HUSTLERS

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

Husters isn’t going to change the world, but it is a product of a changing world, in all the best ways. Never before has there been a movie about strippers that treats those women with such respect, or given them this much agency, or certainly afforded them this many dimensions. In the end this is a story about otherwise good people getting sucked into doing very bad things, and those things don’t particularly have anything to do with them being strippers. The stripper part is incidental, and just happens to have also been the case with the real life women whose story this film was inspired by.

It can’t be overstated how significant this is, a total lack of shame when it comes to stripping as a profession, and that is meant in the best sense. Not one character in this film berates or belittles any of these women for what they do for a living. This is a profession about which these women have a great deal of pride, and rightfully so, as they have the skill to match. Ditto all the women who play them. Jennifer Lopez gets an entrance, an actor who is fifty years old playing presumably slightly younger, in which she does a pole dance. The whole sequence is spectacular, incredibly well shot, and a jaw dropping performance by Lopez.

Lopez’s character, Romana, is raising a daughter. The father is evidently out of the picture, and we never learn anything about him. We don’t need to. This isn’t his story. The central character, Destiny (Constance Wu, holding her own), also has a child, and that baby’s father gets a bit of screen time, until Destiny is single again. Destiny takes care of her grandmother (Wai Ching Ho), and although it is never made explicitly clear that Grandma knows how Destiny makes her living, neither does it seem to be a secret. There is one scene in which Destiny has left stripping for a while to raise her little girl, and when she’s in an interview discussing her resume, I really expected this to be the predictable moment when some other character — also a woman — looks down her nose at her. Granted, Destiny says twice that what she did at these establishments was “Bar tending, mostly,” but it’s still clear what kind of places they are. But the issue that holds Destiny back is not judgment but something a lot more boring: a lack of retail experience.

And for the record, if there is any one thing that Hustlers is not, it’s not boring. These are empowered women in an ensemble cast telling a seamless story that has no need to point out or underscore how empowered they are. “Show don’t tell,” as they say, and writer-director Lorene Scafaria has it down. We even get delightful bit parts by the likes of Cardi B. and Lizzo among the strippers, and a maternal figure among club staff (they literally all call her “Mom”) played by Mercedes Ruehl. These are all confident women who know who they are and are great at what they do.

If anything is a little bit disappointing, it is the muted use of the great Julia Stiles, her third billing a surprise given how small her part is, as the journalist interviewing Destiny as Destiny tells their story. Sure, her part is essential and it may simply be that Stiles wanted to be part of a movie this great, but she still deserves better. She gets no scenery to chew.

That is left mostly to Jennifer Lopez, and it must be said: the buzz is justified, as is the talk of an Oscar nomination. Scafaria has crafted a film, in fact, worthy of nominations in several categories, particularly — and this is an unusual thing for me to notice — sound editing. Those sorts of nominations tend to go to flashier films with lots of explosions, but effectively subtle work can be just as important.

And Lopez pulls off a neat trick here, being a character who is anything but subtle, but giving a fairly restrained performance, all things considered. Ramona is basically the ring leader of a group of criminals, who spent several years effectively roofie-ing filthy rich Wall Street guys and then robbing them blind. This is their story, and it’s a lot more nuanced than it would be in many other hands, particularly those of a lot of male directors. It’s notable that Hustlers is infused with sexuality yet has not one actual sex scene, and while it’s wall to wall with female sexiness, there isn’t much female nudity either. The most gratuitous nude scene involves a man given too much of their amateur blend of drugs and has to be rushed to a hospital. It’s not especially sexy. Parts of it, in fact, are funny, as is the case with the movie overall.

And Stiles, as the reporter, kind of serves as an expected audience stand-in when she assures Destiny in the middle of their interview, “I don’t feel sorry for these guys.” Destiny replies immediately, “I do feel sorry for them,” and understanding why is Lorene Scafaria’s achievement. This is a group of women impossible to see as villains, even as though do objectively villainous things. Just because Wall Street players got away with vast financial crimes in the wake of (and which largely caused) the Great Recession of the late 2000s doesn’t mean these women should get away with something like this. Destiny’s guilt about it is appropriate, as is her guilt about how things went down in the end between her and Ramona, who offered her a kind of sincere support she never found anywhere else.

None of this is simple, except perhaps for a few of Scafaria’s plot contrivances. But even those contrivances make for a better movie — this is not a documentary, after all. You won’t leave Hustlers feeling like you witnessed perfection, but you will feel you witnessed something different and great, the best version of what it can be.

They’re sexy and they know it and that’s beside the point.

They’re sexy and they know it and that’s beside the point.

TIGERS ARE NOT AFRAID

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

The original, Spanish title for the Mexican film Tigers Are Not Afraid was Vuelven, which translates to They Come Back. This feels a bit like an American marketing tactic to obscure how grim this story really is, and instead focus on fierce bravery. Never mind the fact that said bravery is among children orphaned by Mexican drug cartels and living on the streets of city neighborhoods turned into ghost towns.

To call this movie “haunting” is an understatement, and I mean that as a compliment. It didn’t even occur to me until it was over that this can fit comfortably within the horror genre, albeit a sort of fantastical version of it. This is the kind of movie Guillermo del Toro should be aspiring to. But instead of a twisted love story set in a dark fantasy world, this is a dark fantasy that reflects a profoundly bleak reality.

Clocking in at a brisk 83 minutes, writer-director Issa López gets right to the point, opening in a classroom where the children are tasked with writing a fairy tale — which Tigers Are Not Afraid then becomes. Gunfire is heard outside and the students and the teacher all get on the floor. The teacher hands Estrella (Paola Lara) three pieces of chalk and declares them three wishes. When Estrella’s mother later disappears at the hands of local drug lords and she makes a wish for her mother to come back, the wish comes true, but not quite in the way she wanted.

There are shades of the W.W. Jacobs short story The Monkey’s Paw here, although it remains to be seen whether Issa López is even familiar with it. López isn’t offering any lesson about interfering with fate. There is an altogether different purpose to the dead returning to 10-year-old Estrella (hence the Spanish title). Some viewers may want to brace themselves for the stark turns this story takes, with death being a constant reality for all involved, including the gang of children at the center of the proceedings. In one case, a child’s stuffed tiger returns along with him, now alive and apparently here to help, a strangely comforting presence with its regular purring under perilous circumstances.

The apparently supernatural elements of Tigers Are Not Afraid are used with subtlety and sparingly, which is a big part of what gives it a uniquely hypnotic power. These kids are on their own in mostly empty neighborhoods, scavenging for food and hiding from unscrupulous murderers, much of the time in once-grand abandoned buildings. And then wall graffiti of a tiger might suddenly be animated, or a bat-sized dragon might fly out of a cell phone. A thin line of blood slowly flows in straight lines around indoor spaces toward characters in fatal danger. In any case, it is all shot with stark, often beautiful precision. The kids, all of them amateurs with no prior acting experience, have a peculiarly raw screen presence.

The drug lords who are after them are given no real story of their own, beyond them looking for the cell phone stolen by the kid gang’s de facto leader, Shine (Juan Ramón López). There is no background there, and otherwise no real backstory for the kids either, except that they have all been orphaned by the drug war. All of that is besides the point, given how present these kids always have to be in the here and now. It was hard not to think about this when the gang buries one of their own, how as far as the rest of the world is concerned, that kid may as well have never existed. Who will remember him now? These kids live in functionally post-apocalyptic circumstances. Consider the many kids in other parts of the world for whom that is their lived reality.

Spoiler alert, there are no happy endings here, not really. Tigers Are Not Afraid offers a fantasy world in which a few select villains reap what they sow, but at a terrible cost, and if you think about it, the world they leave behind remains unchanged. The upside is merely the power of storytelling, giving lost children a voice. Issa López is certainly a distinctive voice in cinema, someone whose work I hope we see more of. It’s not often someone can lure me in with what essentially amounts to ghosts and zombies, but they feel different because their use and function are so imbued with meaning, however despairing it may be,

Benevolent undead stuffed tigers are certainly not afraid.

Benevolent undead stuffed tigers are certainly not afraid.

BRITTANY RUNS A MARATHON

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

Brittany Runs a Marathon has something to say, and it might be better than anything said in any other movie I’ve seen this year. At the very least, it has something new to say, something far too many people still need to learn. You don’t just have to learn how to be nice to people. You should also learn how to let people be nice to you. As Brittany’s brother-in-law who also doubled as a father figure tells her, if someone offers you support, you should accept it.

That might seem like an oversimplified platitude, but it’s astonishing how many people actively reject such a notion. It’s a sinister form of insecurity, where it’s an easy conviction to care for others, but impossible to accept the care of others. That would require a fully realized self-worth, to recognize that you deserve it, just as much as anyone you care about does.

That is, essentially, the journey Brittany (Jillian Bell) takes, in the process of getting her unraveling late-twenties life together. Given the wise advice of starting with “small steps,” Brittany gets into running by first achieving the goal of running to the end of the block. This blossoms into a borderline obsession with training well enough to run the New York City Marathon.

She meets people and develops relationships along the way, dismissing their gestures of kindness at every turn, always convinced she is being pitied or judged or both. Her upstairs neighbor (Michaela Watkins). The similarly struggling runner she connects with (Micah Stock). The “nighttime” guy at the house where she’s dog sitting (Utkarsh Ambudkar), with whom she has immediate sexual chemistry. Brittany even makes misguided assumptions about her roommate (Alice Lee), who actually has very similar insecurities of her own, just borne of different sources. These are all people with their own problems.

In other words, everyone is fucked up; Brittany is just too self-involved to see it — an ironic element typical of insecurity. As the whole of the story in Brittany Runs a Marathon unfolded, I found myself increasingly thinking it should be required viewing, for everyone really, but especially for those suffering debilitating insecurities — this movie could be their Bible. It could have been my Bible, twenty years ago. Would it have opened my mind at all about such things had I seen it then, I wonder?

I rather wish writer-director Paul Downs Colaizzo better fleshed out Brittany’s relationships with all these friends she makes, especially with Seth the gay running buddy. Still, the more I think about this movie, the more I decide I love it, and it’s uniquely inspired message. I love the idea of saying “You’re worth it!” as opposed to just “You should be better!”, which is the message of most “feel-good” movies. This is a feel-good movie unlike any other, with plenty of painfully awkward moments, such as when a self-loathing Brittany at a particularly low point manages to shame an overweight woman at a family birthday party.

That particular scene is inspired in its own way too, as it keeps Brittany Runs a Marathon from just being about a young woman who “sees the light” and loses fifty pounds. Colaizzo also takes care to show us another woman who, while freely admitting to her own pain and struggles, also happens to have worked to overcome such challenges and finding happiness without it hinging on weight loss. Because the “power of weight loss” is not what this movie is about; it’s simply about getting your shit together. And, of course, seeing your own value.

And in the end, once Brittany actually runs the New York City Marathon (which was shot during the real race in 2017, itself a uniquely impressive technical achievement), Colaizzo’s film, inspired by a similar real-life story of his roommate of the same name, proves to be so moving, you’re going to want to have plenty of tissues handy. The trailers for Brittany Runs a Marathon are slightly misleading in their characterization of the film as a straight-up comedy; Brittany is a very funny woman, to be sure — something she often uses as a defense mechanism. But this movie is more of a dramedy, and one that very much succeeds on its own terms. Anyone quickly dismissive of it needs to check their own cynicism, because this movie has no time for it, which makes it a breath of fresh air.

Finding your self worth is worth the effort!

Finding your self worth is worth the effort!

Overall: A-

BLINDED BY THE LIGHT

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

I found myself taken by Blinded by the Light, albeit after it spent a while working me over — the second half in particular is a bit irresistible, between its quasi-musical sequences and its surprising tearjerker turns at the end.

And I’m not even into Bruce Springstein, around whose music probably 80%of this movie revolves. I don’t dislike his music by any means, but neither have I much paid any attention to it; I can barely recognize two of his songs from his decades-long career. The one I always liked the best, “57 Channels (And Nothin’ On)” isn’t even in this movie as it came out several years too late. The setting here is 1987, just a few years past the peak of Springstein’s career.

Blinded by the Light isn’t going to inspire me to go binge on his career retrospective, either, but the songs included are still pretty great, especially in context. As opposed to the surprisingly disappointing Yesterday, if you really want a feel-good movie about a young British man of South Asian descent whose story hinges on the discography of a massive rock star, look no further than this one.

I mean, sure, the music of the Beatles is objectively better than that of Springstein. Presumably director and co-writer Gurinder Chadha, not to mention co-writer Sarfraz Manzoor on whose memoir this script is loosely based, would bristle at such a suggestion. Well, they can take consolation in the assertion that virtually everything else about Blinded by the Light is better.

That is, even though Blinded by the Light is just as corny as it is charming, especially in its first half, which honestly drags a little. But then high school teenager Javed (Viveik Kalra, perfectly cast, a uniquely charismatic screen presence) is introduced to Bruce Springstein by a classmate (Aaron Phagura) and it rocks his world. It kind of rocks the movie too, and knocks some propulsive energy into it.

Chadha presents something that is close to, but stops short of, being a musical. It has occasional, barely stylized flourishes. On the whole it’s all lighthearted British fluff, the heaviest elements made of the sociopolitical backdrop of Britain’s Margaret Thatcher conservatism. Javed’s dad (Kulvinder Ghir) has lost his factory job and his mom and sister have to pick up the slack with sewing work. A subplot involving local racist hatred toward Pakistani immigrants makes an attempt at gravitas but never digs particularly deep.

That said, it’s easy to appreciate how this story avoids the most typical pitfalls and stereotypes of plots involving South Asian immigrants. I completely expected Javed’s father to disapprove of him having a white girlfriend, especially after he actually makes comments about eventually finding Javed a wife, and that this would figure heavily into the central conflict. Instead, Blinded by the Light takes gentle turns into surprising directions.

It’s even surprisingly moving — the climactic moment made me cry enough that I had to get my shirtsleeves wet wiping away tears, wishing someone had warned me I should have brought a tissue. At its heart, this movie is about learning new ways of respecting and understanding each other via new perspectives, and it effectively harnesses the power of music to get the point across in unusually touching ways.

It’s corny but it works!

It’s corny but it works!

Overall: B+

ONE CHILD NATION

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

Watching the documentary One Child Nation is a jarring experience, one that begs the question of why there is not more discussion about the horrific human rights violations in China. If you thought you had some sense of the horrors perpetrated by their 35-year “One Child Policy,” you don’t know the half of it. We really do just pick and choose which nations of the world to criticize, based on the pet cause of the moment.

The bizarre thing is, countless Chinese citizens have been so indoctrinated by decades of Communist state propaganda that they openly support the policy, even now, even in the face of their very own neighbors having their homes destroyed by the government for the “violation” of having more than one child. The unsettling thing, which is not very much explored in this film, is the clear efficacy of the policy’s goals. One of the many oft-repeated propaganda lines was that China was “going to war against overpopulation,” and one thing this policy absolutely did do was stabilize population growth which, in the 1980s, promised to ruin the nation of China if left unchecked. Now India, the world’s largest — read: most overpopulated — democracy, is on track to overtake China in population in less than a decade. And India has far less land area.

I don’t pretend to have answers, and neither does this film’s codirector, Nanfu Wang, a thirtysomething mother of one who grew up in China embarrassed to be one of the few children around with a sibling and who now lives in the U.S. There are smarter people out there who might have answers, contextualized with the one overbearing plight that the Chinese use to justify these horrors, which is objectively a horror itself: overpopulation. But surely there are more humane answers than what was historically the Chinese government’s approach.

Here we get into things which, if One Child Nation were aired on broadcast television, would absolutely necessitate a viewer discretion warning. We’re talking about forced sterilizations, forced abortions. Women abducted and forced to get abortions on fetuses at eight and nine months, nearly to term. There are no stories in this film of children being killed once they’re born, but there are stories of so-called “Family Planners” taking part in the abduction of these children whose existence violates the policy, taken to sham “orphanages,” and then adopted out to parents overseas who think the children have no parents. In one such case given special attention here, a teenage girl discovers she has an identical twin living in the U.S.

Nanfu Wang smartly notes that the Chinese forced abortions and the U.S. restriction of abortions are two sides of the same coin: a government denying women their body autonomy. Until Wang brought this up, I wondered how American “pro-life” conservatives might try to twist the message of this film.

And that brings us to perhaps the biggest blind spot of One Child Nation, which certainly examines the cultural favoring of boys in China but does not quite properly contextualize it. Whether it’s China’s forced abortions or America’s forced births, it’s all about the subjugation of women. Is it any surprise that there is not one mention in this film of men being forced to get vasectomies? Instead, we get stories of how many babies die in abandoned sacks in meat markets because a family’s one chance at a baby had the terrible fate of being a girl. Wang interviews members of her own family who openly admit to doing this themselves, including an uncle who is clearly remorseful but explains himself by saying his mother threatened to kill the baby and then herself if he refused to abandon it.

So you can imagine how fucked up the One Child Policy is, if not necessarily as a broad idea, but certainly in execution. This is a nation with so many aborted fetuses that it’s not difficult to find their carcasses in sacks labeled “medical waste” drifting among the garbage in polluted rivers. It’s entirely possible some kind of government program could be implemented that stabilizes population growth in a humane way. It is clearly not possible in a society so deeply misogynistic.

So where does that leave us? Wang’s film offers no insight into how else to address what far too people are talking about right now, which is how really to address population control, the single true cause of global warning and the increasing effects of catastrophic climate change. I don’t expect Wang to have the answers, but given the issues at hand, she should at least acknowledge that they are still issues commanding attention.

There is a slight amount of attention given to the official end of the One Child Policy implemented in China as of 2015, when the realization that not enough young people are around anymore to care of the elderly prompted them to change the policy to two children. But what about families that attempt three children? Or whose first two children are girls? Is there any reason to believe the Chinese government is any less brutal about it now?

Wang, and her co-director Jialing Zhang, make One Child Nation a very direct and personal take on the policy, and that is understandable, especially given Wang’s unusual position growing up as a child with a younger brother — who was only possible under the policy due to their having lived in a rural area, and her parents were forced to wait five years to get a second child. Such details only seem like leniency on the surface, and Wang gets deep into details that will surely be incredibly difficult for many viewers to endure. She’s so focused she doesn’t seem to pay much attention to, say, when she’s inadvertently recording herself and her camera in mirrors.

The makers of this movie are surely to be commended, and these are things the world should know, even if they are so tough to process it’s impossible to imagine it ever finding a particularly large audience. And even if this film can’t show how best to deal with overpopulation, it certainly offers clear lessons on how not to.

A single family stands in for a billion people under authoritarian control.

A single family stands in for a billion people under authoritarian control.

THE NIGHTINGALE

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

The Nightingale is a tough hang. There’s no getting around it. This is a tale, written and directed by The Babadook writer-director Jennifer Kent, of revenge in the truly brutal environs of mid-nineteenth-century Australia. It’s brutal in every sense of the word, and the deeds being avenged by the central character, Clare (Aisling Fraciosi, fantastic), are uniquely horrible to watch.

This is a pivotal scene the viewer sees coming a mile away. Clare has paid her dues in Australia as an Irish convict, but British Army Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin), literally half a world away from Britain, plays with his power and toys with her and refuses to release her. She has a husband and a baby, and the husband (Michael Sheesby) gets particularly impatient with Hawkins, at his own peril.

I won’t get into detail about what Hawkins and his men ultimately due to Clare’s entire family, except to say, however horrible you might imagine, I don’t know — double it. When these British soldiers barge into Clare’s house, the baby crying loudly, it’s already long been clear that none of these poor souls are going to fare well. And Jennifer Kent stages a lot of the brutality onscreen, which doesn’t feel like sensationalism as much as defiance, a challenge. It’s the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the history of brutality in British colonialism.

Of course, it’s very difficult to watch, and so is plenty of the things Clare later does in her quest for revenge, particularly when she catches up to the first of Hawkins’s men who were in her cabin.

By that point, Hawkins and several men are already well into the Australian bush, with an aboriginal guide. He is seeking secure the promotion to captaincy denied him by a superior officer, and beat him to the town where he can go over his head to get it. Clare, with truly nothing left to lose, hires her own aboriginal tracker, Billy (Baykali Ganambarr, a magnetic screen presence), to catch up with them. She does this despite her own conditioning of distrust of black natives.

And so it goes, The Nightingale becoming a dark, toxic road trip movie, only the road is barely used paths, the vehicle is a single horse, and the travelers are two characters subject to the worst horrors of historical oppression, gradually learning about and empathizing with each other. Truly, if there is any villain in this movie, it is not just Hawkins, but what he and his entire troupe represents: the white man. Of course, putting it that way will surely put off conservative crybabies from seeing this movie — but, let’s be real: they would never go out of their way to see this movie anyway.

And honestly, it’s so brutal in so many parts, plenty more open-minded people would not be blamed for wanting to avoid it either. It could be argued that a movie like this commands attention to illustrate how colonialism built the entire world we live in today, but who wants to hear that argument? The flip side, another argument for giving this unforgettable film its due attention, is that the act, and even the quest, for revenge does not give Clare — or Billy, for that matter — the precise kind of catharsis they’re looking for. Some traumatic experiences leave you fucked no matter what you do about them. Or at least they did in nineteenth-century Australia. There didn’t seem to be a lot of therapists around at the time.

If nothing else, The Nightingale is an unflinching look at the unspeakable horrors that allowed for the creature comforts we enjoy today. Jennifer Kent doesn’t even overtly contextualize it that way; it’s just what it made me think of. This is a pretty straightforward character study in a period setting, with a unique telling that leaves a lasting impression. I won’t soon forget it.

It’s worse than it looks.

It’s worse than it looks.

Overall: B+

MIKE WALLACE IS HERE

Directing: B
Cinematography: B-
Editing: B+

Mike Wallace was a television newsmagazine journalist who died in 2012, when he was just shy of 94 years old. I am now 43, and I barely recognized his name before seeing Avi Belkin’s cleverly edited but relatively shallow documentary, Mike Wallace Is Here. He was a huge part of the long running success of the pioneering TV show 60 Minutes, and this film identifies the show itself being at “the height of its power” in the early eighties — when I was about five.

I’m not sure this film will find much of an audience that is not made up of people who are themselves on their last legs. I mean, sure, I went to see it, and last time I checked, I was doing okay. But I’m a film obsessive, interested in a movie like Mike Wallace Is Here because of cinematic context more than its subject. It’s a movie that gets me interested in someone I know little about, rather than a subject that gets me to go to a movie.

And I went into this film expecting a lot of hand wringing about the degradation of journalistic integrity in America, propping up an old-school journalist meant to be an example of the “greatness that once was.” Instead, Belkin largely contextualizes Mike Wallace as a man so relentless in interviewing style that he ushered in the era of relentlessly sensationalist television news.

Belkin makes a memorable choice as the opening clip for his documentary, with Mike Wallace, very late in his career, interviewing Bill O’Reilly. After presenting O’Reilly with several clips of O’Reilly on his own show shouting at guests like a lunatic, Wallace challenges O’Reilly’s self-perception as a journalist, and says, “You’re an opinion columnist.” O’Reilly counters that anyone who doesn’t like his style and persona can blame Mike Wallace. It turns out that, in this particular instance at least, O’Reilly makes a compelling argument.

In truth, Mike Wallace in hindsight exists in more of a gray area, a bridge between an era of journalism with strict rules of so-called “objectivity” — and, some would argue, merely the illusion of a lack of bias — and the current era plagued with monetizing acts of editorializing. What Belkin wants this film’s viewers to conclude about Mike Wallace is a little unclear, but I was struck by the many clips of pundits lamenting the public’s eroding trust in the press and the media. It’s tempting just to think, people have been saying that shit for decades.

The truth is out there, you just have to learn how to find it and the skill to identify trustworthy sources. It’s the process that changes with each era, and it could be argued that Mike Wallace was part of one major shift in that process. Judging by Mike Wallace Is Here on its own, Wallace could be counter-productively abrasive (one person interviewing him asks why he’s “such a prick”), but had a single-minded obsession with getting to the truth about people. It would seem he had no interest in FOX News-style misinformation and manipulation of his viewers, and that’s not nothing. He was just . . . kind of an asshole.

And therein lies the blind spot of Mike Wallace Is Here, which is undeniably entertaining to watch, but never reaches very deep into Wallace’s psyche. There is a short bit about his struggle with depression, and the revelation that, after denying it in several interviews with other TV journalists, he finally admitted he once committed suicide. But, this film is comprised entirely of archival interviews, both of Wallace interviewing others and of several people interviewing him, edited together to create a broad picture of the man and particularly his work and how it affected the evolution of news media. With no contemporary interviews with anyone to offer any insights about the man without him there in the room with them, it all ends with the feeling that none of it quite got to who he was personally. That’s what I would be more interested in.

In effect, Mike Wallace Is Here is not so much about a man as it is about journalism — or, at least, it wants to be. It struggles to achieve that goal as a 90-minute succession of creatively edited sound bites. This film is not without insight, and it is often illuminating to see how Mike Wallace worked, how he influenced the television news industry, and what kinds of insecurities he had. Having no insights to offer from any present-day perspectives, however, keeps the man at a remove, giving the whole film a broad sense of detachment from this man we’re supposed to be getting to know. At least he commands attention as a screen presence, thus insuring there is never a dull moment.

The one thing Wallace doesn’t get to the bottom of is himself.

The one thing Wallace doesn’t get to the bottom of is himself.

Overall: B

LUCE

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

The actors in Luce traffic in subtleties, small expressions of facial emotion largely open to wide interpretations. This is clearly by design, as its dense script, by J.C. Lee and director Julius Onah based on a play of the same name by J.C. Lee, clearly exists to challenge, in all the best ways.

That’s not to say it’s never frustrating. There were moments when I found myself wondering why the movie was clearly withholding vital information from the viewer as a tactical maneuver, but in ways that did not yet make sense. Even now I have burning questions, as to who did exactly what and when. But that is this movie’s strength, as it is just as ripe for discussion among intellectually curious friends as it is for film academics. Luce is a movie made for people to talk about it, in a way far too few movies are anymore.

Perhaps the most impressive achievement is how Lee and Onah weave both racial and international politics into the story without overtly making those things what Luce is about. The story unfolds much like a mystery, with suspicions and suspect motivations among several characters. It’s easy to imagine viewers taking the side of different characters and getting into heated arguments about it, much as did audience members of the 1994 film Oleana — itself also based on a play, in this case about either real or perceived sexual assault between a professor and a student on a college campus.

The key difference with Luce is its total lack of sensationalism, even though it is also about a conflict between a teacher and a student. Here, the school is a high school, the respective genders are reversed, and they are both black instead of white. Sexual assault, again either real or perceived, does factor into the story here as well, but as a subplot, and not between the teacher and student. Instead, Miss Wilson (Octavia Spencer, fantastic as always) interprets something the title character, Luce (Kelvin Harrison Jr., a young actor to keep a look out for), says to her as a sinister threat. On the surface, upon first hearing it, it sounds perfectly innocent and not like a threat at all. But, as the complex story unfolds, you start to think: or was it?

Miss Wilson pushes back against this perceived threat immediately and clearly, but with restraint. Her uneasiness with Luce is apparent from the moment we meet these characters, Miss Wilson introducing herself to Luce’s parents after he gives a speech at a school assembly. There are uneasy glances exchanged from the very start.

What is difficult to gauge is how much Miss Wilson’s view of Luce is colored by her knowledge that Luce was adopted out of war-torn Eritrea at the age of seven, by white parents (Naomi Watts and Tim Roth) who bring with the a whole other set of issues and, to a certain degree, sociopolitical baggage. It’s fascinating to see all three of these grownups, two of them white and one of them a black woman, navigating their own biases in individual ways.

It all starts with Miss Wilson expressing concern about the paper Luce wrote, in which he adopted the point of view of a historical figure, just as assigned, but choosing an obscure figure who argued justifications for violence. Things kind of snowball from there, with miscommunications and in some cases simply misinterpretation of tone. New information comes to light at key moments, unfolding in ways that only complicate matters more when the hope is for clarity. By the time the movie ended, I merely wondered if I had figured out what had actually been going on all along, because things are of course never what they seem. I’m still not entirely certain.

And that is also what I loved about this movie, which so thematically rich that it stays with you in a peculiar way, offering a unique experience. Luce is intensely compelling, even as it refuses to provide any easy answers. It’s a provocative exploration of the ways life is unavoidably complicated, often unfair in surprising ways, and even the smartest people can be tragic victims of circumstance. And, sometimes, who the victims even are, exactly, is open for debate. This movie would therefore best be seen with someone you can talk about it with.

Everyone wonders where the power dynamic begins and where it ends.

Everyone wonders where the power dynamic begins and where it ends.

Overall: A-

HONEYLAND

Directing: A
Writing: A
Cinematography: A
Editing: A+

Honeyland is a triumph of editing, of cinematography, of will, of perseverance, of humanity.

It’s a genuine shock that this is a documentary film, so gorgeous are the visuals, so well crafted is the narrative. Indeed, it feels more like watching a narrative film than perhaps any other documentary I have ever seen. Admittedly part of it is its foreign conception, giving it the same feel as many films spoken in a foreign language with local, and therefore completely unfamiliar — yet utterly believable — actors. If I had been told this was a regular movie shot in rural Macedonia outside its capital city of Skopje, I would never have doubted it.

Because co-directors Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov take an utterly cinematic approach to their subjects, particularly the central figure of middle-aged Hatidze, often framing her in stunning panoramic shots as she strolls the Macedonian countryside and hillsides, harvesting honey from strategically placed bee colonies. Occasionally she features in drone shots from above, as in the memorable opening shot of her casually walking around a high cliff, along a trail barely wider than she is.

There are no interviews here, which creates the sense of it being a movie rather than the documentary Honeyland really is. There is plenty of dialogue (in Turkish), a fair amount of it not even subtitled, but no talking heads. No analysis, no conjecture, just what is onscreen speaking for itself. And God knows how much total footage must have been shot, the filmmakers granted stunningly intimate access to Hatidze, her ailing mother, and her heartbreakingly misguided neighbors over the course of three years. It’s all cut down to the 87 minutes that became “the most awarded film out of the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.”

It deserves every award and then some. I certainly deserves far more audiences than it will ever get. This is a very small, intimate story with global implications, about the delicate balance between nature and humanity. If this were a conventionally produced motion picture, it would be a parable. But this is real life, illustrating very real consequences as a direct result of ignorance and impatience.

Hatidze, doing nothing more than live a simple life doing simple work and selling her high-quality, raw honey in the city, is the hero of this story. She makes no particular effort to be; she is gentle and kind and generous by nature, and extends those qualities to the poor nomadic family that parks their camper trailer and their 150 cows near her. When the head of this family, Hussein, decides he wants to get into the honey game himself, Hatidze is happy to offer him sensible advice, most notably the sustainable practice of “take half, leave half.”

It would be a mistake to call Hussein a villain, exactly, but his family’s presence certainly poses a threat to Hatidze’s livelihood, and therefore her very life. Tensions brew as Hussein, a very poor father of several children, over-harvests honey from bees that also attack Haditze’s colonies, thereby posing a threat to all of them. The longevity of her amicable relationship with everyone in Hussein’s family comes into question.

Honeyland is presented with a clear vision, of both the broader geopolitical context of these people’s lives, and the details of how they live them. The filmmakers simply observe, without comment or judgment. The little things are the most fascinating, such as the degree to which all these children get used to frequent bee stings, or the frequency with which these people eat dripping honeycomb with their bare hands, in a village with no electricity or things as simple as napkins.

Hatidze does indulge in one pointedly modern invention, dying her hair from a boxed kit purchased the market in Skopje, using her bare hands scraping the mix from a ceramic bowl and using a carefully propped small mirror next to her bedridden, elderly mother. They speak briefly about how Hatidze never married, and how different things could have been for her had she produced any children. This woman is an inspiration, with a remarkably sunny disposition considering her lot in life, with a sort of innate love for it. Rest assured her story here ends with at least a small note of hope, even if it is far more comforting to her personal fate than to her story’s wider implications for the planet.

There are many lessons to be learned from old-world experience, fast disappearing.

There are many lessons to be learned from old-world experience, fast disappearing.

Overall: A

READY OR NOT

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

An unsuspecting bride discovers on her wedding night that her husband’s family initiates her by playing a deadly came of . . . hide and seek. Sounds unbearably corny, right?

Don’t judge a movie by its dumb concept, man! Or its hokey title, for that matter. True, usually a movie like this is quite predictably a waste of time. But Ready or Not has a sly undercurrent of self-awareness, never takes itself too seriously, and while it might be a stretch to call it “clever,” it is consistently funny, largely thanks to its great ensemble cast of mostly unknown actors. The most recognizable player is Andie MacDowell as the groom’s mother, and she immediately proves delightful.

All of these judgments are largely subjective, of course, and this movie absolutely won’t be or everyone. Some viewers will still dismiss it as stupid; others will be unable to stomach its gruesome humor. It’s hardly a surprise the reviews are somewhat mixed, albeit leaning toward favorable. As far as I’m concerned, co-directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett have created a work of such specifically dark humor, fundamentally, this movie is my jam. But I find a lot of seriously twisted shit funny.

Ready or Not is unique in its consistency of quality. The script, by Guy Busick and Ryan Murphy (not the TV producer), relies a bit too much on exposition at times, but most people open to a movie like this to begin with isn’t going to care much. Suffice it to say that if you have a bent sense of humor, this movie is a guaranteed good time. I laughed a lot.

And the plotting is impressive, considering it’s about a rich family attempting to kill a woman just married into it, as part of a traditional ritual involving a common child’s game. It’s 95 minutes of not knowing what’s coming next, a surprisingly unpredictable maze of menace, tension and hilariously lethal accidents. The variable tone never stretches too far; one minute I was looking at the screen through my fingers, and the next I was cracking up. Either way it’s a blast.

There is an element of satire regarding the filthy rich, which this movie could have benefited from leaning into a bit more, or perhaps the notion of the bride, Grace (Samara Weaving), becoming the type of person she’s running from. It’s somewhat ironic how this movie “keeps it light,” given how much bloodshed there is in it. I guess the work of considering how fucked up it is to delight in the demented is left to ponder once the movie is over. You might be a bit distracted by how over the top it gets at the very end.\

Ready or Not is not designed to be anything but fun — and the knowledge that some people might be horrified or disgusted by its playfulness with things like Satanic ritual is a big part of the appeal. I kept thinking about how much more fun this movie would be going into it blind, not having any idea what it’s about. It begins with what seems like a lovely wedding at a stately mansion. I’d love to find friends to introduce to this movie in such a way. Who doesn’t love being blindsided by the delightfully deranged?

You won’t believe what’s coming.

You won’t believe what’s coming.

Overall: B+