: as it turns out, in objective terms, there is nothing inherently valuable or unique, as a product of human creation, about an amalgamation of words that people will appreciate as “poetry.”  And as such, Sara Colangelo’s narrative becomes less about an antihero’s good fight against a  contemporary devaluation of traditional “art” and more about the inability of Maggie Gyllenhaal’s dilettante to accept her world—her job, her children, her society, and most of all, herself—as it is.  And within a culture as fractured as ours is at the moment, this film—and its demand for introspection—is the better for it.  (Grade: B)

Kodachrome.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen a cast of this A-list caliber (Ed Harris, Jason Sudeikis, Elizabeth Olsen) appearing in a film this clichéd.  I literally looked over at my spouse, bored to death halfway through, and recited the six remaining plot beats (100% correctly).  With 16 producers credited on IMDb, I have to wonder, is first-time writer A.G. Sulzberger just a trust fund baby with a fat checkbook?  That’s gotta be the explanation for the existence of this.  (Grade: D)

The Land of Steady Habits.  Surprisingly aimless and tiresome.  Then again, it’s a Netflix original.  (Grade: C+)

The Last Movie Star.  There are a few moments when this A24 production shows some potential – e.g., the sheer absurdity of our reluctant 20-something chauffeur (Ariel Winter) lecturing our salty 80-something actor (Burt Reynolds) about living in the moment, matched only by him lecturing her about being a fighter and pulling herself up by her bootstraps.  But even as a foil, Winter’s Lil is too underwritten, and too bound by cliche, to serve as any credible challenge to Reynolds’ Vic and his assumptions about life.  While I’m tempted to observe that the filmmakers squandered a real opportunity (one of the most macho movie stars of the ‘70s willing to literally portray himself, in all but name, in such a frail state), considering Reynolds’ sour opinion of the best film he’s ever appeared in (Boogie Nights (1997)), an exercise in sentimental redemption might be all that he was willing to sign up for.  (Grade: C-)

Lean on Pete.  From Andrew Haigh, writer and director of Weekend (2011) and 45 Years (2015), comes a Sundance-y film about a boy and a horse … wait, wuh?  (Grade: C+)

Leave No Trace.  The performance by Thomasin McKenzie is worthy of all of the accolades, but I found that this anti-dramatic indie – centered around an impenetrable veteran/father (Ben Foster) – betrays too much of an awareness-raising agenda in the third act to be truly compelling.  That being said, I imagine that favorable comparisons will be made to Captain Fantastic (2016), but for all of its missteps, I appreciated the audacity of that film’s characterizations a good deal more than the safer route taken here.  And as for contemporary female writers/directors making distinctly small and sober films, I sure wish Christine Choe’s more challenging Nancy was getting more attention.  (Grade: C+)

Let the Sunshine In.  With an elliptical and fragmented narrative, co-writer/director Claire Denis exhibits Juliette Binoche’s single middle-aged Parisian wallowing in self-contradiction, self-examination, and self-pity.  But regardless of the artistic purposes (such that they are), wallowing is really not my thing.  Nor am I into female characters who are into creepy French guys.  (Grade: C-)

The Little Stranger.  Leadened is one of those words that I don’t use enough … as in leadened by its gothicness and its underlying (or overlying?) metaphor … Ruth Wilson, though.  (Grade: C+)

Loveless.  In the grand tradition of Russian cinema, the personal is always political, and what could easily be said in an hour and a half is drawn out to over two hours. Tastes being what they are, if I’m up for a real downer, I will take the unadulterated, theatrical, sociological darkness of a Lars von Trier over the flaccid, laborious, allegorical dankness of this sort of thing any day.  (Grade: B)

Mandy.  My first thought as the credits started rolling was that I would’ve loved this oppressive little cult movie in 1986, when I was 16.  And I haven’t really had any other thoughts since.  (Grade: C+)

mid90s.  As it turns out, there’s more of the ‘90s to Jonah Hill’s impressive little debut than the title, the setting, the visual aesthetic, and the soundtrack.  And I would say that’s a good thing.  But I predict that this little indie won’t get half the attention of A24’s darling of the year, Eighth Grade.  And I would say that’s a bad thing.  (Grade: B)

Monrovia, Indiana.  The place where I come from / Is a small town / They think so small / They use small words / But not me / I’m smarter than that / I worked it out / I’ve been stretching my mouth / To let those big words come right out  (Grade: B-)

Mute.  The truth is that some directors only have one good movie in them.  (Grade: D+)

Nancy.  Illustration: female filmmakers tell stories differently than males. … It’s like Christine Choe took the narrative of Ingrid Goes West (Matt Spicer, David Branson Smith) and said, “No, but seriously …”  (Grade: B+)

Ocean’s Eight.  So here’s a gender-inverted genre film to actually get excited about … Widows
Starring: Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, Cynthia Erivo, Carrie Coon, and Jacki Weaver; Screenplay: Gillian Flynn and Steve McQueen; Director: Steve McQueen; Release date: November 16.  (Grade: C-)

The Old Man & The Gun.  In stark contrast with A24’s panderingly meta swan song for Burt Reynolds (The Last Movie Star), I couldn’t imagine a more apropos end to Robert Redford’s acting career.  And writer/director David Lowery has such a command of this time and this place (1981, mostly Texas).  Yet as shrewd as Lowery is with both conventional and unconventional narrative choices, I could’ve used a bit less of the Sissy Spacek and Casey Affleck storylines and a good deal more of Redford mixing it up with Danny Glover and Tom “that’s why I don’t like Christmas” Waits.  (Grade: B)

Outlaw King.  This chronological sequel to Braveheart (1995) is, in a word, a bore.  With a narrative that begins and ends in the middle of the same revolution, I just couldn’t come to care about any of these characters.  (Grade: C)

Overlord.  So this was originally going to be a Cloverfield sequel?  Hmmm.  (Grade: C-)

The Predator.  Why?  (Grade: D+)

Private Life.  It’s all so subtle for this kind of film—the performances, the cinematography, and the editing—and I appreciated it for the indictment of my generation that it is; but less than an hour in to this 2+ hour piece, I couldn’t help but feel antsy, like the first episode of this Netflix original was going to end and I could pick it up tomorrow.  (Grade: B-)

A Quiet Place.  Do comedic actors actually make better horror films?  Did Hollywood really get the message after 10 Cloverfield Lane?  Have we finally raised the bar from the point where The Conjuring was considered a great film?  Probably not, but, you know … This movie-watching experience evoked one of my very first (Swiss Family Robinson (1960)), and I like to imagine that if Disney made an R-rated movie, it might look like this.  (Grade: B+)

Ready Player One.  I totally accept nostalgia as a legitimate language for cinematic conveyance; I just don’t find Steven Spielberg’s tired messages to be that interesting. Even so, The Shining thing was a cheap shot.  Really cheap.  (Grade: C-)

Revenge.  #MeToo is a phoenix—with bitchin’ earnings—who absolutely, positively will not be stopped … Go ahead, say “she had it coming.” I dare ya.  (Grade: B+)

RGB.  For all of the hype in and around this documentary about Millennial enthusiasm for “RGB” (like she’s some kind of cool grandma), I can attest that there were 18 people in attendance at my screening, and I estimate that 4 were under the age of 40.  And that’s a shame, because the first half of this film exhibits a time (1960s-1970s) when liberals were intellectual warriors who knew how to win at the margins of the socio-political center, issue by issue, and served as the staunchest defenders of the First Amendment … as opposed to the modern social justice warriors who are content in their self-righteousness with being the net losers at just about every level of federal, state, and local government over the last 20 years and expel any speech on college campuses offends their sensibilities.  (Grade: C+)

The Rider.  One thing that I’ve learned from following popular film and film criticism for almost three decades is that there are certain types of films that the critical elite will go out of their way, exerting the full force of their own creative writing muscles, to champion.  Effectively, what we get is this collective lowering of the bar from the cabal: things that would routinely get called out in a Hollywood film (e.g., horrible blocking) get a pass if the filmmaker’s budget is low enough and intent is pure enough (see, e.g., The Florida Project).  And if we’re being really honest about the current cultural climate, it also helps if the filmmaker has a name like Chloe Zhao. … In The Rider (boasting a 93 metascore and the title of “best film of 2018 so far” by The Atlantic), the indie trope at play is that real weathered Dakotans are playing themselves in a narrative character study.  And yet the dialogue doesn’t sound real at all – the words and/or the delivery.  Never once did I believe, for example, the fireside chat between four young rodeo men who, despite being portrayed as best buddies, begin their on-screen conversation by describing their injuries to the camera as if we were suddenly dropped into a documentary.  This is the sort of thing that happens when a filmmaker lets the conveyance of her Truth get in the way of the true.  At its best, it all comes across as uncomfortably inorganic, like community theatre produced in a really small community; and at its worst (particularly with respect to two disabled characters), it feels a bit exploitative. … And if you’ve seen the trailer and were cynically wondering whether this exercise in allegedly transcendent storytelling will involve the death of one or more horses, I can tell you, without any spoilerly guilt … of course!  (Grade: D)

Searching.  Although the third act strains the desktop conceit—and the denouement, any suspension of disbelief—what comes before is a rather effective rendering of a contemporary parent’s worst nightmare and a marginal improvement over the subgenre’s reigning franchise (Unfriended).  (I had to take half a grade off for the noticeably odd, on-the-nose choice of animal for the daughter’s high school mascot revealed early on.)  (Grade: B-)

Set It Up.  It’s no Definitely, Maybe; but the ridiculously charming Zoey Deutch could pass for Isla Fisher’s much younger sister, and that’s enough for me to officially classify this as a guilty pleasure. (Grade: C+)

A Simple Favor.  I’m sorry, but this tonal mishmash of a mystery—which appears from the reviews to be custom made for audiences who either (a) didn’t get Gone Girl or (b) didn’t agree with Gone Girl’s gender politics*—is ultimately betrayed by its cliché of a twist … You know what, I’m not sorry.  (* And I’m sorry, but characterizing this  as a parody would be giving the filmmakers way too much credit.)  (Grade: C+)

The Sisters Brothers.  Joaquin Phoenix and Jake Gyllenhaal in the same movie?  My head just exploded.  (Grade: B-)

Solo: A Star Wars Story.  It’s fun enough, I guess.  While the casting of Emilia Clarke (Game of Thrones) and Paul Bettany (Avengers: Age of Ultron) seems like an indulgence in the genre flavors of the day, Woody Harrelson, Donald Glover, and Alden Ehrenreich fit into this galaxy perfectly (even if the latter comes across more like a young Dennis Quaid than a young Harrison Ford).  And the resolution of the relationship between Solo and his mentor is a dramatically satisfying surprise.  But this second “Star Wars story” to center around a heist gets a half grade off just for bringing a dead character back – allowing the fanboy wish fulfillment of the “Expanded Universe” to infect the more elegant (and more broadly palatable) cinematic universe.  And this gratuitous cameo only underscores the primary weakness of this origin spin-off: the myth building of the original series has taken a back seat to myth embellishment. (Grade: C+)

Sorry to Bother You. Yeah ok, it’s Brazil, Michel Gondry, etc. … but take yourself back in time five years and ask yourself which one of the following would most likely exist in 2018: (a) an equisapien generically engineered by a corporation; or (b) Donald Trump as President of the United States.  Surreality is just not as unfamiliar as it used to be.  And perhaps that’s why this opening night screening at the arthouse was packed for the first time I’ve seen in months.  Even so, the modes of satirical expression are simultaneously so broad (e.g., WorryFree) and so specific (e.g., Sergio the Power Caller’s derby) that it’s difficult to dub this unruly, hypnotic film as a “masterpiece” at this early stage.  (Grade: B+)

A Star Is Born.  Bradley Cooper’s calling card as director is an amalgamation of shrewd choices, starting with the decision to break onto the scene with the fourth cinematic iteration of this narrative.  Sure, casting himself in the male lead is a bit of a crutch; but casting Lady Gaga, who has only gradually stripped away all of her masks since beginning her reign as the queen of pop, ends up being inspired enough to redeem.  (Grade: B)

Summer 1993.  With some subtle cinematography and sly editing, and without the aid of any melodrama or magical realism, Summer 1993 attempts to capture the complex inner life of a child adjusting to the aftermath of trying externalities.  The end result is authentic and sublime.  There are no hammy self-aware performances, poverty porn manipulations, or Hail Mary finales – in other words, writer/director Carla Simon gets everything right that Sean Baker got so wrong (The Florida Project).  But this Spanish film is also a distinctly quiet affair, which is probably why it has almost no marketing push in the U.S. and virtually nonexistent buzz.  (Grade: B)

Support the Girls.  Writer/director Andrew Bujalski aspires to create a Linklater-ish hangout movie in an unexpectedly fertile sociological environment (the access road breastraunt); but while changing the gender of the buds may be enough for some critics (as if answering to the title), it’s not enough for me.  Unlike Linklater’s work, this film exhibits a distracting unevenness of craft that is all too typical of Mumblecore filmmakers.  While Haley Lu Richardson is building on an impressive resume of diverse roles, I can’t decide whether Junglepussy is a good or bad actress because so many of the lines she utters just don’t seem organic or authentic.  In fact, all of the actresses — to a greater or lesser extent — deserved better writing.  (All that said, Bulalski is a delightful and engaging person, which is why it took 6 days to get this posted.)  (Grade: C+)

Suspiria.  If you have seen the trailer, then it would be no spoiler to point out that this remake of the 1977 cult classic is the kind of film that has a big finale.  But in this film’s big finale, I found myself trying to keep track of the personnel (as in, “ok wait, if that is so-and-so, then who or what is THAT?  I thought there where three of those, not four!”) instead of being taken in by the spectacle.  The problem here is not so much narrative incoherence as a lack of commitment to a consistent level of narrative incoherence.  The story feels like a table that’s missing a leg, wobbling precipitously for two and a half hours as it attempts to prop up an hour’s worth of setpieces and moments that the filmmakers thought would be really cool.  On the plus side: the soundtrack.  (Grade: C+)

The TaleThe Tale is essentially a Lifetime Movie of the Week elevated by Laura Dern and some clever storytelling, which unfortunately loses any sense of nuance or unpredictability by the end of the movie.  Still, to a person who has never really felt any significant connection to children (even as a child), it seems as though the piling on of these sorts of narratives has contributed to this societal distrust of any adult male who does connect with children (go ahead, google “teacher shortage distrust of men”), and sitting in the cinema the other day during trailers, it made me wonder how the modern viewer will really process the upcoming documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor?  (Grade: B-)

They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead.  Consider it a testament to all but three minutes of Morgan Neville and Netflix’s illuminating documentary that: (1) I now have no desire to see Orson Welles’ unfinished The Other Side of the Wind; and (2) ironically enough (notwithstanding those three minutes), I find Netflix and company’s “completion” and release of Welles’ Sisyphean efforts to be even more distasteful.  (Grade: B)

Three Identical Strangers.  The filmmakers behind Three Identical Strangers are clearly going for: (i) a sensational “true story”; (ii) an ethical indictment of scientific elitists; and (iii) a contemplation on nature v. nurture.  But commitment and craft aside, they ultimately fail on all fronts: (i) the sensational story gets unsensational more quickly than they think; (ii) the heightened level of outrage that they clearly want us to feel is dramatically dependent upon some rather dubious notions about the bonds that exist between biological twins separated at birth; and (iii) peddling in said dubious notions undermines the credibility of any subsequent intimation that nurture could really stand a chance against nature.  Frankly, I found far more humanity that rings true in Koreeda’s fictional film, Like Father Like Son (2013), than I found in this documentary.  But then again, I’m old enough—and skeptical enough—not to care much about the situation (hypothetical or otherwise) where I have some previously unknown identical twin walking around in the world.  I’ve got plenty of assholes in my life as it is, thank you very much.  (Grade: C)

Thoroughbreds.  As two upper-crust teenagers with disparate degrees of sociopathic self-awareness, Olivia Cooke and Anya Taylor-Joy are absolutely enthralling in the first act, and within the first 20 minutes, I was willing to follow them anywhere.  But this dark comedy (with a trailer that oversells the “comedy”) loses steam once the plot (such that it is) kicks in, and I’m not exactly sure what the inclusion of Anton Yelchin’s character (such that it is) is really intended to accomplish (a proxy for the audience’s moral conscience?).  (Grade: B-)

To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before.  Lana Condor and Anna Cathcart are totally awesome and deserved much better storytelling craft — frankly, less after-school special and more Me Earl and the Dying Girl (2015).  (Grade: C+)

Tully.  I get a kick out of some of the reviews that take offense at this salty film as a salvo in some war on motherhood, which, as far as I’m concerned (as a non-parent), is as ridiculous as claims of a war on Christmas.  That said, Tully is Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody’s weakest collaboration to date, due primarily to (1) a twist that just doesn’t land, (2) the cartoonish characterization of Ron Livingston’s husband, and (3) Mackenzie Davis, who – with that perpetual overriding facial expression (eyes agape as if always slightly startled) – is simply not in the same league as Charlize Theron.  (Grade: C+)

Unfriended: Dark Web.  Although I appreciated the effort to take this conceit out of the realm of the supernatural, the simple, insular, and somewhat believable plot gives way to a second half that is anything but, as the diabolus ex machina arrives to make for a predictably nihilistic affair.  And worst of all, the talents of Betty Gabriel are totally wasted.  (Grade: C)

Unsane.  I’m so tempted to throw out one of Woody Allen’s most famous quotes, but it’d literally spoil the movie.  (Grade: B-)

Venom.  Matilda’s college/grad school is totally covered now, right?  (Grade: D+)

Widows.  Best genre movie of the year.  (Grade: B+)

Wildlife.  Carey Mulligan’s character is the villain here, right?  (Grade: B-)

Won’t You Be My Neighbor?  It’s impossible to separate any assessment of a documentary like this from an appreciation for its saintly subject matter, but in the midst of the current trends infecting the genre (namely, multi-episode bloat), director Morgan Neville does an exemplary job at editing this 94-minute piece.  Right out of the gate, Neville foregoes the obligatory childhood narrative and dives right in to the evolution of the Mr. Rogers character/man.  Still, having seen the trailer for this film on the same day as The Tale some weeks back, I wish Neville had spent less time countering the FoxNews nonsense and instead addressed the real elephant in the room: Could Mr. Rogers truly be considered a role mode in a contemporary culture that has come to fundamentally distrust any adult male who takes an interest in children?  (Grade: B)

You Were Never Really Here.  I think it’s safe to say that writer/director Lynne Ramsay has earned a certain reputation as an acquired taste. Her films tend to be visually intense, always centering her viewer around one jagged character. (She’s the kind of filmmaker who’d seem entirely right for adapting a difficult narrative like The Lovely Bones – that is, until the source material becomes a bestseller and there’s money to be made.)  And yet, as difficult as films like Ratcather, Morvern Callar, and We Need to Talk About Kevin are to swallow (and truth be told, I’m still choking on Morvern Callar), there is a distinctly redemptive quality to all of her narratives, and You Were Never Really Here is no different. … That said, it’s hard to difficult to describe You Were Never Really Here without using the term subversion. We’ve seen all of this before: the damaged vet (cue the flashbacks) turned vigilante – systematic, paranoid, unforgiving – saving the damsel in distress (here, lost underaged white girls whom our hero Joe seems to see everywhere – at the airport, on the street, waiting for the train, etc.).  Ramsay even maintains the familiar three-act beats (i.e., the setup as badass, the job gone wrong, the revenge), only to undermine the essential nature of the expected outcomes (e.g., the way violence is portrayed). … But for all of the comparisons I’ve read to Robert De Niro’s Taxi Driver, I can safely say that I’ve never experienced a character quite like Joe in a movie quite like this – that is, doing things Joe does in the way that he does (a scene on a kitchen floor immediately comes immediately to mind). Yet Joaquin Phoenix’s performance feels entirely natural – that is to say, true to the notoriously unruly and ticky Phoenix.  And at times, I couldn’t help but notice Ramsay’s camera lumbering along with Phoenix’s bearish physicality – all of which led me to wonder why it is that we talk about female muses to male directors, but never the other way around.  (In this instance, I could totally imagine Ramsay seeing Inherent Vice and thinking, “oh yeah, I could shape him into something.”) … For a 2018 film that ostensibly comes across as an indictment of toxic masculinity, one would expect that precious commodity known as the Female Director would lead her viewers into that hallowed ground known as the Female Perspective (a perspective that dominated Ramsay’s last two films, no less).  But that never happens – we never really see any woman or girl from any eyes other than Joe’s, and admirably enough, that’s the point. Rather, Ramsay corrals Phoenix into her own unique examination of masculinity on its own terms, on human terms. And in doing so, I think Ramsay has managed to dig deeper in one film than Kathryn Bigelow has over the course of her entire career.  (Grade: A-)

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