SIFF Advance: PACHAMAMA

Directing: B+
Acting: B
Writing: B+
Cinematography: A-
Editing: B+
Animation: A

Although its run time clocks in at an unusually brief 72 minutes, Pachamama is an animated feature the allows its story to settle and sink in, rather than presenting itself as though it is competing for the minuscule attention spans of eight-year-olds. The truth is that likely means it won’t get seen by a particularly wide audience, and that makes me sad. Its animation, “inspired by colorful indigenous art,” is reason enough to be seen on its own.

And herein likes a minor bit of catch-22: it’s wonderful that Netflix has picked up the rights to stream this film, which it reportedly will begin doing as soon as next month. Look for it on Netflix then, if nothing else; it’s better seen that way than not seen at all. But, that also will likely dissuade viewers from seeing it in movie theatres, where it truly is best seen. The artistry is truly unique and beautiful, and there just won’t be the same appreciation for detail on an iPad screen.

A joint production of France, Luxembourg, and Canada — and a 2019 César Award nominee for Best Animated Film — Pachamama is actually directed by Argentina-born Juan Antin, who bases this story largely on the Earth/Time Mother goddess revered by the indigenous people of the Andes. The story thus takes place in a small village just outside the city of Cuzco, once the capital of the Inca Empire, and is presently in modern-day Peru, about 47 miles from the ancient ruins of Machu Picchu.

No “ruins” figure in the story here, as Pachamama takes place during the reign of the Incas — although the two children, Tepulpai (Andrea Santamaria) and Naïra (India Coenen), take a journey by foot from the village to Cuzco. They are seeking the return of a golden totem they use in ceremonial offerings to the goddess Pachamama. In the process, the film Pachamama illustrates a bit of the hubris of both the Incan rulers as well as colonialist conquistadors, as Tepulpai and Naïra get caught in the crosshairs of those conflicts.

All the while, though, always steeped in indigenous Andean mythology, Tepulpai in particularly must learn the importance of both sacrifice and tradition. He’s defiant in the face of offering his “most prized possession” to Pachamama, and starts off pretty petty and selfish. In short, he’s a little asshole — behaving the way a whole lot of children in need of a lesson behave. The is thus the focus of a parable, and a very well rendered one at that.

The story, quite well polished considering there are five credited script writers, offers backdrops of both historical and mythological complexity, behind a veneer of pretty simple and straightforward plotting. Adult viewers will find a film of both visual and narrative depth. Young children are apt to be dazzled both by the story and the colors, provided they give the movie a chance to begin with. If they are desensitized by frenetic animation that relies on chaotic, rapid-fire editing, they might have little interest.

Longer attention spans, however, will very much be rewarded by this film, which is a genuine work of art.t

Our young heroes soar above a truly unique template.

Our young heroes soar above a truly unique template.

Overall: B+

POKÉMON DETECTIVE PIKACHU

Directing: B-
Acting: B
Writing: B
Cinematography: B+
Editing: B
Special Effects: B

Fairt warning right up top: I literally know nothing about Pokémon, aside from its immense global popularity, the fact that it features an array of adorable and ugly creature characters, and it was very much part of a zeitgeist-defining mobile game about four years ago, which I never played. I’ve never watched any show or any other motion picture based on the property. I didn’t even know there had been more than twenty animated feature films released before the current live action one until checking the list on Wikipedia. I do know that Pokémon Detective Pikachu is the first of them to be a live-action release, with American characters speaking English and featuring bona fide movie stars, most notably Ryan Reynolds as the voice of Pikachu.

The point is, I am about as far from an authority on anything Pokémon as I could possibly be, so I have no means of appreciating how well (or how poorly) the film reflects the world of the multimedia franchise, which, until now, I have effectively ignored. But that’s not stopping me from reviewing the movie anyway!

I guess, if you are well versed in this fictional world, and you have any interest in a critical take on it, maybe find a review by someone else who also knows it well. You’ll likely find little to no satisfaction here. That said, as I have always said, any movie should always work on its own merits. So, does Detective Pikachu work on its own merits? Generally speaking, yes it does.

I have heard it said that it doesn’t reflect the true nature of Pikachu as a character to have him voiced with a snarky personality. Well, in the end Detective Pikachu actually has a fairly clever means of simultaneously sidestepping and correcting that problem, if you really want to call it a problem. Based on what little I have seen of Pikachu in his genuinely original self and form, personally I prefer him as voiced by Ryan Reynolds. It’s kind of as though a family-friendly Deadpool found himself trapped inside the body of this little furry creature.

As for how he fits into the overall story, which here presents a planned “Rhyme City” where humans and Pokémon live together harmoniously and are disallowed from any kinds of battles, it should come as no surprise that it offers little in the way of depth. Why would anyone expect depth in a movie based on a video game property, anyway? No fan of Pokémon is going to care. Nor is any casual fan of fantasy-adventure movies.

And to give Detective Pikachu credit, it is fairly imaginative in its world building, with Easter eggs of all sorts peppered throughout the film’s run time, without ever everdoing it or overwhelming those of us who don’t have any familiarity with all these creatures. By and large, they’re all fun, in myriad ways specific to individual ones. There is nothing cutting edge about the special effects, but they are serviceable and do work to further the story, so far as there is one. Director Rob Letterman keeps the spectacle at a manageable level when it could otherwise easily get out of hand in a movie like this.

The human characters are on average pretty bland, starting with our hero, young Tim (Justice Smith), who learns of his estranged father’s mysterious death and heads into Rhyme City to investigate. It continues with Lucy (Kathryn Newton), the aspiring reporter Tim runs into there. One could argue the blandness stops with Ken Watanabe as Tim’s dad’s detective partner, or Bill Nighy as the mogul mastermind behind the very existence of Rhyme City — except those two in particular are phoning it in, playing parts as pat as any ever put into another movie even remotely like this.

The story arc is patently by the numbers, but the joy is in the details, and often with the many cameos of different Pokémon creatures. You don’t have to have any familiarity with this universe to find them entertaining — and, in many cases, cute.

Which brings me to the most salient point about Detective Pikachu: the title character himself, and more specifically, his design. He’s adorable! So much so that when a passing lady on the street said exactly that about him, I thought, Yes. Yes, he is. You would be hard pressed to find another character cuter than Pikachu, and Ryan Reynolds’s fun-loving banter is a natural fit. If any one thing makes this movie worth seeing at all, it’s him. And he’s in most of the scenes, thankfully — because, without him, the movie gets comparatively dull. Reynolds may not be the true essence of this creature who otherwise only squeaks “Pika pika!”, but I could watch that version of him all day. As such, whatever other imperfections Detective Pikachu might have, it does offer a pretty solid 104 minutes of fun.

Tim and Pikachu get to the bottom of their bland missio— OMG HE’S SO CUTE

Tim and Pikachu get to the bottom of their bland missio— OMG HE’S SO CUTE

Overall: B

SIFF Advance: GOOD KISSER

Directing: B+
Acting: B+
Writing: B+
Cinematography: B+
Editing: B+

Sometimes you go to a movie festival screening not knowing quite what to expect, you’re compelled by the premise, but it could really go either way — and then it turns out to be surprisingly delightful. Good Kisser is one such movie. It is well written, well acted, well shot, and a Seattle production to boot: last night was its world premiere screening, at the Seattle International Film Festival.

Given that it’s about a lesbian couple, Jenna and Kate (Kari Alison Hodge and Rachel Paulson, respectively — the latter being, incidentally, the younger sister of Sarah Paulson), engaging in a first-time hookup with a third woman, Mia (Julia Eringer), it makes all the difference that it was written and directed by a woman, Wendy Jo Carlton. Presumably there are some few men out there who could have made a decent movie about this, being open to enough input from female cast and crew, but none could pull it off with Carlton’s specific brand of delicate sensitivity.

To be sure, that premise alone doesn’t necessarily hold much promise: “three women with varying degrees of nervousness attempt to get it on.” It sounds like a clichéd porn premise intended for the straight male gaze. Good Kisser could not be further away from that, although it certainly works for all audiences open to the story it’s trying to tell. And it is a story, an absorbing one at that, hooking you into the specific motivations of each separate character.

Indeed, much of the story unfolds like a one-act play, once Jenna and Kate arrive at the home of Mia, all set for, as Jenna noted earlier to a ride share driver, “a date with another woman.” The dialogue is written so well that it would indeed work as a stage play without really having to change anything, at least not the majority of the film set inside the house, where the three woman cautiously make small talk, work their way through wine and tequila, play a couple of ice breaker games I actually thought would be fun to play myself, and yes, eventually wind up in bed.

There are, soon enough, minor twists and turns as we learn more about these characters, extrapolated from what is clear from the beginning: Mia is free spirited and down to go with the flow no matter what happens; it is clear almost immediately that Kate is more into Mia than a one-night fling might suggest and has ulterior motives; Jenna is by far the most tentative and prone to anxiety and panic attacks.

Maybe 80% of the run time, which runs at a brisk 80 minutes that feels totally appropriate for a straightforward story with such a small cast. Otherwise there are only two other cast members: the ride share driver (Courtney McCullough), and Clark, the writer who lives in the grandmother apartment out back (Carter Rodriquez). Both characters serve a specific purpose, although honestly Yuka the driver does so in a slightly more natural way. Carter keeps hanging out in the backyard with his dog, often chatting with Jenna when she goes out for fresh air, and although he makes it clear he knows exactly what’s going down, everyone is very chill about it. I liked the way Yuka fit into the story a lot better.

Still, it was no more than ten or fifteen minutes into Good Kisser that I found myself thinking about how impressively written the dialogue was, not to mention the production values, particularly how well shot and beautifully lit the three women consistently were. This production design is solid by any standard, but by independent, local production standards, it’s kind of off the charts. Nobody working on this film was an amateur. It’s rare that pretty much every aspect of a movie’s production has the same level of competence, no matter who is making it, considering what a collaborative effort filmmaking is. Still, that consistency is probably more credit to the director than anyone.

And yes, it does get to a point of some amount of sex scenes, which are also very well shot, sensual rather than titillating, although I can imagine plenty of lesbians in particular will find it very hot. The sex stuff in particular is shot, and edited, in a measured, almost half-dreamy manner, gentle clips of limbs caressing and removing articles of clothing, or close-ups of wet skin, a neck or a wrist, where ice has been swiped.

Virtually any story must have some kind of conflict that must be overcome or accepted, and Good Kisser takes so much of its time getting there, I began to wonder if it would even happen. It does, but it’s gentle and subtle in the telling of it. You’ll find no bona fide drama here, and it works. Good Kisser might be the most “chill” movie I see all year. It’s basically “Netflix and Chill” without any Netflix. The characters still express feeling and emotions; they just do it in more relaxed and controlled ways than typically found at the movies. Even Jenna’s occasional anxiety is presented with a dignified respect. I guess you could call this a meditation on open relationships, with an emphasis on the meditation part. I left the theatre both impressed and relaxed.

More games are being played here than just what’s at the surface.

More games are being played here than just what’s at the surface.

Overall: B+

AVENGERS: ENDGAME

Directing: C+
Acting: B
Writing: C
Cinematography: C
Editing: C-
Special Effects: B

The more I think about it, the more I find myself resenting this movie. Captain America: Endgame is on track to be the biggest global box office success of all time, and I would argue it’s the least deserving of that distinction of any film in history. The same could have been said of the previous record holder, Avatar (2009), but at least that movie had stunning, cutting edge special effects going for it.

Otherwise, when it comes to the record breakers, I guess this is just the new normal. At least Titanic (1997), corny as it was, had a certain gravitas thanks to the backdrop of genuine history. Who remembers anything about Avatar now except for its unprecedented effects? It didn’t even have any memorable lines, nothing worthy of enduring parody, no “I’ll never let go, Jack!” And what has Avengers: Endgame got? Just a bunch of people collecting paychecks. What will be remembered about this movie in another ten years? Literally nothing. (Side note: none of these “broken records” mean anything at all when adjusted for inflation, in which case Gone with the Wind still remains the most successful movie in history. And that, in context, actually makes sense.)

I would have had so much more respect for the Marvel Cinematic Universe if it had just ended with Infinity War, a bold, tragic end with half of life wiped out of the universe. But I knew even then, when I saw half of these heroes blow away into dust, there was no reason to think any of that was permanent, no reason for any true emotional investment in any of their fates. Superheroes were long established as all of them basically gods — not just Thor and Loki. Death doesn’t mean anything in this universe, even when it’s disintegration, and therefore neither does risk. Seriously what reason do we have to care?

That said, Endgame is not without its sacrifices, some of them with what at least appears to be permanence, and for that at least, I am glad. The whole plot revolves around the use of time travel to get everyone back, which is beyond predictable (and therefore hardly a spoiler), where characters point out the logical fallacies of time travel in several other movies famously based on time travel, while inventing logical fallacies all their own — not to mention self-contradictions. This might as well be a continuation of the Back to the Future franchise, which itself gets name checked.

Where I’ll give Endgame some credit, is in the sacrifices its characters actually make — none of them based on a plot device that can transparently be reversed with age-old storytelling tropes. This is where the movie actually managed to touch my emotions. Much has been said of how many times people have cried watching this movie, and I am not above admitting that I teared up myself at least twice. In fact it was exactly because of this expectation, the assertion that this film carries a surprising amount of emotional heft, that I opted to open my mind to it and actually go see it in the theatre — and I had not given Infinity War the same courtesy (hence my never having written a review of it). When I finally watched Infinity War on Netflix, I found it to be surprisingly entertaining, clever and funny, at least until that ending that was supposed to be shocking but kind of made me roll my eyes and say “Whatever!” By contrast, Endgame is comparatively overlong and disappointing.

I like a three-hour movie to earn its run time. This one clearly thinks it does just that, by asserting itself as the marker of the end of an era, the final chapter of twenty-two movies over twelve years. Endgame finds the time to callback something from probably every single one of them, some given more weight than others. Natalie Portman, with no lines, gets seen for about three seconds. Our heroes deposit themselves into the action of several of the previous movies, several of which had been terrible. The effect of retreading previous installments of the franchise very much has the effect of . . . you guessed it! Back to the Future Part II.

Sadly, that movie came out in 1989, which means a great many in Endgame’s audience is far too young to have any idea how unoriginal these Marvel movies really are. And I am not averse to superhero movies based on their very idea — I am averse to them based on recent history. I make exceptions for the exceptional: Black Panther, or even Captain Marvel. Those movies find new things to say, new ways of looking at this universe and new kinds of heroes to feature. They have a new take that is worthy of attention. Avengers: Endgame is the same shit, different movie — with an extra hour of it!

Speaking of Captain Marvel, she is criminally under-utilized, brought in intermittently as a secret weapon only to get outshone by other characters with longer histories even though she is more compelling. The same thing happened with Black Panther in the last Avengers movie. A successful ensemble piece is one thing; tokenism is another.

What about the special effects in this one, then? Maybe that is worth a look? Arguably, yes — I have never seen motion capture this nuanced, particularly on the faces of Mark Ruffalo as The Hulk and Josh Brolin as Thanos. But if you take your eyes away from the astonishing detail of their facial expressions and look at their entire bodies, you’ll see that they still just look like cartoons. As usual, this is technology very much still in development, and unlike practical effects rendered with truly skilled precision, this is all going to look dated before you know it. No movie top-heavy with CGI effects in the first couple decades of this century is going to have a very long visual shelf life.

If there is anything that sets Endgame apart, it is merely its position as a marker of the end of an era. if you have been deeply invested in all these movies since the first Iron Man in 2008, then I can see how affecting Endgame can be for you. I get that, I really do. But just imagine how much more affecting it could have been as something better! Because trust me, this could have been better. Instead, with all the callbacks and cameos, we get a movie franchise that basically sees its own life flash before its eyes. And that “Marvel Cinematic Universe” life, on the whole, was not a great one.

Marching off to a destiny of oblivion.

Marching off to a destiny of oblivion.

Overall: C+

HER SMELL

Directing: B
Acting: B+
Writing: B
Cinematography: B+
Editing: B

I left Her Smell with one lingering, burning question: What does Becky Something smell like? You never find out! No one discusses odor even once in this movie. Maybe you’re just supposed to assume something, I don’t know, pungent, because Becky is so fucked up? Unless this is a collective “her,” some kind of reference to women in general? I don’t know that we have the time to unpack that idea. Okay sure, maybe I have a problem with being too literal about things. But I do think a movie’s title should make sense.

Otherwise, it’s easy to imagie Her Smell being at least somewhat polarizing. There have been comparisons of this story, starring Elizabeth Moss as the frontwoman for an all-female rock band just over the crest of fame, to Courtney Love. I don’t particularly see it, myself. Writer-director Alex Ross Perry reportedly used Axl Rose as more of an inspiration. That makes more sense.

The plot structure is compelling. There aren’t very many scenes in this film, which runs rather long at 134 minutes. Each scene goes on much longer than usual, with each transition usually a pretty big jump forward in time. There was a moment when I actually found myself thinking I rather liked the editing, but that was before no less than three moments that could have worked perfectly well as an ending. One of these is an extended, almost jarringly quiet sequence with Becky in her house, bonding with the young daughter she has had very little time with. She sings her a song at the piano, the scene is beautifully lit, and I found it all very moving. After that moved into yet another scene, even later in time, it wasn’t even the last time I thought, Wait, there’s more?

There’s something weirdly off about the performances, even though Elizabeth Moss brings a crackling, vaguely sinister intensity. It feels, counter-intuitively, like rehearsed improvisation. It’s easy to assume these extended scenes of rambling dialogue are improvised, but according to Moss herself, every line was scripted. There’s something very impressive about that. There’s also something vaguely unnatural about it, though you can’t quite put your finger on it as you watch.

“Becky Something” is the stage name. Backing her up are guitarist Marielle Hell (Agyness Deyn) and drummer Ali van der Wolff (Gayle Rankin). When the film opens, the camera follows tracking shots of Becky backstage after a club performance, these other two women already exasperated from years of her manic behavior. Her ex-boyfriend Danny (Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens, here very familiar looking but hard to place with an American accent) brings their little daughter by, something I never quite understood. Why not leave the kid with his new girlfriend as long as Becky is messed up?

Becky alienates many people, most notably her mother (Virginia Madsen) and another trio of young women musicians who can’t help but fawn over her. But as unconventional as Her Smell seems in the moment, with nearly all of its scenes set in backstage halls and dressing rooms of theatres (except for that one lovely, quiet scene at Becky’s house), it has a long arc of redemption which, overall, is almost disappointingly conventional. There comes a point at the end where you half-expect the final shot to be a freeze frame of Becky and the band performing onstage.

As such, the writing is competent, but slightly under-cooked. It’s really the cinematography and the performances that make this movie, which command attention. It is a bit of a showcase for Elizabeth Moss’s versatility. It also, in the end, falls slightly short of the feast for the senses it clearly intends to be. Keegan DeWitt’s score is worth noting, with its semi-muted percussive tensions keeping you feeling nervous about what crazy thing Becky might do. Even that feels like approaching a boiling point without ever coming to a full boil.

She’ll keep you interested, even when the movie doesn’t.

She’ll keep you interested, even when the movie doesn’t.

Overall: B

LONG SHOT

Directing: B
Acting: B+
Writing: B
Cinematography: B
Editing: B+

Long Shot is the kind of movie that can easily be criticized on many merits, in ways that I could even probably agree with, but whatever, I enjoyed it!

The greatest defense I can give it, which is perhaps equal parts fair and lame: this movie delivers on its promise, which is simply that it’s a fun, laugh-out-loud romantic comedy. It certainly has a premise that sets it apart, with Charlize Theron as Secretary of State Charlotte Field, who falls for the speech writer she hires who she also happened to babysit as a kid, Fred Flarsky (Seth Rogen). Granted, it’s not new to set a romantic comedy in the upper echelons of Washington politics (see The American President (1995)), but I can’t recall any other that revolves around the most powerful woman in the world.

Now, okay, yes, it is a bit of a trope to see the stunningly beautiful woman falling for the shlubby man — hell, Seth Rogen himself already did it twelve years ago with Katherine Heigl in Knocked Up, which was about as good as this movie is. And truly, nothing in Long Shot is even remotely realistic.

But, after some introductory scenes that set all the pieces of the plot into position with pretty clumsy contrivances, Long Shot totally won me over. The movie and its audience both get its sea legs, and the charisma of its lead actors, as well as the surprising chemistry between them, conspire to sell the movie as a good time for a couple of hours.

I’ll still nitpick, of course. I like to assume that’s what you’re here for! I didn’t love the character of Maggie (June Diane Raphael), one of Charlotte Field’s key staffers, playing the part of the resentful bitch, going out of her way to sabotage the relationship. I don’t fault June Diane Raphael for taking the part — we’ve all got to pay the rent, and she does well with what bullshit she has to work with — but truly, what purpose does that serve?

And then there’s Fred Flarsky’s best friend, Lance (O’Shea Jackson Jr.), who seems little more than a pawn in an exercise in pandering “both sides-ism.” A black conservative Republican who exists to teach his white best friend about empathy and “seeing things from other people’s point of view”? Are you kidding? I’m not saying no such black people exist — but the idea that he would be best friends with a character like Fred, whose very purpose as a journalist exists to expose the seedy underbelly of Republican corruption and hypocrisy, is a bit more of a stretch.

Okay, so Long Shot is far from perfect. It works, and works well, when it focuses on the relationship between Charlotte and Fred, and how they handle the special political circumstances surrounding them. This includes Charlotte working for a president (Bob Odenkirk) who got the job with no political experience and used to be a TV star. Sound familiar? The clever twist here is that President Chambers, instead of being a reality show host, was previously the star of a TV drama on which he played . . . the president.

There are some elements of the story which, in a pre-Trump world, would have pushed the limits of believability. But, love it or hate it, we now live in a world in which a movie can show a hacked video leak involving semen on a beard does not ruin political career, and you can still think, Yeah, I can see it. (Side note: thankfully, that’s the only bit of gross-out humor involving bodily fluids in the movie.) Now, such a thing not ruining a woman’s political career? That might just still be a little too unrealistic.

But who watches these movies, particularly romantic comedies, for realism? Nobody! That these are fantasies is in their DNA, literally in the script. Long Shot does want to have things both ways in multiple contexts, from its only-occasional nods to rampant sexism in American politics while presenting an arguably sexist story arc, to its eagerness to be accessible to audiences of all political persuasions. These aren’t things that have to tear a movie down, however. I mean, why shouldn’t we all be able to enjoy this movie?

And really, that’s what makes Long Shot work — unchallenging in spite of being set in the world of American politics, it’s basically the very definition of escapism. Generally speaking, it’s escapism done well. I found my heartstrings getting tugged by it, anyway.

They’ll win you over if you let them.

They’ll win you over if you let them.

Overall: B

HAIL SATAN?

Directing: B
Writing: B
Cinematography: B
Editing: B+

To say I have mixed feelings about the documentary Hail Satan? is a bit of an understatement. I’ve long been an avowed atheist, though not a particularly militant one, but I have a clear enough memory of my conservative, religious, Christian upbringing to know how triggering everything about this might be to plenty of people — including, quite plausibly, multiple people I know personally who might deign to read this very review.

And therein lies the rub. The “Satanic Temple,” as an embodiment of “modern Satanism” stands for objectively reasonable activist goals. Who in their right mind would read their “Seven Tenets,” without associating them with the Satanic Temple, and disagree with any of it? The first one includes the phrase “in accordance with reason”; the second references “the struggle for justice”; the third is about physical autonomy.

Clearly this organization understands how, culturally, they are playing with fire. The bummer of it all is how reasonable their arguments are, yet how lost their arguments are going to get as they provoke the system by exposing institutional hypocrisy.

And make no mistake — the hypocrisy is epidemic. In one of only two mentions of religion in the United States Constitution, it states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” In what universe does the erection of a monument to the Biblical Ten Commandments on State government grounds not violate that clause? (Side note: one of the interview subjects in Hail Satan? notes that the prevalence of such monuments on government property across the country can be traced back to a publicity stunt promoting the 1956 motion picture The Ten Commandments. Yes, really.)

So Hail, Satan? not only tracks the beginnings and evolution of the Satanic Temple as an activist organization with rebellious ritualistic leanings toward blasphemy-as-a-statement, but its push to get local municipalities to erect their own statue of Baphomet, basically a goat-headed angel with two adoring children flanking him, next to any Ten Commandments monument on government property. Their arguments, which is objectively a pretty airtight one, is that it aims to celebrate the religious pluralism — as opposed to, in one man’s words, “Christian supremacy” — on which this country was founded.

There is, of course, multiple elements of ridiculousness to all of this. Could anyone as effectively make the same arguments without invoking what a majority of this country regards as the world’s greatest embodiment of evil? How can these people expect to be taken seriously? Well, by using faith-based laws agaist those who passed them, they have managed it — by getting the Oklahoma state legislature to back off on erecting the Ten Commandments on their Capitol grounds; by getting the Phoenix City Council to abandon their sixty-year tradition of doing a religious invocation before sessions when the Satanic Temple requested to be a part of it. You should see the footage of the local citizenry addressing the City Council in opposition of the Satanic Temple being allowed in. Some of them look literally hysterical.

A key question is asked one of the interview subjects: “Do you think most people think you’re kidding, or that you’re evil?” I would expect most of the otherwise reasonable conservatives I know would come down on the latter option. I also know plenty of people on the spectrum between atheism and secularism, though, and probably most of them would expect these people are perpetuating an elaborate hoax, having fun at the expense of the religious community.

If nothing else, this film illustrates how “Satanic” peope’s earnestness should not be underestimated. It’s often said these days that modern Satanists don’t literally believe in a “Satan,” but rather regard him as a symbol of rebellion against tyranny. These are people who organize work to the public good, such as the local Arizona chapter that adopted a highway (although they pick up litter with extended pitchforks, a nice touch). These are people who are very serious, and are by and large very friendly.

That’s not to say they are not without their dark rituals, which, if Hail Satan? is any indication, just offer a more offbeat kind of community to people that they lose by rejecting more conventional religion. Perfectly valid points are made about the perversity of many Christian rituals (wine representing blood, eating of flesh, etc). That said, there’s a somewhat delicious irony to the leader of the local Detroit chapter being rejected from the national organization for falling too far out of line with their organizational principals. A Satanist calling for the execution of the president? That’s a step too far! To be fair to the Satanic Temple, they really are a nonviolent institution, something codified into their ethics. Those Detroit Satanists can pour wine over naked bodies in ritual ceremonies all they want, but advocating actual violence of any kind — let alone against the president — is unacceptable. Think of their reputation!

My flippancy here could easily be presented here as unfair. But, I am also a realist, and the idea of any group openly calling themselves “Satanists” gaining a truly positive reputation in this country is preposterous. The makers of Hail Satan?, such as director Penny Lane, are clearly on their side. The film actually makes a strong case that we all should be. It also falls slightly short of illustrating what good they’re doing by using Satan as a fundamental symbol of their identity. They want their earnestness to be acknowledged, and while they tend to get it from legal scholars, when it comes to the culture at large, they are either laughed at and dismissed, or they are deeply, almost fatally feared. Neither of those responses make any objective sense.

And although Hail Satan? is otherwise very well constructed and presented, I do wish it spent more time acknowledging such questions. It ends on their fight with the Arkansas state legislature over the Ten Commandment on Little Rock government property, and in this case all they manage is the temporary presentation of their Baphomet statue on the bed of a truck during a rally. Evidently, their case against Arkansas is ongoing, but for some reason the credits roll before any clarification on that matter is offered.

Still, for those with an open enough mind to give it a look anyway, Hail Satan? is provocative in all the right ways. Its greatest problem is really the same problem the Satanic Temple has itself: any association with Satan, no matter how “symbolic” it might be, will instill far more fear than actual thought. I’m not sure there has ever been a greater irony than a movie about Satanists being one of the best examples out there of preaching to the choir.

Good luck with that.

Good luck with that.

Overall: B

HIGH LIFE

Directing: C+
Acting: B
Writing: C-
Cinematography: B+
Editing: C
Special Effects: B-

There was a moment in High Life where I caught myself thinking, I don’t know what’s happening.

Maybe half an hour I circled back around and thought, I have no idea what’s going on.

In other words, I found this movie difficult to follow. Its clearly cerebral ambitions make it easy to see how critics have generally quite liked it, but also how its box office take has been less than stellar (three weeks since opening, it has yet even to break $1 million). It is plainly a low-budget feature, and it is often beautifully shot considering those constraints, but to my eye there are moments when those constraints hurt it. In one early scene — “early” being a relative term given the seemingly endless time it takes before the title card appears — the main character, Monte (Robert Pattinson), takes all of the remaining crew members, all in a cryogenic sleep, and chucks them out the air lock of his ship. Each one of them falls directly down, as if gravity exists in space.

I’m no physics expert here — I only passed my college physics class at all because of a massive grading curve — so perhaps someone can clarify this for me. Monte mentions in voice-over narration at one point that the ship is in a constant state of acceleration, which has the effect of creating gravity for them. That part makes sense, but what of the poor souls Monte chucks out the door? Even if they are thrown out into space, since they are already in the same amount of acceleration of the ship, wouldn’t they still appear just to float away? Or would the laws of motion change once they’re outside the ship, and thus appear to fall away quickly?

Under different circumstances, such questions about a film could be argued as irrelevant. But, this is not just science fiction, but high-minded at that: High Life has intellectual ideas, and as such some across — to me, anyway — as a low-rent 2001: A Space Odyssey. And I will concede that High Life does a lot of things fairly well, chief among them being obtusely intellectual in tone. The problems I have with it are not just that it is hard to follow, but that whatever it does succeed at, plenty of other movies before it have done better.

So what’s the point, really? This is director and co-writer Claire Denis’s first English language film, but otherwise she is a longtime veteran of filmmaking. Apparently Robert Pattinson long had interest in doing this film. High Life might have done better if only its star had an ounce of charisma. He and Keanu Reeves should do a movie together sometime, maybe a buddy-cop flick about two guys who can only pretend they know how to emote.

The concept behind High Life is intriguing, at least: everyone on this ship is a convicted felon, prisoners tricked into taking an exploratory trip into space with the intent of harnessing the energy of a black hole. They left thinking they’d eventually come back, but they will not; along the way, they become the subjects of sexual experiments.

This is where things get weird. The ship’s apparent medical officer, Dr. Dibs (Juliette Binoche), herself a felon who once murdered her own children, is “obsessed with reproduction,” and collects regular sperm samples from the men on board. It’s never made clear why, but they aren’t allowed to have old fashioned sex with any of the women. They get to use “the box” as a masturbatory tool to release their sexual frustrations. This applies to Dr. Dibs herself, and she is the one character featured in a bizarre, ritualistic sex scene between her and the contraption.

Monte, it seems, has chosen abstinence as a mark of strength — including the denial of his sperm sampling.

Pretty much all of this stuff is told in flashback, as High Life begins and ends with Monte and his daughter, Willow, living on the ship in isolation. How he gets said daughter is another rather weird bit: I’ll only say here that it involves Dr. Dibs walking down a hallway with Monte’s semen cupped in her hands. At the beginning, Willow is a baby; at the end, she is a teenager (Jessie Ross). I fear I may have missed a key element to the very end, as they head off into the sunset (or black hole, whatever), but . . . I fell asleep. I honestly don’t think it matters.

This is as a sort of myster-scifi-horror movie, and it’s a very paced, quiet one at that. If you want to see that done in a compelling way, go watch a brunette Scarlett Johansson in Under the Skin a movie I also found imperfect but at least worth seeing, and worthy of recommending to others, depending on their tastes. High Life seems like a movie that believes itself to be something greater than the sum of its parts. I walked away feeling like it was just unfinished parts.

The futile search for meaning in this film’s universe.

The futile search for meaning in this film’s universe.

Overall: C+

PENGUINS

Directing: B+
Writing: B
Cinematography: B+
Editing: A-

It’s been fourteen years since March of the Penguins became the second-most successful documentary in history — and, by an extremely wide margin, the most successful nature documentary in history. It’s been so long. in fact, that plenty of kids who might see the new Disneynature film Penguins won’t even have any idea that other film even exists.

And there is a minor irony in this comparison, because March of the Penguins had originally been released as a French film, with voice actors hired to become mock-characters for the film. There is little doubt that the decision to use Morgan Freeman as narrator for the U.S. release, with no penguin character “voices,” contributed to that film’s massive domestic success. And yet, for Disneynature’s Penguins, Ed Helms is brought on as narrator, and here he actually does semi-regularly take on the voice of the one penguin we follow in this story. It includes a lot of silly humor, but here is where Ed Helms must be commended, because the big surprise here is how well it works.

The humor in Penguins is always silly but it’s never downright dumb, nor does it ever insult the viewer’s intelligence. In fact, although Helms clearly anthropomorphises the animal, none of the footage does. The footage offered here, as in many a documentary before it, makes clear the harsh environments of this particular species, the Adélie penguin.

And this film offers plenty of indelible images of its own. Above-ice angles on Orca whales’ dorsal fins peeking up through holes in the ice. Below-the-surface footage of leopard seals on the hunt. Penguins is pretty clearly aimed at younger audiences, and thus never gets quite as frank about the realities of nature as other documentaries. Still, it does get impressively real, given the context.

The mass migration of hundreds of thousands of penguins obviously means not all of them will survive. For much of this film’s concise, 76-minute run time, I had the feeling we’d never see predator actually catch its prey. It doesn’t happen for quite some time. But then, we finally see a seal wrap its jaws around a penguin and pull it down from the surface of the water.

The story here focuses, though, on a single penguin family, and specifically the male, which is given the name “Steve,” who meets his lifelong mate, “Adeline.” I’m not sure the names were especially necessary, except that I’ll admit to getting a kick out of Ed Helms acting as though Steve, seen in a wide shot alone in a vast expanse of snow, is calling out when he can’t find her: “Adeline! We see them engage in a little bit of mating ritual and then it cuts straight to the eggs, already hatched, needing to be kept warm. Steve and Adeline work together to raise their chicks to a point where they can fend for themselves. Curiously, the chicks themselves are not given names.

I found myself wondering if the filmmakers (co-directors Alastair Fothergill and Jeff Wilson; cinematographer Rolf Steinmann) really followed the same exact set of four penguins through an Antarctic spring and summer season, or if they simply cut down their 900 hours of footage to make it look as though they did. It’s impossible to tell these penguins apart, after all. Either way, I surprised myself by how emotionally invested I got. After seeing a leopard seal finally chow down on another random penguin, I genuinely feared one of the nearly-grown chicks might meet the same fate as it was being pursued by the predators. More than once I worried about whether this entire family would make it to the end intact.

You could call that a dilemma, I suppose: This is fairly typical emotional manipulation by the likes of Disney, thereby arguably compromising the integrity of a true nature documentary. I could not help but find myself enamored with this movie, though — they’re just that skilled at getting you into it. Penguins is an undeniable charmer, by turns dramatic and adorable. After a decade and a half of movies in one way or another about penguins, the subject matter is far from novel, but there is something slightly different to this one’s approach. Anyone who thinks documentaries are dull need only to be shown this one to be proven wrong.

Get ready to be tickled.

Get ready to be tickled.

Overall: B+

LITTLE

Directing: C-
Acting: B+
Writing: D
Cinematography: B-
Editing: C+

If I weren’t so OCD about seeing any movie from beginning to end if I am going to write a review of it, I would have gotten up and left Little halfway through. This movie has elements that elevate it — most notably the performances — but, unfortunately, really nothing redeems its truly awful script.

Directed and co-written by Tina Gordon, whose only other directorial feature credit is a 2013 film I never saw (or heard of) called Peeples, Little is written in a way that suggests Gordon herself was never actually a child, or maybe she’s of an alien race that never experiences childhood, and is now making her best guess as to what it’s like. The premise is essentially a rehash of the 1988 Tom Hanks film Big, just inverted in several ways: the protagonist is a black woman instead of a white man; and instead of wishing to be “big,” a sassy preteen girl with magic powers she doesn’t even know she has wishes for a horrible woman to be “little.”

So far so good, right? Anyone in their right mind would be on board so far. This sounds fun! And, to be totally fair, it must be noted that the principal actors are great. Regina Hall plays the grown Jordan Sanders, an uber-successful businesswoman who owns her own business developing apps. She lends a relatable charm and vulnerability to her hardened nastiness, even if it’s patently undeveloped in the writing.

And that’s the fatal flaw in this movie, really — none of the characters have any true dimension. The script, packed wall to wall with painfully corny platitudes about “putting up walls” and “being yourself”, is downright embarrassing. But, Issa Rae brightens every scene she’s in as April, Jordan’s assistant. And Marsai Martin is so great as “little” Jordan, she almost makes this movie watchable. Almost.

This ineptly executed story is not the fault of any of the actors, however — and Marsai Martin leaves the deepest impression. I sincerely hope to see more of her in other, better movies. It’s no less than she deserves. We already know Regina Hall and Issa Rae are great. If Little were a better movie, Marsai Martin would break out as a revelation.

But, it’s not often that I am in a movie theatre and literally find myself thinking, Oh my god, this is bad. If it weren’t for the undeniable charisma of the actors, I would freely expect this to qualify as the worst movie I saw all year. It may yet retain that distinction. Its ignorance of how humans actually interact and how life really goes is kind of breathtaking. Sure, you expect a certain level of such things in light comedies. But this one has a level of moralizing so clichéd it might put you to sleep. In fact, it did literally that to one guy in the theatre I was in. I envied his unconsciousness.

The very title is weirdly misleading, incidentally. “Little” Jordan is a grown woman in the body of a 13-year-old. Little has this alternate-dimension idea that any kid in middle school would actually refer to themselves as “little.” The title might work if the kid were, say, six years old. Not even adults in the real world call 13-year-olds — literal teenagers — “little kids.”

In other words, nothing in Little makes any sense. It has occasionally enjoyable moments, and surely plenty of people will enjoy it far more than I did. That doesn’t change how fundamentally dumb it is. One scene after the next strains suspension of disbelief, distracting in its contrived “cuteness.” It can’t even pick a tone, or decide whether it’s a kids’ movie or meant for adults, veering between Jordan “learning how to be nice” as she deals with the middle school she has to go back to, and Jordan otherwise dealing with very adult concerns.

Little is a big mess.

If only we could see them in a better movie.

If only we could see them in a better movie.

Overall: C