CRAZY RICH ASIANS

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

It's astonishing that Crazy Rich Asians is the first American film with an all-Asian principal cast in 25 years. The Joy Luck Club was released in 1993; I was 17 years old, and went to see it with who would later become my sister-in-law, while my brother and his friend saw Dazed and Confused. What's even more jarring is the realization that even having been released that long ago, The Joy Luck Club is a far better film than Crazy Rich Asians.

Of course, even comparing them is unfair: just because they both had all-Asian casts doesn't make any less like comparing apples and oranges. They are two very different movies. Crazy Rich Asians has to carry a weight of cultural context that it neither needs nor desires, but here we are. If we lived in a world where lots of movies by and about people of Asian descent were made, Crazy Rich Asians would just be another throwaway comedy romance, pleasantly enjoyable and easily forgotten.

Instead, it faces acute criticism for the "diversity of Asian experience" lacking in its representation. What the hell do people expect about a movie about crazy rich people, of any ethnicity? Obviously following the stories of the obscenely rich is not going to capture any "diversity of experience." If done right, though, it can still be fun.

Some of the debate, particularly between Asian audiences themselves, can be illuminating. For Americans regularly engaged in conversations about white supremacy, it's a bit of a surprise to hear the phrase "Chinese supremacy," in the context of insisting Crazy Rich Asians is not as progressive as some want to regard it as, even if it is groundbreaking in a lot of ways. I knew nothing about apparent oppression of non-Chinese minorities there, or that South Asians are commonly relegated to service industry work and discriminated against. As someone with a spouse born in India, seeing reference to that caused me to go into this movie looking for that representation in a way I almost certainly wouldn't have otherwise. And? There is one scene in which two friends pull their car up to a huge mansion, and manning the gate are two clearly South Asian men, perhaps Sikh judging by the turbans, and they exist only as a punch line: given no lines, they startle the young women by looking imposingly into their car windows while carrying bayonets. They are, indeed, reduced to caricature.

What a curious thing to notice in a movie featuring not a single white actor with actual lines, the few seen only extras. This is how regarding what it all means that this is a truly rare movie with an all-Asian cast can be misleading. Nevertheless, there is no denying that, of course, representation matters. I felt that watching this movie, just as a gay man: the only thing I have in common with the cousin who refers to himself as "the rainbow sheep of the family" is that we're both gay men, but I still loved his inclusion -- it made me feel, at least on some level, seen.

And so it goes with many Asian audiences at Crazy Rich Asians -- more specifically, no doubt, Chinese audiences. This "crazy rich" family consists of Chinese Singaporeans. However flawed the movie is -- and to be certain, it is far from perfect -- certain people being excited by its very existence is not difficult to understand.

I have also seen the complaint that these Asians aren't particularly crazy, which is frankly a dumb observation to make. Perhaps they are not "crazy + rich Asians" so much as "crazy rich + Asians." A strangely pleasing thing about this movie, and perhaps an accomplishment of director Jon M. Chu (working from a script by Peter Chiarelli and Adele Lim, based on the novel by Kevin Kwan), is how even though Crazy Rich Asians revels in the opulence of its characters, its presentation is never obnoxious or tacky.

It's really just more of a backdrop, for a cast of characters, whose range of dimensions vary widely, as do the performances. Which brings me to one of my own primary issues with the story. The central character is Rachel Chu (constance Wu), the young woman who has been dating Nick Young (Henry Golding) for a year but has no idea how rich his family is, until they fly first class on their way to a friend's wedding in Singapore. How dumb is this woman? Much later in the story, a Young family elder tells her she's "clearly a very smart woman," and I just thought, Is she? And that is not a criticism of Rachel the person, but rather how she is conjured in the script. She has to be insanely naive in order for this Cinderella story to work.

And that is the story: Rachel is broadsided by Nick's wealth a year into their relationship, and then goes to Singapore to face suspicion and withheld acceptance from Nick's family. Michelle Yeoh is memorable as Eleanor, Nick's mother giving her the cold shoulder. And as much as some might claim the story is so bland it could be switched to any cast of white Americans and be rendered nothing special, that ignores contextualization. There are many details of Chinese culture and tradition, even with a fascinating infusion of Western influences: a lavish wedding party features swing dancing; a scene of trying on high-end dresses features a Chinese version of Madonna's "Material Girl.". There's a lot of blended influences here, resulting in a truly unique point of view. Granted, much of that point of view is being so filthy rich that there's not much sense of the real world, but whatever. Sometimes you take what you can get.

The best anyone can hope for, really, is that Crazy Rich Asians opens some doors, which have all been closed for, insaely, two and a half decades. It's preposterous, an yet largely true, to think such a turn of events depends on the success or failure of this one movie, which is merely a pleasantly diverting romance. It's also occasionally pretty funny, especially any time Awkwafina, who plays Rachel's college roommate and lasting friend, is onscreen. She provides much needed levity amongst the romance and understated if contrived family drama, and the movie would be much worse without her.

So would I recommend it, then? That's the question I struggle with most. Under different circumstances, based on the story alone, I would not regard Crazy Rich Asians as special enough to tell people it needs to be seen. Unfortunately, a lot is riding on this movie, thanks to the predictable shortsightedness of Hollywood dipshits. So: everyone should buy a ticket and see Crazy Rich Asians, so more, better movies featuring underrepresented communities will get made. And after that, I promise I won't ask you to see any more blandly ordinary romances. I mean, unless you're into those. In that case you'll love this movie.

I did find myself having a good time in spite of everything, after all.

  Lifestyles of the Crazy Rich: Michelle Yeoh, Henry Golding and Constance Wu put on their game faces as the women pit themselves against each other.

Lifestyles of the Crazy Rich: Michelle Yeoh, Henry Golding and Constance Wu put on their game faces as the women pit themselves against each other.

Overall: B

THE MISEDUCATION OF CAMERON POST

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

There is just no way for me to respond to this film objectively. I usually feel like I have a sense of how other people will respond, but this one is just too personal. How presumably open-minded straight people will react to The Miseducation of Cameron Post is one thing. In my case it's more specific: Cameron Post and I have something in common, in that I was sent to a "Christian counselor" as a teenager to "fix" my sexuality. (The word "fix" was never used, of course, lest the guy come across as too judgmental. This all comes from love, right?)

I was never sent to an actual camp, at least -- I just had weekly sessions with a counselor when I was fifteen -- but it was the same basic concept. And here's a compelling idea that Cameron Post brings up: the people who run this place, telling all these actually perfectly normal kids that they are being consumed by sinful temptations -- they're all just doing the best they can with what they think is right. Director and co-writer Desiree Akhavan (based on a novel of the same name by Emily M. Danforth) presents them as well-rounded people willing to admit at times when they don't know what the right answer is. For me it begs the question: where was that guy who had been my "counselor" coming from, anyway? What were his struggles, his paths that led him to such a position in his life? It's 25 years later and I never thought to consider that.

And just to clarify, this is not a defense of people in those positions, truly fucking up kids on an emotional level. Teenagers are far more impressionable than they believe themselves to be, and Chloë Graze Moretz, who plays the title character, conveys this beautifully. She's dropped off at "God's Promise" in a state of confusion, and she spends some time actually attempting to tow the line, work the "process" away from her supposed temptation.

Watching all this was very difficult at times, wavering at regular intervals between feeling deep sadness for these kids and palpable fury at the adults purporting to care for them. And it should be stressed that, for the most part -- at least, with one notable exception -- this is not in response to particular melodrama or histrionics. Cameron Post and the friends she makes (particularly Sasha Lane's Jane and Forrest Goodluck's Adam) are all pretty mellow, all things considered. When an inevitable tragedy occurs, it is met with shocked confusion rather than hysterics, which is both unusual in film and a tad more realistic.

There is one scene, in which a fellow "disciple" as they gratingly get called, has a bit of a meltdown in a group therapy meeting. The young actor Owen Campbell does great with the material he's given, but the scene itself, in which he collapses in tears after reading a passage of scripture he says was favored by his deeply homophobic father, is a bit much.

That said, the performances all around are great. There's something vaguely insidious in air of serenity put on my Lydia March (Jennifer Ehle), who runs the camp with her "changed" brother, Reverend Rick (John Gallagher, Jr). Rick, for his part, only barely looks like he's convinced himself he's comfortable with himself.

For some of us, a line like Cameron saying "I'm tired of feeling disgusted with myself" really hits home -- a vivid memory of teen life. Only an adult can see the value of what Jane says back to that, though: "Maybe teenagers are just supposed to be disgusted with themselves."

It must be said that there is real delicacy in the presentation of this story. It's all the better for being directed by a woman, as the several scenes depicting sex are devoid of a male gaze. It's an impressive feat when the sex in a movie is never graphic but still manages to be frank. And when Cameron's boyfriend is shown catching her in the act of going at it with a female friend, it made me so uncomfortable I wanted to crawl inside my seat.

Ultimately, The Miseducation of Cameron Post is a coming of age story. It's one with unusual specificity, though, and one in which that coming of age process is gradual and organic. The script occasionally presses at the seams of credibility, but for the most part, as someone who went through something similar, I can tell you the emotional stakes ring true. The key difference is that these are kids who realized at a much earlier age than some of us that adults don't necessarily have any idea what they're doing. One can only hope that results in this movie being illuminating to people.

  Headed for a different brand of education.

Headed for a different brand of education.

Overall: B+

BlacKkKlansman

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

It can be somewhat frustrating when the tone of a movie trailer doesn't exactly match the tone of the movie. The trailer for BlacKkKlansman makes it look a lot more fun than it actually is. The film certainly has a healthy sprinkling of humor and levity, but the trailer condenses them in a way that sort of makes you expect something a lot more light-hearted, if still very serious in its satirical value.

The unique mystery with this film in particular is whether that was a choice simply made by the movie studios that financed it, as is pretty typical with more straightforward attempts at comedies that don't necessarily work -- or, if director Spike Lee was himself pointedly intentional about it. This is a man who has made a career out of pressing audience's faces against essential issues, and this is one way to get people into seats.

To say that there is a lot more going on in that vein with BlacKkKlansman would be an understatement. There is a tonal shift at the very end that forces you to think, Oh . . . shit. And then you walk out of the theatre a daze, having had to watch something you knew was coming, did not want to see, but knew it had to be seen. One could also argue that the way I just put that oversells it as a bait-and-switch. But it's really going to depend on who you are, and what your ancestral relationship is to America.

In any case, this is Spike Lee's best film in years; maybe even his most vital work since 1989's predictably divisive Do the Right Thing. Lee has had a bit of a whirlwind career since then in terms of quality, from going pretty low (Bamboozled) to surprisingly palatable mainstream (Inside Man) and back again, to exposing the breaking seams of American culture. That's what's going on in BlacKkKlansman.

And how many people even knew the true story this was based on? I certainly didn't. In 1979, the first black detective in the Colorado Springs police department infiltrated the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. His name was Ron Stallworth (here played by John David Washington), and as he talks to the KKK over the phone, he enlists white cop Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) to pose as him at actual meetings.

Spike Lee makes many interesting choices in the telling of this story, with varying levels of effectiveness. After the marketing leads you to expect a highly stylized comedy, the story begins at a surprisingly slow pace, following along with Stallworth as he's hired by the Colorado Springs Police Department and initially positioning him in the records department. It would be easy to assume Stallworth faced plenty of hostility from the rest of the department, but Lee focuses on just one blatantly racist cop making things difficult for him, likely both for the sake of economy in storytelling and at least some level of deference to white fragility.

There's a lot of story to tell here, after all, and at 135 minutes, BlacKkKlansman is fairly long. Lee even goes out of his way to make it feel not just like this was set in 1979, but like you're watching a movie made in 1979, with specific choices of cinematography (shot by Chayse Irvin, who also shot Beyoncé: Lemonade) and especially musical score (Terence Blanchard). It all feels very "1979 movie." This seems to be a bit of a thing this year; Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot used similar techniques, albeit in a wildly different context.

And relatively early on, just as you're beginning to wonder if the whole movie will be this slow, something interesting happens. There's a scene with a man who "may or may not be a former Black Panther" giving a speech to a local black audience about black pride, black power, and possible black revolution. It crackles with energy, and Lee takes several moments to cut back and forth from the speaker (Straight Outta Compton's Corey Hawkins, making such excellent use of his single scene that he must be noted) and random audience members' faces, imposed upon a black background, rapt with attention. It's an artistic marker of a turning point in a community.

Although I have some mixed feelings about BlacKkKlansman's effectiveness as a movie, there's no denying the many similar ways in which Lee interweaves different thematic elements with subtle artistic finesse. David Duke (Topher Grace, well restrained) is disarmingly polite, even when speaking directly to the black people he openly despises. And much is made of the Jewishness Flip Zimmerman barely acknowledges even to himself, hammering home that black Americans are hardly the only people here with, as Stallworth puts it, "skin in the game." (This would include myself: as Zimmerman poses as a bigot and makes liberal use of epithets, "faggot" is used as much as any other.)

I'm tempted to say Adam Driver gives the best performance in the movie, but hesitate due to how potentially problematic it is for a white critic to praise the one white star in a movie about black oppression. Who knows what conditioned biases I have that I don't even realize are there? There's nothing wrong with John David Washington's performance -- I just didn't find it as affecting. To be fair, it's also curious that Lee presents Stallworth with a cocky confidence, and Zimmerman as the man who does any true soul searching when confronted with a hatred of his kind never personally experienced.

Another thing I can't decide: is Spike Lee's presentation of Colorado redneck bigots caricature? There's the local KKK chapter president's idiot brother (Paul Walter Hauser, previously seen in I, Tonya, evidently getting typecast as dim-witted fat dipshits). And then there's the wife of the KKK chapter's most suspicious member, Connie (Ashlie Atkinson), who is a bizarrely even mix of bubbly homemaker and hateful bigot. She happily goes along with being tasked to place explosives in an attack on Black Student Union President Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier, luminescent), eager to please. By extension, I can't decide if their being rendered caricatures even matters. Or maybe it's deliberate, which would be subtly provocative in its own right. God knows non-white people (hell, anyone not white, male, and straight) have been presented as caricature since the dawn of popular entertainment.

This is all to say that BlacKkKlansman is not a perfect film, but it's that rare kind of film whose status as essential viewing is far from dependent on perfection. It's ripe for discussion and intellectual debate. Whether it's for its entertainment value or for facing hard truths -- both of which come in equal measure -- this is something people need to see.

  Two guys with "skin in the game": The Stallworth Brothers.

Two guys with "skin in the game": The Stallworth Brothers.

Overall: B+

CHRISTOPHER ROBIN

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

I wonder what the crossover audience is between one movie and the other that clearly inspired it, from 27 years before? How many people watching Christopher Robin had the experience I had, where it consistently reminded me of Spielberg's 1991 blockbuster Hook? In that movie, the question was, "What if Peter Pan grew up?" In this one, it was "What happened when Christopher Robin grew up?"

What happens is arguably a mixed bag, but I opened up to it, and allowed myself to be charmed. Christopher Robin is getting very mixed reviews, and if you look at it with even a moderately critical eye, it's easy to see why. But here is a movie in which paying attention to such things misses the point. Audience scores are far higher than critical reviews, and if we're being totally honest, that's a far better barometer of what the likelihood is that you'll enjoy it.

Do you love Winnie the Pooh? The old books, the old Disney cartoons? Christopher Robin won't equal them, and I don't think any Pooh fan will say that it does. But pretty much any Pooh fan will still be endeared by it.

I certainly was. Granted, I am also a Ewan McGregor fan, and he plays the grown up Christopher Robin. Directed by Mike Forster, who also gave us 2004's Finding Neverland -- another Peter Pan connection -- Christopher Robin has an odd through line of wistfulness, bordering on melancholy, even as it has a clear message of appreciating the simple pleasures of childhood.

The broad beats of the story are very familiar. Christopher Robin works for a luggage company in post-World War II London and is so consumed by his workaholism that he neglects his wife Evelyn (Hayley Atwell) and his daughter Madeline (Bronte Carmichael). It's slightly anachronistic that this child of the forties should be a young girl, being groomed by her father to emphasize the value of career. The choice not to make her a little boy feels less organic than focused grouped to appeal to 21st century audiences. Christopher's workplace is also surprisingly racially integrated, but, I suppose, so what? This is clearly a fantasy, after all.

And: it works. It did for me, anyway, in spite of the fact that in this stage of Christopher Robin's life, he's not the only person who can see and hear his walking and talking stuffed animals. Wherever Pooh and his friends go, which includes two different trips into the hustle and bustle of London, their personalities are not just a product of Christopher's imagination. Everyone can see and hear them, and they are at one point taught to "play nap time" just to keep people from freaking out.

In any case, a lot of Christopher Robin is . . . odd. What truly rises above it all is the cuddly, pure of heart personality of Winnie the Pooh (voiced by Jim Cummings, who also voices Tigger, in both cases having also done so for the cartoons since the late eighties). Pooh gets occasionally confused, but never hurt or angry. He takes nothing personally. He goes with the flow, and is thus a font of simple wisdom. He finds joy in a red balloon.

He reappears in Christopher Robin's life after thirty years, literally out of thin air outside his London flat, evidently just to snap him out of the distracted state of being a grown-up. When he converses with Christopher, even in this complex adult world, he is only capable of processing it in the simplest terms, often to hilarious effect. I laughed pretty hard several times. The same can be said of Tigger and Piglet (Nick Mohammed) and especially Eeyore (Brad Garrett, fantastic), and the rest of the gang. But Pooh is the heart of this movie, as is to be expected.

There is something slightly jarring about this being a live action film rather than animation, the stuffed animals all CGI effects as opposed to drawings. They look very much like real stuffed animals, in ways the cartoons and drawings we're all used to never quite did. But still they move and talk, and have unique personalities with which we've long been familiar.

The lesson, as always, is the importance of play, and how gloomy life becomes when deprived of it. None of this is new. But I was taken by the fish-out-of-water story of Pooh and his stuffed buddies navigating the big city with a little girl eager to please her father. The script remains the weakest link in Christopher Robin, which is unfortunate given that's the most important part, but here the performances make up for a lot. The charms offered by these stuffed animal characters are plentiful enough to render the wildly overdone plot inessential. Spending a couple of hours just hanging out with these guys is enough.

  Hey Pooh, I think I'm tripping.

Hey Pooh, I think I'm tripping.

Overall: B

DON'T WORRY, HE WON'T GET FAR ON FOOT

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

How is it I have never heard of cartoonist John Callahan? Thanks to director Gus Van Sant, and Joaquin Phoenix, who plays Callahan in Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot, I now must seek out his published works.

Incidentally, he was a wheelchair user. He was also a massive alcoholic. These two things are very related. Don't Worry is quasi-narrated by Callahan, as the editing shifts between him telling the story at both an AA group meeting and as a guest speaker in a lecture hall. Van Sant takes a bit of time with this, to build up to the accident, which itself is actually never seen onscreen. Instead, there's a fleeting glimpse of its aftermath at one point in the story; a brief description at another.

Both insanely drunk, Callahan and his friend Dexter (Jack Black, always underrated) ran their car into a light post at 90 mph. Dexter, who was driving, walked away with a few scratches. Callahan didn't walk away at all, but rather found himself to be quadriplegic. This happened to him at the age of 21, although Van Sant never makes much effort to make that clear. No one visibly ages in this movie, not that it matters so much.

There's a lot that sets Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot apart from other movies. We could start with the title itself. It's a little cumbersome. It's also the caption for one of his best known cartoons. It is thus also appropriate as the title to his story, with its irreverence toward his own disability. Callahan's work drew many complaints from newspaper readers, but many disabled people related to his contempt for being condescended to or pitied.

Much of the story takes place in the early eighties, and Gus Van Sant doesn't just give this film a look and feel appropriate to the era. He adds a tone for good measure, even filmmaking techniques, which make it feel like a movie that was actually made at the time. Don't Worry thus exists slightly outside of time, with a perfectly cast group of supporting actors who don't look like anything out of Hollywood at all, but like real, regular people, in a variety of sizes and colors, even sexualities. A gay black man in Callahan's AA group fancies himself an "American poet" and shares one of his many pieces appreciating the penis.

Jonah Hill plays Donnie, AA sponsor to Callahan as well as all the others in the aforementioned group -- he calls them his "piglets" -- and it might be Hill's most impressive performance I've ever seen. The character being a gay man with HIV is almost incidental. Hill has lost some weight, here sports a beard and long blond hair, and Donnie is about as laid back as they come -- in virtually every expect, the opposite of what you tend to expect from Jonah Hill. And yet it feels totally natural, and Hill disappears in the part.

Evidently a lot of people like working with Gus Van Sant, who also wrote this screenplay, based on Callahan's memoir of the same name. Rooney Mara plays Annu, the volunteer who helps Callahan with his rehabilitation and eventually has a relationship of sorts with him. Amongst the AA group we find both Kim Gordon of the band Sonic Youth and Udo Kier, who some might recognize as the wedding planner from Lars von Trier's Melancholia. Portlandia's Carrie Brownstein shows up as Callahan's contact with the company that provides him disability benefits.

Most of the story in Don't Worry is simply that of an alcoholic struggling and quite often failing to stay sober, going through the 12 steps in the process. This honestly gets a little heavy handed at times, and there was at least one moment where a character breaking down in tears, I thought, strained credibility. That's no reflection on the performances, however, which are excellent all around, but especially those of Joaquin Phoenix and Jonah Hill.

This movie is most definitely a drama, not a comedy, but once Callahan starts getting interested in drawing cartoons, it provided a couple moments of big laughs. Gus Van Sant has an ability to create a tone that's difficult to pinpoint in some movies, and is comparatively straightforward in others. This movie falls into the former group, but on the whole, it works well.

  John Callahan takes a break from zooming down sidewalks like a bat out of hell.

John Callahan takes a break from zooming down sidewalks like a bat out of hell.

Overall: B+

BLINDSPOTTING

Directing: A
Acting: A
Writing: A
Cinematography: A-
Editing: A

Every once in a while, when I feel like it's taking me a minute to decide how I feel about a movie, I work backward from a default of perfection: what things are wrong with it? Even if it didn't necessarily change the world, or exactly rock my world, does that count as a flaw? What reason might I have to tear it down from the best appraisal I can give it?

Blindspotting is one of those rare movies where the answer to that question is: none. There is nothing wrong with this movie.

At least, not from my perspective as a white guy watching it -- and yes, that context is relevant. It could easily be said that this movie, directed by first-time feature director Carlos López Estrada, is for white people. Black audiences might like it fine, but they're not going to find anything illuminating about it. A more cynical person might say it could be called White Privilege: The Movie.

It's also fair to say many white people would be less likely to watch it when the movie is explained in that context, given how quick to defensiveness white people tend to get when tasked with talking about race. Or, for all sorts of reasons, fearful: when I first saw the trailer with a friend, a white woman, she said, "That looks stressful." It's about a black man nearing the end of probation, with a white best friend who behaves recklessly with little mind to how he endangers those around him, and who witnesses the Oakland PD shooting of an unarmed black man. Of course it looks stressful.

Except . . . most of the time, it isn't. The marketing hints at this, but doesn't fully reveal how much fun there is in much of Blindspotting. Not that it's a ride through a fun house all the way through, mind you. The flawlessly crafted script, co-written by Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal (who both also star, respectively as Collin, the aforementioned felon; and Miles, his best friend), takes care to bring us casually into their world, these close best friends who are both working class guys watching the systematic gentrification of their city before their eyes. This yields a lot of great detail, such as the city's symbol of the oak tree, which now exists there only in that form, in images on city flags and signs -- except for the hipster who uses a giant oak tree stump as a coffee table in his living room.

Blindspotting is beautifully specific, in both its sense of a place in transition, and of a culture in crisis. Rafael Casal is excellent as Miles, the best friend who is slow to realize what he really gets away with compared to most of the people in the local culture he both emulates and is a product of. He's just as much to blame for the crime that landed Collin in custody, but guess which one of them had to serve any time?

It seems on the surface like a contrivance when Miles gets mistaken for the gentrifying hipster he professes to despise, but it's really a bit of stealth brilliance in writing. The scene that follows, which makes sense for Miles's character but follows Blindspotting's general rule of never quite going in the direction you might expect, works on multiple levels. And the rapport between Mikes and Collin establishes a foundation that, when it begins to crack, underscores both the significance of their situation and the key difference in their individual places in it.

Collin and Miles are also casual rappers, thankfully this time not with any particular aspirations of making it as professional; rather, they just rap as a way of shooting the breeze, helping each other with their rhymes. This is a key element of Blindspotting's musical character, with a skillfully integrated soundtrack that also includes a truly tense climactic performance by Diggs. Collin confronts the cop who killed that other young black man, and he does it in rhymes.

All of which is to say that Blindspotting is hardly the "lesson movie" to be endured like a homework assignment, that some are wont to fear. It's a tightly constructed film that stands on the strength of its own storytelling. It's subtly provocative in ways of more use to some than others, but worthy of equal appreciation by all. It's easily one of the year's best films.

  A couple of moving company employees are here to move you with their singular vision.

A couple of moving company employees are here to move you with their singular vision.

Overall: A

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE -- FALLOUT

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

As I sat watching Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible -- Fallout, a thought occurred to me that never had before. Sure, everyone knows this guy is an enduring movie star. But it could also be argued that he is not only the 21st-century equivalent of Sean Connery, but that no other actor working today comes close. This is a guy who, like Connery, could very well keep offering us these delightful action thrillers well into what for anyone else would be retirement years.

No disrespect to Daniel Craig, who has very well held his own as James Bond the past decade plus, but the mantle that Sean Connery had has really been passed on to Tom Cruise. In the <i>Mission: Impossible</i> universe (the <i>Impossiverse</i>?), Cruise has been going strong though six films, each of them well-oiled adventures more exciting than the last. Connery played Bond in seven films over 21 years from 1962 to 1983, when he was aged 32 through 53; Cruise has played Ethan hunt in six films over 22 years from 1996 to 2018, aged 34 through 56. And whatever camera tricks or cosmetic procedures may have been employed in either case, both actors remained remarkably handsome and fit through all those years. It's too bad Cruise in particular has spent so many years trying to convince us he's a lunatic but whatever. Onscreen, his charisma and appeal never wanes.

What's more, Mission: Impossible knows just how ridiculous it is, revels in it, and yet is presented with increasing sophistication each go-round. I'm not so naive as to say "sophistication" applies to the script: Fallout is as preposterous as ever, although at the very least we have something we can understand as the thing everyone is after: as opposed to, say, a "rabbit's foot," it's three little spheres of plutonium, intended for rogue use of nuclear weapons.

I've got to hand it to the marketing team for this movie. Much of what you see in the trailer is not what it seems. Instead of it giving away the entire movie as many trailers do, I found myself identifying scenes in which I knew a clip I had seen was coming. Instead of it feeling like a rerun, once that bit I had already seen was presented in its full context, it felt like payoff. This is the kind of movie it pays to see in a theatre.

What's more, the editing is competent enough that this time, writer-director Christopher McQuarrie (the first repeat director in the franchise, having written and directed 2015's Rogue Nation) avoids what some might call a minor pitfall of many of the earlier films: starting off not just with a bang, but with a bit too much of a bang. The rest of the film shouldn't feel like a competition with the opening sequence -- and Fallout starts comparatively quiet. It settles into the spy-movie tone of the earlier days, until the inciting twist in the plot -- such as is it -- sets off the fuse that begins the title sequence.

Fallout just gets more and more thrilling from there. And although one has no need to have seen any of the other films to enjoy this one -- in spite of it being the first direct-continuation of the story in the previous film -- there are rewards in having seen the others. Michelle Monaghan returns as Julia from Mission: Impossible III (1996) -- I found her to have similar features to Rebecca Ferguson, who returns from Rogue Nation, but I got them straight eventually.

And then there are the stunts -- really, at this point, the only reason to watch any of these movies. They sure do like motorcycle chases: this is the third Mission: Impossible movie in a row to have one. Ditto helicopter chases -- another throwback to Mission: Impossible III, although this time it also includes helicopters rolling down snowy mountainsides, and hanging off cliffs. Oh, did I mention Ethan Hunt climbing a rock face? A throwback to the opening sequence of Mission: Impossible II!

I guess there are only so many modes of transportation you can chase someone in. That includes running, another standby of countless Tom Cruise films -- let alone Mission: Impossible -- and in one sequence, he runs for so long he almost seems to be trying to prove a point about it.

So does this movie offer anything new then? Arguably, not really. Unless you count the fact that everything you've seen in other movies, this movie does better. Much like Rogue Nation and Ghost Protocol (2011) before it, the chases and action sequences as shot with unique panache, in this instance by Rob Hardy, who deserves acknowledgment. Even blink-and-you-miss them scenes, involving no more than two characters talking, make a visual impact with their framing and staging. This blends well with excellent special effects now a hallmark of the franchise -- a far cry from the janky effects of the original film in 1996 -- in so doing never calling attention to themselves, but moving the story forward and keeping the viewer absorbed.

The acting, though, is . . . not great. It's wonderful to see Angela Basset as the head of the CIA; not so much to hear her phoning in her lines. Another character's death scene had me wondering if they'd even bothered rehearsing -- or doing multiple takes. Even Cruise himself seems less concerned with being convincing than with showing off the stunts he can do on his own. Ving Rhames and Simon Pegg are reliably amusing in their usual parts. Henry Cavil, in a part whose twist is identifiable a mile away, gives perhaps the best performance, but that's not saying much.

But that's what we've come for, isn't it? If you have no interest in this movie, then it isn't for you. If you even got this far in the review . . . why? Move along! The rest of us are here for death-defying skydive into lightning-riddled thunderclouds (itself a subtle visual nod to the dust storm in Ghost Protocol, perhaps). It's a truly spectacular sequence, a long, unbroken shot straight out of a plane and plunging through the air toward Paris (or was it London? whatever) below.

And there is so much more movie after that, all of it fun as hell and a thrill to experience. At 147 minutes this is by far the longest film in the franchise, but all of those minutes just fly by. What more can you ask for?

  This man is 56 years old.

This man is 56 years old.

Overall: B+

THE CAKEMAKER

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

Here is a truly rare film that refuses to put a person's sexuality into a clearly defined category, places no judgment on it, and makes some room for the joy in it. Being a bit removed from typical American puritanism, as a joint Israeli-German production, probably has something to do with that. The Cakemaker, as the title might suggest, also features so many luscious shots of pastries that my mouth is still watering as I write this.

Far more sensual than erotic, this movie really takes its time, but in a way that lets you settle gradually into it, this world of characters who all have a somewhat deadpan delivery, at least until a key moment when one of them breaks down sobbing. These sorts of performances can be difficult to gauge, and are often typical of independent or foreign films. Do none of these people just act like normal, chill people? They're all sort of waiting quietly, perhaps for their moment, when they do something deceptively minor but specifically consequential.

The Cakemaker of the title, named Thomas (Tim Kalkhof, a curiously attractive bit of beefcake), is certainly the most calculated in this endeavor. He runs a cafe in Berlin, where he embarks on an affair with a married Israeli man, Oren (Roy Miller), who comes to Berlin from Jerusalem once a month or so for work. But when Oren dies in a car crash in Jerusalem, Thomas takes off for Jerusalem and, without them knowing who he is, gradually befriends Oren's widow Anat (Sarah Adler, also in this year's excellent Foxtrot) and their son, Itai.

There is obvious historical tension in a relationship between an Israeli and a German, which writer-director Ofir Raul Graizer cultivates with effective subtlety. Perhaps my favorite thing about his layered script is how incidental the sexuality of the characters are. This story would play no differently if the affair were between a man and a woman. It just happens to be between a man and a man. Not one person in this movie ever even draws attention to that fact.

Instead, the prejudice on display is by Anat's brother Moti (Zohar Strauss), who bristles at a German working in the kitchen of Anat's certified-kosher cafe. Still, he gives Thomas a chance, offering him an apartment in the building he manages, and over a lengthy period of time, Thomas takes small steps toward relationship territory with Anat herself.

Now, I do have some questions. Who the hell is running Thomas's cafe back in Berlin? He tells us his parents are gone but not why, and that he was raised by his grandmother. is he independently wealthy? What small business owner can just go live in another country for an indeterminate period of time to pursue a bit of borderline skeevy stalking?

Maybe there's a sort of obsession going on, although The Cakemaker never makes that overtly clear. Does he simply want to become the man he was in love with and lost? Graizer refuses to spoon feed his audience, and okay, I can respect that. There's a couple of great scenes with Oren's mother that strongly suggest she knows what's up ("You knew my son?" she asks, innocently), but again, this is never made explicit.

As this story unfolded, I found myself deciding I would like it best if in the end, Thomas just lived the rest of his days as part of this new family with none of them being the wiser. The way it ends isn't exactly an inevitable alternative, but then, The Cakemaker ends without the satisfaction of a hard resolution.

There's that refusal to spoon feed us again. Graizer -- and Thomas -- are too busy with rolling pins in hand instead, letting tension build gradually and steadily, until a love triangle involving a dead man reveals itself to the living. It's fascinating -- and satisfying -- to see such sociopolitical elements explored in a movie that makes absolutely nothing of its inclusion of a same-sex relationship. I'm not even sure if there is any deliberate metaphorical strain to Thomas unwittingly using the oven in Anat's cafe at the wrong time, thereby threatening her kosher certification.

A fair focus is put on Anat and her family's Jewishness, and Anat's being comparatively non-religious, not eating kosher at home, only applying that to her cafe because it makes business sense. None is put on Thomas's religion, if he even has one; only his being German. Nothing even makes direct reference to Nazi history; Graizer lets the obvious speak for itself. His script, in fact, reveals itself to be more impressive upon further reflection -- a few burning questions notwithstanding. I'd have liked the performances to feel a little more natural, but, as with everything, I suppose that's a matter of taste.

  Thomas lays it all out in Tim Kalkhof's flat performance.

Thomas lays it all out in Tim Kalkhof's flat performance.

Overall: B+

EIGHTH GRADE

Directing: A
Acting: A
Writing: A-
Cinematography: A-
Editing: A

Eighth Grade is a revelation, and that's not just hyperbole. I mean that literally: approaching my mid-forties, this movie revealed to me how aging creates biases even in those of us who actively push against a biased look at contemporary youth.

I've spent a lot of time thinking about how radically the world is for young people and kids today, compared to when I was a kid. I'm not even that old, and when I was in high school, we had one special room dedicated to computers. We didn't have these laptops at every desk, let alone mobile devices in every hand. I've spent so much time thinking about how technological advances have inevitably changed later generations, I lost sight of how the way kids are, their hopes and their anxieties, they way they interact with each other -- on a purely emotional level, nothing has really changed at all. It's just the platforms that have changed.

Watching thirteen-year-old Kayla (a superb Elsie Fisher) navigate her world with all-consuming uncertainty is like a time-warp to when I was the same age. She's raised by a single parent, as was I, as were a huge number of us. Unlike my single mother, Kayla lives with a single dad, Mark (Josh Hamilton, also excellent). And he worries about his daughter, tries awkwardly to connect with her, makes his own stupid mistakes, and swells with a pride for her that she is too preoccupied to see.

First-time feature writer-director Bo Burnham, previously known as a musician-comedian (his two comedy specials, from 2013 and 2016, are currently streaming on Netflix), has said in interviews how deliberate he was about choosing a girl for his protagonist in this movie rather than a boy. Boys this age aren't that emotional -- boys talk about Fortnight, he says; girls bear their souls. He allowed Elsie Fisher to guide him in his depiction of eighth-grade living and attitudes, which was an inspired choice. This is a guy who, to me, is himself very young: he's all of 27 years old. But that's still a hell of a lot closer to teen years than I am now, and makes him a better choice for reflecting the lives and challenges of school kids today.

He is more than up to the task and executes it nearly flawlessly. Eighth Grade avoids any pitfall or cliche of typically storytelling you can imagine. Wherever you might think you know where it's going, it never goes that way -- but neither does it have any "twists," per se. It just offers characters who feel genuine and real, and Kayla's semi-desperate lack of confidence is heartbreakingly familiar. Fisher does a fantastic job of giving us a sense that she has great potential to grow into herself.

I did find myself thinking about the number of adults I've known who continue to struggle with the same sorts of awkward anxieties. Some people never quite grow out of it. Lucky for any of us watching Eighth Grade, it seems Kayla is poised to grow out of this problem. Many of us do get lucky on that front. That said, if I had any complaint, I rather wish Burnham had included some indication that Kayla's hurtfully dismissive classmate Kennedy (Catherine Oliviere) had her own struggles -- if not exactly the same, then ones that ran parallel. Because who in middle school doesn't?

Still, even though Eighth Grade is relentlessly awkward, it pulls off a rare magic trick in that every scene is also either a delight, a tightrope of tension, or an emotional gut punch. For the great many people poised to relate to this movie in a way they perhaps never have to any other, rooting for Kayla feels like rooting for one's former self. I suppose when it comes to boys, maybe it's different for gay ones like me. Or maybe not? Although Burnham certainly depicts many of the young boys here as having a bit of a one-track mind, any adult regardless of gender or sexuality who is open to a movie like this to begin with is bound to find themselves deeply moved.

This is a movie about a specific time of life that is rarely depicted, bookended between milestones. Kayla, about to finish eighth grade, opens a "time capsule" box filled with things she left for herself at the end of the sixth grade, when she was about to start middle school. By the end of this story, she is assembling a new box for herself to open in four years when she finishes high school. She makes YouTube videos filled with advice she's mostly incapable of taking herself, which virtually no one watches. But then it gets watched by at least one person who matters, and the video she leaves for herself offers a glimpse of her dawning realization of how much she matters.

It's a retroactive comfort to many of our former selves, a kind of reassurance we wish we could travel back in time to give. Eighth Grade isn't going to be for everyone, but to the people it's for, it's near perfection.

  Adolescent actors to watch for: Elsie Fisher is superb in  Eighth Grade .

Adolescent actors to watch for: Elsie Fisher is superb in Eighth Grade.

Overall: A

SORRY TO BOTHER YOU

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

It's hard to decide what to make of Sorry to Bother You. This is a movie with something clear to say, although exploring the corrupting influence of money and power is hardly a new idea. What's very new here is the way first-time writer-director Boots Riley does it. To say that very late in the story, things take a hard turn for the fucking weird -- that's an understatement.

I wanted to love this movie, I really did, but I just couldn't. Most of it is technical issues. It so lacks polish and refinement that it feels much like a rough draft turned in as the final product.

Plenty of people are loving this movie, so I still won't spoil any of the major twists. I went in ready to be all in, and progressively lost my patience for it. Part of the concept is that when Cassius Green (Atlanta's Lakeith Stanfield) gets a job at a telemarketing company, he's advised by a coworker, Langston (Danny Glover, great to see), that he'll only make sales if he talks in his "white voice." When Langston demonstrates, we hear the voice of Steve Buscemi. When Cassius finds his "white voice," it's David Cross. When Cassius is promoted to "Power Caller" upstairs, his unnamed new boss (Omari Hardwick) is voiced by Patton Oswalt.

Part of the joke, of course, is that these three white actors couldn't be more white, at at least the sounds of their voices couldn't. Oswalt in particular is playing up how this is "his whitest moment" as he gleefully promotes the film. It's very much like voice talent being hired for an animated film, except here it's live action and the onscreen actors appear to be lip syncing. And honestly, this is executed with mixed results, very few of them including finesse. It's amusing, and the satirical point is clear, but it's also distracting. It nearly always seems as though they could have used a bit more rehearsing, as the lip movements barely succeed at matching. To be fair, I guess, that is likely far more the fault of the voice talent than the onscreen actors, given the likelihood that instead of lip syncing per se, the scenes were shot first and then the voices looped in later. But it's still up to the director to make sure it looks right.

As such, this entire production feels rushed. And that's not to say I have no issues with the script, either: A money-hungry Cassius being called "Cash" for short is just one of many things in this movie that are a bit too on the nose. That twist at the end is a "workhorse" metaphor just as obvious as it is bizarre.

The actors nearly across the board have undeniable charisma, at least, and Lakeith Stanfield gives Cassius a lot more dimension than the script does. He has great chemistry with Tessa Thompson, who plays his girlfriend. Armie Hammer is perfectly cast as the CEO of WorryFree, a company that gives workers "contracts for life." If you blink you might miss Forest Whitaker in a rather surprising context.

The thing is, I can understand someone loving this movie. I can even see credible arguments that I just didn't "get it." (Although I think I pretty much do.) Maybe everything I criticize here was done by Boots Riley pointedly and for a reason. Or maybe it was they were crunched for time and budget. This is Riley's debut feature film, though, and it feels very much like it -- the kind of film you might give a backhanded compliment by saying it's good for a debut. Boots Riley has clear talent, and a clear eye for talent. If nothing else, Sorry to Bother You certainly leaves me looking forward to what he might do next, with more time and a bigger budget that hopefully is the byproduct of this movie's success.

  I'll give credit to the costume designer, at least.

I'll give credit to the costume designer, at least.

Overall: B-