BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE

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

Here is yet another film that isn’t quite the one you expect based on the trailer — Bad Times at the El Royale isn’t quite as good as it looks in that window dressing. On the other hand, it’s not quite as bad as the mixed reviews would suggest, either. At least, not if you can appreciate what it has to offer, and it has a lot.

It as a lot to offer those who appreciate the cinematic, and clever storytelling — if a bit overlong: this movie did not need to run 141 minutes. It sure is pretty to look at, though, each set piece a carefully laid out diorama of consciously detailed lines and colors. Bad Times at the El Royale might be worth seeing just for its production design.

Hell, it might be worth seeing just for Chris Hemsworth. He plays a very bad man indeed here, albeit one not particularly well fleshed out — although that could be said of any one of this ensemble cast, really. Character dimension in this case is kind of beside the point. They way these people’s thinly drawn stories fit together as they all converge into this one hotel might be called “Tarantino Lite.” The same could be said of the violence, which — and in a way it deserves credit for this — is shocking in consistently fun ways. More than once I jumped out of my seat, and laughed almost as quickly.

But let’s get back to Chris Hemsworth. He doesn’t even show up until maybe halfway through the film. It’s worth the wait, just for his V-cut abs. If you thought Chris Hemsworth was hot before, just wait until you see this. I don’t think there’s a single scene here where his shirt isn’t hanging open. In one scene, he dances toward the camera with his arms outstretched, and all I could think was, Holy shit. If he’s the cult leader, I might happily join. Anyway, I’m getting distracted.

To be fair, Bad Times at the El Royale Hotel is much more than the meat on display. The plot is too labyrinthine to explain adequately here, and watching it unfold is really the fun of this movie — so long as you have the patience for its measured pacing, particularly in the beginning. An early sequence in which the four main hotel patrons arrive in the lobby (played by Jeff Bridges, Cynthia Erivo, John Hamm and Dakota Johnson) lasts quite some time. It’s probably not until halfway through the sequence before the concierge (Lewis Pullman) even appears.

There’s a nice little gimmick to this hotel: it has two branches, each on either side of the state line between California and Nevada. The line runs right through the center of the fantastically designed lobby, which has a separate and distinct look on either side. The place lost its gambling license a year ago, which explains why only four people are checking in on this particular day. It’s quite the coincidence that all four show up within minutes of each other but whatever. There is also, it turns out, a corridor that runs along the back of each of these rooms, with a two-way mirror through which “management” can look on undetected. We never find out quite enough about how or why this came to be, but provides plenty of fodder for many of this movie’s fun twists.

I found myself plenty engaged in this story despite its shortcomings. Things keep happening that are impossible to see coming, even if each person not being what they appear to be is itself predictable. Writer-director Drew Goddard (The Cabin in the Woods) is clearly plenty pleased with himself here, maybe a tad too much so. This movie isn’t going to work for everybody — but it works for me, even if it does have a certain potential it doesn’t quite realize. The storytelling skims close to thrilling, and then takes certain turns that seem a bit like an easy out.

But the great stuff in it — it’s really great. And not just the production design. This is not at all a musical, but since Cynthia Erivo plays a lounge singer, she spends a lot of time practicing, and we are treated to a surprising lot of songs through her spectacular voice. It’s another thing that makes this movie worth seeing. Chris Hemsworth’s abs, Cynthia Erivo’s voice. A sprinkling of deliciously dark humor. A unique tone. This movie has its flaws, but it also very much stands apart, in a host of memorable ways.

  Just waiting around for Chris Hemsworth’s abs to show up.

Just waiting around for Chris Hemsworth’s abs to show up.

Overall: B

FIRST MAN

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

So is First Man the Apollo 13 of our time? Not exactly: presumably if this had been called Apollo 11, the focus would have been exclusively on the Apollo 11 mission that first landed man on the moon. That might have made an even better movie, to be honest.

Instead, director Damien Chazelle (Whiplash, La La Land) broadens the scope, detailing in 141 minutes the seven years leading up to Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) becoming that “first man” of the title, and focusing on him as an individual, both as an astronaut and as a family man.

The degree to which a focus was needed on either side of Armstrong is easily the most debatable aspect of First Man. It’s like two movies, intercut with each other. The stuff showing Armstrong engaging training, and in test and practice missions, are steeped in impressive detail and undeniably gripping, but also very dispassionate in presentation. As is the man himself, which informs the stuff showing him at home with a housewife (Clarie Foy, doing an excellent job with the usually thankless role of the “worried wife”) and two kids.

This is an entire family dealing with the loss of a two-year-old daughter, which Chazelle uses as the plot point to amp up the emotion that exists almost entirely within the family-at-home sequences. It’s also the one point of crossover between these scenes and those of Armstrong’s work as an astronaut, culminating in an emotionally climactic moment during his moon walk, which seems to strain believability, but apparently — spoiler alert at this link! — is more plausible than one might assume.

Ryan Gosling’s performance is excellent, understated in a way that will likely get him Oscar recognition but not flashy enough to get him a win (especially if competing with Bradley Cooper in A Star is Born). This is a guy who is emotionally repressed, after all — a character trait that hinders him at home but proves critically useful for his focus at work.

In hindsight, the special effects are perhaps the most impressive part of First Man — employed so skillfully that you don’t even register that you’re seeing effects shots most of the time. It’s easy not to notice, given how astonishingly analog the technology was at the time, accomplishing things not done routinely even now, fifty years later. That famously “giant leap for mankind” was clearly not as wide a leap as was assumed back then: this was an event that had the world imagining humanity spending time in space as a matter of course within that amount of time.

As Armstrong states in the film, “A lot of things have to go right” before they can successfully land on the moon. A lot of things went wrong — many of them terribly, tragically wrong — for them to get to that point. That is really the story being told here, and for the most part, it is gripping. The jury will likely always be out on the necessity of the emotional, family element, transparently played up here as part of typical Hollywood movie-making practice.

Personally, I was pretty much down with it all. First Man sheds light on a lot of detail never quite presented in the same way in popular entertainment. It also employs a whole lot of thoroughly unnecessary hand-held cinematography, something we don’t need so much when we’re just, say, watching two neighborhood housewives conversing on the street. A shaky camera inside a cockpit, on the other hand, is very effective — the opening sequence in which Armstrong nearly floats out into space on an early test mission is incredible. And interspersed with this excessively shaky camera work are brief shots all throughout the film which are stunning in both their beauty and their matter-of-factness.

First Man does seem to want to have it both ways, to succeed on that matter-of-factness while also emotionally manipulating us with his wife and young children. The sequences of Armstrong the astronaut are nearly clinical in their precision, somewhat reminiscent of the detached storytelling of Paul Greengrass’s United 93. And that movie was criticized for its lack of any real emotional hook, and I for one an glad First Man made the effort to have a heart, however overwrought it might be at times.

  Ryan Gosling gets the job done.

Ryan Gosling gets the job done.

Overall: B+

THE SISTERS BROTHERS

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

How many American Westerns have been made? Hundreds, surely — probably thousands. It’s a genre that became the first example of American mythology in motion pictures, pre-dating the likes of Star Wars, which dominated the culture in the late 20th century, and superhero movies, which dominate the culture in the early 21st. The Western, which used to be churned out at breakneck speed, waned in cultural significance decades ago. If you want to make one now, and have people pay attention, it really has to stand apart, particularly from the countless Westerns that preceded it.

And so we get to The Sisters Brothers, which is a Western merely as a backdrop. You could more accurately call it a period piece, a costume drama set in Oregon and Northern California in the 1850s. The costumes happen to be those of the American Old West, not exactly cowboy, although they certainly get around on horses. There are no Native American characters in this story. This is about early gold rush prospectors, paid killers, and paid-killers-turned-prospectors. Even those are backdrop details, as this is most specifically about the relationship between two brothers, Eli (John C. Reilly) and Charlie (Joaquin Phoenix), who share the last name of “Sisters.”

They’re excellent at what they do. The Sisters Brothers opens with a wide shot, kept static and wide as the viewer witnesses an ambush on a house in a wide field at night, bright flashes of gunfire seen at random spots on the screen, barely illuminating their immediate area for split seconds. The Sisters Brothers are two against many, contracted to kill only one of the men in this house, and they win.

They also don’t exactly have other careers to fall back on. They have only each other. They are incredibly close, they get under each other’s skin — but in subtle, believable ways that make it easy to believe these two are brothers. They share a tragic past within their family that set them on this path.

Here is another film with frustratingly misleading marketing. The trailers make The Sisters Brothers look way more “fun” than it actually is, featuring self-conciously cool, snappy editing that does nothing to represent the film itself, which is something far deeper, far more contemplative. Particularly for a Western, this is much more a work of art than of action. Gun fights are messy. Horrible accidents happen.

If nothing else, The Sisters Brothers ultimately demonstrates how truly random one’s life trajectory can be. Where these characters wind up in the end is nowhere near any typical Western of yesteryear would take them. There is neither catharsis nor blowout, no particular epiphanies or breakthroughs.

There are certainly fascinating detours. Eli and Charlie have set out to meet up with a tracker named John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal), who has in turn captured a prospector, Hermann (Riz Ahmed) who has come up with a chemical formula that can be used to illuminate gold in a stream at night. Director and co-writer Jacques Audiard, here making his first English language feature film, has a knack for sprinkling details indicative of larger themes rarely made explicit in his storytelling. After Hermann demonstrates how he prospects with these chemicals, we briefly see the stream the following morning, littered with dead fish. Where might this stream be carrying that crap?

There are several unforgettable images from this film. A horse escaped from a burning barn, itself set aflame. In one truly horrifying scene, we see a spider crawl right into the mouth of a man sleeping by a fire. At first this seems like it’s just a random detail, but like the butterfly that changes the weather around the world, these are details that matter, setting off subtle differences in each event that follows. And really, it is a random detail. It is also important to the story.

As well constructed as this film undeniably is, I struggle to think who it’s for, exactly. It has moments of dark beauty, one or two moments of subtly dark humor, a few chaotic gun fights. There’s a pretty high body count, many of the deaths senseless, or at best the result of people knowingly yet foolishly trying to get in the Sisters Brothers’ way.

And then, in the end, after being robbed of a climax they only thought they were headed for, The Sisters Brothers ends on a surprising note of sweetness, featuring a brief appearance by Carol Kane. Rutger Hauer appears as the Commodore, the brothers’ employer, and even more briefly: only twice, at different points in the movie, from a distance. He doesn’t even having any lines. The focus is always squarely on the brothers, even during the first half when Hermann and John are intercut as a sort of “B story.”

There’s a lot to consider in The Sisters Brothers, although considering it all is not necessary to appreciate the film. Suffice it to say that the four leads all give solid performances, each of them uniquely nuanced. Any movie set in the American West made in the 21st century must indeed have something unique to offer, and this one is certainly a far cry from brainless entertainment. Honestly if that’s what you’re looking for, this will bore you. I found myself appreciating how it meanders with a purpose, and found its conclusion oddly satisfying considering how surprisingly subdued it is in the end.

  There’s a lot more going on here than you might think.

There’s a lot more going on here than you might think.

Overall: B+

COLETTE

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

Apparently Colette was the Madonna of early 20th-century France. Courting controversy, offering massively popular salacious entertainment, flirting with bisexuality and playing against gender norms. The sad irony is that Colette’s literary output in the first decade of the 1900s was still far more tolerated in France than it would have been in America fifty years later.

We really need more movies like Colette, detailing women around the world who were way ahead of their time, and moved along the evolution of their cultures. Even by today’s standards, it’s rare to see a period costume drama so feminist in nature — time and again, we’ve seen historical films that either ignored the women in favor of the men in control, or dwell on how shitty women had it.

Colette isn’t quite that kind of movie. Keira Knightley plays the title role as a woman in a truly progressive relationship by just about most standards, a husband, Willy (Dominic West), who admits it would be hypocritical to forbid his wife her own romantic flings when he himself sleeps around. But, as one of several women Colette becomes involved with notes, “He keeps you on a long leash — but it’s still a leash.”

In essence, Colette is still the story of a woman breaking free of the constraints of the man in her life. She is also the real-life French writer, the most celebrated female novelist of that country, whose first four novels were actually published under her husband’s name. Willy is already an established writer who has people ghost writing for him, and once he marries Colette, in his mind it seems natural that she should contribute. In at least one instance he literally locks her in a room until she produces some pages.

Willy isn’t exactly depicted as malicious here. He’s just increasingly clueless, a guy who fancies himself forward-thinking by virtue of the permissions he grants his wife, but who still says Colette publishing under her own name is a ridiculous idea because women writers don’t sell.

It takes a while for Colette’s story to coalesce. Having no knowledge of the historical, real-life writer, I spent some of the first 20 minutes or so of this movie wondering exactly where this story was going. But, these scenes do provide some vital information about Colette’s background, particularly her childhood home in the country with an amputee veteran father (Robert Pugh) and stern but tender mother (Fiona Shaw).

And then, a little while after starting their married life, Colette begins writing for Willy. This ultimately proves a precarious scenario, with Willy occasionally paranoid about word getting out about her being the actual author of these wildly popular novels written under his name. In the meantime, Colette’s romantic exploits allow for some luminous actors in supporting roles: Eleanor Tomlinson as Georgie, who plays Colette and Willy against each other; Denise Gough as the wonderfully androgynous Missy, who proves to be Colette’s most enduring relationship.

Colette must go through a series of subtle outside influences — including that of her own mother — before it dawns on her what kind of hold her husband really has over her. It gets back to that “long leash” still being a leash: he holds her back, and this is the story of how a woman in the 1900s found her way on her own terms. It seems we’ve gotten an unusually wide variety of stories of such women this year, and honestly there can never be too many. We’ve had decades — hell, millennia — of the heroic man in our stories. Women getting their turn is long overdue, and Colette sits quite comfortably among them.

  Behind every two-faced man is a straightforward woman: Colette.

Behind every two-faced man is a straightforward woman: Colette.

Overall: B+

A STAR IS BORN

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

Here’s something I didn’t even think to expect from Bradley Cooper’s A Star Is Born: to feel so seen — as a gay man, as part of a gay community so long associated with appreciation for megastars in movies bearing this name. Few movies have been remade as many times as this one, and certainly no other comes to mind with the same pedigree of icons featured in its many iterations. Judy Gardland. Barbra Streisand. Lady Gaga.

In Bradley Cooper’s telling of the story, we’re treated with a surprisingly queer element: when Cooper’s middle-aged rock star Jackson Maine first meet’s Lady Gaga’s unknown singer Ally, Ally is the one cisgender woman, also singing with her own voice, performing in a drag bar. Among the many drag queens here who pop up a few times over the course of the film is one whose YouTube channel I’ve long subscribed to: Willam Belli. She gets a couple nice gags in to boot, and was a delightful surprise.

So are the entire first two thirds or so of this A Star Is Born, which are, quite simply, spectacular. Watching Jackson and Ally meet and fall in love, as he nudges her into an overnight stardom that quickly overshadows his fading limelight, is enchanting to a truly unexpected degree. I mean, it’s not like we haven’t seen this story before — this specific story is being told for the fourth time here (some might even argue the fifth, as many felt the “original” A Star Is Born in 1937 ripped off the story of a film called What Price Hollywood from five years prior). Every remake thereafter has been a spectacular showcase for its female lead’s talents: Judy Garland in 1954; Streisand in 1976.

The thing about that 1976 version is . . . it sucked. Streisand’s singing was the only good thing about it. After the first film focused solely on movie stars and their acting careers, then the second turned it into a musical, the ‘76 version turned the characters into rock stars. Bradley Cooper’s A Star Is Born is everything Frank Pierson’s version should have been but just wasn’t.

Bradley Cooper is offering us something quite rare in 2018, a story with exceedingly broad appeal, a love story with great singing that wide swaths of audiences who otherwise often cannot agree with each other can get behind. And that singing! Lady Gaga has a set of pipes tailor made for this role. The first time you hear her sing, she’s doing so softly to herself, walking down an alleyway after getting off work, as the movie’s title comes onscreen. And I got chills. Oh and by the way? Bradley Cooper’s a shockingly good singer too. Sure, in vocal ability Lady Gaga’s way out of his league — but Cooper more than holds his own. It’s genuinely impressive.

As is his entire performance, which is sure to get an Oscar nomination, and his winning would be no tragedy. I must admit to some healthy skepticism that he could pull off both directing and performing in this movie — and I could find no faults on either front.

So how about the music itself, then? Honestly, if anything comes close to being disappointing, it’s the music — which is a sad irony. To be fair, the music is good. It’s just not great. There is no iconic power ballad like, say, The Bodyguard’s “I Will Always Love You.” Even Gaga’s number that predictably closes the film, while emotionally affecting, is almost curiously understated. Gaga’s stellar voice elevates every track on which she sings, but I struggle to imagine the soundtrack taking off in line with the inevitable popularity of the movie itself.

Another quibble: the final act sags a bit, the tragic arc of these two lovers’ respective rise and fall lacking the crackling chemistry of the beginning of their relationship. Ally’s pop stardom is meant to showcase a sort of vapidness that belies her true talent, but the lyrics featured in her “hit single” are so truly dumb it’s distracting. Sure, some artists might get a minor hit singing “Why’d you come around me with an ass like that?” — but a Grammy nomination? It’s painful to see a songwriter of Lady Gaga’s obvious caliber singing such drek, and strains suspension of disbelief.

But! The things that are great about A Star Is Born are just so great — it makes for a genuine crowd pleaser which, beat for beat, hits all the right notes. You could even call this film subtly subversive. What’s not to love about a flawed man who makes terrible mistakes but through it all has eyes only for this one wide-eyed woman, who in turn progressively overcomes a lack of confidence and ambition to showcase awesome talent? A story almost pointedly lacking in sexism, and featuring a seamlessly organic sensibility of inclusion? Which even treats alcoholism and addiction realistically as a disease to be treated without judgment? This movie is both progressive at its heart and uninterested in drawing attention to that fact, unencumbered by ego. Supporting roles by Sam Elliott as Jackson’s older brother, Andrew Dice Clay as Ally’s father, and Dave Chapelle as Jackson’s best friend are played without showiness or vanity.

This is the kind of story where you root for everyone, even though you know some won’t get their shit together. To a person, they’re still worth rooting for. Well, except maybe Ally’s manager (Rafi Gavron). He’s kind of a dick.

A Star Is Born in 2018 is a diamond in the rough, a gem of mainstream entertainment in a sea of superhero sewage. It would be impossible to be considered anything close to original, and among the many versions of this film that have existed over the past eight decades, there’s no way it could be considered the best of all of them. (That would indeed be the original 1937 film. Seek it out.) But, it is the best one for those of us living right now. This movie was made for us, and I left the theatre feeling gratitude for it.

  Sing me something good . . .

Sing me something good . . .

Overall: A-

SCIENCE FAIR

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

I found Science Fair to be deeply, deeply affecting — in a profoundly positive way. How often does a documentary make you cry tears of joy? Maybe I’ve just become a sap, but this film was such a joy to watch, it worked as an antidote to the exhausting defiance in the face of despair that fueled the making of Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 11/9.

That other film is plenty worthy in its own right, mind you. It even offers plenty of hope, showcasing individuals and organizations working to make positive change on the political landscape. The key difference here is those people are pushing back, against truly dark forces. Science Fair, by contrast, is like the thinking-man’s escapism, with a purity not found anywhere else — of youth, of intent, of research and data. Nothing here is corrupted in any way.

Okay, so there’s a young Muslim woman at a high school in South Dakota headed to the International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF), whose own science teachers have no interest in supporting her, who finds the unlikeliest of champions in the school’s football coach, of all people — and whose stunning scientific achievements on a national stage do not get the slightest official recognition by her school. This is of course, awful, and mentioned in passing, but guess what that kid is doing now? Attending school at Harvard. Fuck you, South Dakota!

This is one of very, very few negative details of any kid’s story showcased in Science Fair, and it barely gets notice. It’s far more important, and significant, that young Kashfia found a widely recognized practical application for her brilliance, and that she did so with the support of her Muslim parents raising her in a deep red state.

With 1700 students from around the world competing at ISEF, in this film presented in 2017 in Los Angeles, surely plenty of them aren’t the most telegenic, or the most charming, or the most articulate kids in the world — but Science Fair doesn’t bother with them. I always wonder about how much footage gets shot in films like these, how they choose to find the subjects they will follow around with cameras from rather early on in whatever tournament it is. In this case, although most of the kids do come from the U.S. — nine projects qualify for ISEF from one Long Island high school alone — there are also kids featured in several other countries doing extraordinary things. A young woman researching the cure for the Zika virus in the poor Brazilian region where it originated. A young German man who re-engineered the 100-year-old plane design and cut its fuel consumption by a third.

Even a lot of the American kids come from surprisingly rural areas, such as the kid from West Virginia who designed an AI program that generated rap lyrics modeled on the style of Kanye West (not to mention Kashfia, from South Dakota). One person in the film somewhat pointedly mentions that smart people come from rural areas too.

The common quality among all of them is how they give meaning to the phrase “best and brightest.” It’s awe-inspiring to look upon these kids, on average incredibly well behave and disciplined, because how else could they take part in a competition like this? They are, to a person, a joy to watch onscreen. In most cases they are outright adorable. One would be hard pressed to find anything else to offer so much hope for the future, with this mass of kids who will clearly be changing the world we live in tomorrow, in many cases literally revolutionizing the future. These kids have emotional investment in making the world a better place, a passion that is infectious. I honestly could not get enough of it.

Consider the countless kids who don’t win any of the top awards, or place at all (several of the kids the cameras follow, in fact, don’t win anything at ISEF). They are an entire community of world-changers. That would include plenty of the kids who competed in statewide and regional science fairs who didn’t even make it this far.

Co-directors Cristina Costantini and Darren Foster do take a brief moment to interject a clear agenda, there near the end of the film. At least two teachers interviewed lament how the United States is “becoming anti-science.” In the context of Science Fair in its entirety, though, that feels less like a statement of hard fact than of caution. They take care to note how many scientific breakthroughs made in America were made by people not American-born. But if these kids are the inventors of our future, at least for now, scientific breakthroughs will for some time come from immigrants thrilled to be here.

I suppose with any audience bothering to see this movie, it’s preaching to the choir. Except almost none of it is preaching, and even the choir can use a pep talk from time to time. The stories showcased here are overwhelmingly hopeful, and that’s precisely what we all need to be seeing. Science Fair is charming beyond measure, from its opening footage of 15-year-old Jack Andraka going nuts with excitement after winning the top prize at ISEF in 2012 (and being interviewed now as a 20-year-old with just as much rousing energy), to the closing montage of where these subjects went after the 2017 competition. A 14-year-old girl with stunning self-confidence working to prevent cancer by detecting arsenic levels in water supplies is just one thread of many, the tip of the iceberg. I left Science Fair having my well-worn cynicism cracked open, riding a wave of optimism, however cautious it may be.

  Science as the feel-good movie of the year: enthusiasm for all the right things.

Science as the feel-good movie of the year: enthusiasm for all the right things.

Overall: A-

LIZZIE

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

It’s quite an experience seeing Assassination Nation and Lizzie over the course of only two days. I called the former an ultra-violent feminist revenge fantasy, and the same could just as easily be said of the latter. The difference is that Lizzie is a speculative look at real-life character Lizzie Borden and her motivations, a period drama easing into palpable horror offered up for the #MeToo era.

After several depictions of the Borden murders over the years — including one in 2014 for Lifetime starring Christina Ricci — this one puts a lesbian spin on the story, with Lizzie (Chlöe Sevigny) developing feelings for their live-in Irish maid, Bridget (Kristen Stewart). Bridget is being molested at night by Lizzie’s father, Andrew (Jamey Sheridan), while Lizzie and her sister Emma (Kim Dickens) have a brother of their late mother conspiring to get the Borden will changed so he will be guardian of the daughters’ inheritance.

All of these are the names of real people involved in this 1892 murder in Fall River, Massachusetts, and it was suspect, to say the least, that the Borden daughters stood to inherit the sizable estate. Director Craig William MacNeill and writer Bryce Kass infuse the story with the suggestion of understandable motives — both that of Andrew as a sexual predator, and a semi-pointed reflection of men’s control over women’s fortunes, in every sense of the word.

I found myself compelled by the older sister, Emma, perhaps more than the filmmakers intended. Kim Dickens, perhaps most recognizable as Joanie Stubbs in the HBO series Deadwood, is a lovely actor, and she is given curiously little screen time, as we are guided to focus on Lizzie and Bridget’s budding mutual attraction. I wished there were more of her.

That’s not to say Chlöe Sevigny isn’t plenty compelling as Lizzie herself. She is depicted here as defiant from the start, baldly going out to the theatre unescorted under her father’s objections. She is afflicted with occasional seizures of some sort, a character trait never fully fleshed out, and which curiously disappears without comment later in the story. There is talk of her being sent away, both for her ailment and after Andrew catches Lizzie in the throes of passion with Bridget in the barn. In an act of retaliation for her defiance, Andrew chops off the heads of her beloved pet pigeons and has them cooked and served for family dinner, a particularly horrible moment.

We are clearly meant to see Andrew as the unambiguous villain, Lizzie and Borden as women who are ending their own victimization, if not as outright feminist heroes. This is where Lizzie gets a little muddled. The notorious murders of Lizzie’s stepmother (Fiona Shaw), who shows no sympathy for Lizzie, and her father, are depicted in graphic, arguably belabored detail. It’s not gory, exactly, but falls just short of that — and boy, do we see a lot of swings of that hatchet. The odd thing is, with events playing out in this manner, if anyone has any motive, it’s Bridget. She and Lizzie conspire together, but given the enduring nature of the legend, Lizzie wouldn’t quite work if Bridget were claimed to be the murderer.

In a way, the Lizzie Borden trial that followed was a sort of O.J. Simpson trial of the late 19th century. The woman was acquitted, because no one could believe a woman of such social standing could possibly be capable of such heinous crimes — that’s how it’s put in the title cards just prior to the end credits. The supposedly feminist angle is to view Lizzie as an oppressed woman smashing the patriarchy, a woman who sacrificed everything — but to what end? She lived the rest of her life abandoned by both Bridget and the rest of her family, ostracized by her community. The idea of this woman in particular as a feminist hero is something I don’t quite buy.

As a story on its own merits, though, Lizzie is both unique and effective. Much of its run time is social commentary in the guise of costume drama, and a well-acted one. Then Lizzie demonstrates what she is capable of, not a woman who snapped but who was capable of methodical premeditation, and it moves into the genuinely disturbing. It may not quite achieve thematic coherence, but it sure offers up plenty to contemplate.

  Wait, was that forty whacks? Or was it forty-one?

Wait, was that forty whacks? Or was it forty-one?

Overall: B

ASSASSINATION NATION

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

Assassination Nation is basically an ultra-violent feminist revenge fantasy. Full disclosure: that kind of makes it my jam.

It’s far from perfect. But when a quartet of teenage girls are turning this country’s love of guns on its head, annihilating their mid-sized town’s institutionalized misogyny, basically in justifiable self-defense, who gives a shit? This is the kind of movie Quentin Tarantino might have made if he weren’t a willfully ignorant shit bag. Writer-director Sam Levinson knows what’s up.

Granted, it took me a minute to come around to this movie. Taking a hard look at our social media, tech-obsessed culture isn’t exactly novel, and near the beginning, as we meet Lily (Odessa Young) and her three best friends, there’s a fairly chaotic sequence with an extended period of split screen with three panels of action to follow. I found myself thinking, if the whole movie is like this, I’m not going to like it nearly as much as I wanted to.

I suppose you could call this a satire, except the satirical elements veer between lacking clarity and being far too obvious. The story, in which an entire town goes wild after an unidentified hacker leaks half of their entire digital histories for public consumption, is wildly contrived — the time it takes for any effective law enforcement to arrive strains credibility. Then again, to over-focus on that misses the point.

Levinson has much to say about our culture’s double standards, pretty much none of it new. The key is how he says it — and to his credit, that does set this movie apart. And once those nearly incomprehensible early scenes level off, the story propels forward with a kinetic energy aided by a propulsive soundtrack and exceptional editing.

One scene in particular stands out. Lily and her friends Bex, Em and Sarah (Hari Nef, Abra and Suki Waterhouse, respectively) have been falsely accused of perpetrating these leaks, and a mob of self-appointed town vigilantes have secretly descended upon the house in which they hang out. The camera steadily swoops from one side of the house to the other and back, gazing in through windows and sliding glass doors, observing attackers as they make their way inside and capture them. It’s a sequence as suspenseful as those in the best thrillers.

It devolves into a shootout, as does a whole lot of the rest of the movie. Characters you’re rooting for die, and it gets very bloody very quickly. The flip side is that these young women are given agency not often seen in movies at all, let alone in movies of this sort.

Bex, by the way, is a young trans woman, played by — wait for it! — a young trans woman. Specifically, model Hari Nef. This should be incidental, but we still live in a world where this is important. For a while I wondered if she was playing a cisgender woman, which would have been a forward-thinking choice in its own right. But then Bex identifies herself as trans, as she declares no empathy whatsoever for the town’s mayor, the first victim of a hack — because he was a conservative politician working against queer equality. Actually, more than once, the way Bex puts it is “LGBTQIAA people,” and it’s delivered with no resentment whatsoever at having to rattle off all those letters. (It took me a while to figure out why the two A’s — oh, right: asexual and allies.) And while that mayor’s hypocrisy brings him down, his proclivities are treated with unusual respect: when photos of him cross-dressing are made public, these kids only zero in on his terrible taste in lingerie.

Lily and her other friends are generally indifferent to all this, except when Lily suggests empathy even for those who might be their enemy. By and large, all three girls are preoccupied with typical stuff, albeit with some vaguely dark undertones — such as Lily’ predictably problematic sexting relationship with her much-older neighbor (Joel McHale). Lily gets some threatening online messages early on from the unknown hacker, and she’s smart enough to look up the IP address at their source. Of course, this digital meddling clearly designed to pitch everyone in this town against each other comes from . . . Moscow, Russia. You can’t get much more on the nose than that but whatever.

The crux of it all, really, comes down to Lily being slut shamed, thanks to the hundreds of selfies taken in various states of undress texted to her neighbor, now open for the entire pubic to see. But Assassination Nation also takes aim at mob mentality and knee-jerk reactions in public shaming, such as when the local high school principal gets hacked, and the town goes apeshit and accuses him of being a pedophile because he happens to have naked photos of his daughter when she was six. They all live in world where everything is sexualized, and then sexuality is demonized.

After the bloodbath that is the movie’s final twenty minutes or so, sort of John Wick meets Carrie for the 21st century, the central mystery of who was really behind the leaks is revealed. It includes a kicker of a last line that evokes the notion that “some people just want to watch the world burn” — filtered through the stereotypical vapidity of Generation Z. Honestly the gun fighting gets a little tedious well before we get to that point, but again, maybe that’s also the point.

A fair amount of Assassination Nation is overstuffed, overdone and overblown. That didn’t stop me from having a blast watching these young women turn the tables and kick some ass of their own — even if it looks increasingly like their defiance is simply an act of taking their adversaries down with them. The movie’s opening title sequence includes a litany of “trigger warnings” — all the sex and violence and abuse and assault and attempted assault you’re about to see. It’s about a town that makes a mess of things, and the movie itself is a bit of a mess at times. But it’s an exhilarating mess.

  Who’s the bitch whore now?

Who’s the bitch whore now?

Overall: B+

THE HOUSE WITH A CLOCK IN ITS WALLS

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

Fantasy stories about witches and warlocks aren’t exactly new, so it would be unfair to call The House with a Clock in Its Walls a retread of, say, the Harry Potter series. But in a world where Harry Potter exists, a movie like The House with a Clock in Its Walls still feels decidedly low-rent. It doesn’t have anything particularly new to offer; it’s also about an orphaned kid who realizes previously unknown magical potential; it feels like the start of an intended franchise.

One might wonder if the John Bellairs novel on which the movie is based feels low-rent. I never read it. But, it could hardly owe any debt to Harry Potter — which, it must be noted, was technically derivative itself, throughout the series; it was just better at adding a new, modern spin — as it was first published in 1973. This movie, though, as directed by Eli Roth, is the first-ever film adaptation, and having waited all this time, it does feel a bit like a cash-grab so late to the party that even the peak of early-21st-century movies with fantasy and magic has passed.

Roth is the director behind the first couple of films in the Hostel franchise, and he does bring a subtle undercurrent of horror in The House with a Clock in Its Walls. It’s a rated-PG kind of horror, clearly meant for kids but kids old enough to handle a few jump-scares. I jumped pretty hard at least once. And that seems to be the niche Eli Roth is attempting to carve here: Harry Potter dipping his toes in the horror genre.

Alas, the story, at least as presented here, just isn’t that compelling. Young Lewis (Owen Vaccaro) has lost his parents to a car crash at the age of ten and is being sent to live with his next of kin, a heretofore estranged Uncle Jonathan (Jack Black), who has a close but platonic relationship with his neighbor, Florence (Cate Blanchett). Lewis learns quickly that Jonathan’s house is alive with its very own magical personality, and is also afflicted with a hexed clock in its walls left by Jonathan’s late magician partner Isaac Izard (Kyle MacLachlan). Trouble brews when Lewis succumbs to peer pressure from a new friend at school and opens the locked cabinet he’s forbidden from opening. This is literally the single rule Unlce Jonathan imposes on him, but of course Lewis breaks it.

Much of what happens in this movie is due to characters refusing to be fully honest with each other about things. The story never gives any particularly plausible motivation for this caginess, except to contrive a story that winds up not being quite as exciting as it wants to be.

It doesn’t help that Jack Black and Cate Blanchett are so mismatched, have such little chemistry, that they almost seem like people from different movies. Blanchett is as great as ever, as it happens; she has a knack for intensifying her own charisma by being restrained. Jack Black is a different story, always just slightly over-acting and never quite believable in his delivery. This is surprising indeed, given how fantastically he played a teenage girl trapped in the video game avatar of a middle-aged mad in last year’s Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle. He clearly can be a great actor, and has demonstrated as much many times over the past couple of decades. He just doesn’t manage it here.

There are also running gags in this movie which are simply dumb, such as the “topiary griffin” that power-poops leaves out of its ass. It’s well-rendered CGI whose impact is neutered by playing for easy, silly scatalogical laughs. Jonathan looks upon the collection of mechanical dummies in his house, which eventually come to life, and says “So creepy!” — several times. Duh? On the other hand, I’ll give this movie credit for its brief forays into memorable weirdness: it’s not every day you see Jack Black’s head on the body of a baby, which even pees. Such an example is the exception that proves the rule, though: this movie hints at a direction that could truly set itself apart, but then never truly commits to it. A scene in which our heroes battle a yard full of living jack-o-lanterns could have been something far better executed than the silly farce of a scene Eli Roth makes it here.

The special effects are arguably the best thing about The House with a Clock in Its Walls, and it’s never showy. There’s a pretty fantastic scene in which celestial bodies and stars are conjured into the air over the house’s large backyard, complete with the topiary griffin batting at the stars like any cat would, and it is all too brief. So here we end up with a movie not great enough to sing its praises; not bad enough to complain much about. It’s just . . . fine. But unless you’re a fanatic for all-things magic, then why bother?

  A trio with great skill at magic but not so much at chemistry.

A trio with great skill at magic but not so much at chemistry.

Overall: B-

FAHRENHEIT 11/9

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

If there is any liberal Democrat to take other liberals and other Democrats to task, it’s Michael Moore. Of course he takes down the Republicans and Donald Trump as expected, but he also exposes the double standard regarding the left that not enough people talk about: when one of our own does something awful, there’s no great outcry among us. How is that different from Republican complicity with the current criminal president, exactly?

So I’ll just get this part out of the way early on here: in Fahrenheit 11/9, Moore also unsurprisingly puts a lot of focus on his home state of Michigan — his 1989 debut, Roger & Me, was about the initial depression of his hometown of Flint, when General Motors closed all of its local manufacturing closures. This is a state which elected its own highly unqualified ultra-rich CEO “businessman” governor Rick Snyder, effectively a state-level trial run for the ascension of Trump. And when Republican leadership in Michigan switched Flint’s drinking water source from Lake Huron to the far less clean or fresh Flint River, ultimately resulting in thousands of children being exposed to lead, to this day not nearly enough has been done to rectify the matter.

But I was going to mention Democrats, right? When then-President Obama made his first visit to Flint two years after the water crisis began, he made a show of a publicity stunt of drinking a glass of filtered water in the middle of his speech — not once, but twice, at separate events. Let’s just say local leaders and activitsts were not impressed. Moore himself even spoke out about it at the time: thousands of children poisoned and twelve deaths are not things to be trivialized. And you know what? I never bought into the lie that Obama was a saint (though I don’t hate him), but I never heard anything about this. And I agree with Moore: this kind of political pandering is disappointing at best.

To be fair, I’m not always the biggest fan of Michael Moore’s tactics, either. I never saw much utility in his own stunts, such as in Bowling for Columbine (2002) when he brings a couple of shooting victims to K-mart supposedly to claim a refund on the bullets still inside their bodies. Similarly, in Fahrenheit 11/9, he brings a camera crew to record an attempted “citizen’s arrest” on Michigan Governor Rick Snyder. He doesn’t get any further than security at the entrance, so he brings a giant truck full of Flint water to spray all over the front lawn of the governor’s mansion. I can’t say he accomplished much with that, aside from an admittedly fun, indelible image.

So, okay, Michael Moore isn’t perfect either. Neither are his movies. But it could still be argued that they are vital, and they are undeniably entertaining. This being a thematic sequel to his 2004 film Fahrenheit 9/11, in which he delved into the Bush Administration’s suspect motives for the wars in Iraq in Afghanistan, I honestly approached Fahrenheit 11/9 with some trepidation: just how fucking depressing will this be? How much painful footage of the most despicable president this country has ever had will we have to suffer through?

Actually — not too much. I mean, plenty, still. But Trump himself is not the sole focus of this film, even if 11/9 is a direct reference to the date on which he was declared president in 2016. (The election was held 11/8, but the presidency was not declared until well after midnight, so, a nice bit of reverse-engineering in movie title marketing there). Moore takes a more macro look at how Trump is a symptom, not the disease, and looks at how both Republicans and Democrats brought us here. I think he’s slightly unfair to Nancy Pelosi as he laments so-called “Democratic establishment,” but whatever. You can’t have everything.

Crucially, Moore uses much of this movie to be hopeful rather than downbeat — the very tactic that made his last movie, Where to Invade Next (2015), so great. Here he offers up extended segments on the groups of people offering inspiration when they could easily despair: the teenage activists coming out of the Parkland, Florida shooting who organized the March for Our Lives on their own; the fiercely independent (read: non-establishment), young minority and largely female congressional candidates coming up the ranks in current local elections across the country; effective statewide teacher strikes in deeply conservative regions.

It’s not all cheer leading, however. Michael Moore just isn’t the type. He doesn’t let any of us off the hook — hence the pointed reference to our Beloved Obama’s own missteps (and a reminder that Obama took more in donations from Goldman Sachs than from anyone else). When he speaks to local Democratic voters in West Virginia disillusioned by overhalf their states superdelegates voting Hillary Clinton at the Democratic National Convention even though every single county in the state went Bernie Sanders in the primary, it’s easy to see how voters throw their hands up and give up. (And I say this as someone who was always a Hillary supporter and who feels continued resentment toward Sanders is more than justified.)

If you want our democracy to work for you, or to work at all, you don’t just have to participate in it — you have to do it in numbers large enough to demand that it run properly. Not perfectly, but properly. Otherwise, the country you get is the country you deserve. Michael Moore doesn’t say that outright, but it’s the basic, simple point, and one he gets across in ways both sobering and entertaining. He’s never been perfect in his efforts, but all-or-nothing demands for perfection is what got us into this mess in the first place.

  Michael Moore does his own stunts.

Michael Moore does his own stunts.

Overall: B+