PICK OF THE LITTER

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

Well, this one’s a no-brainer. Do you like dogs? Do you love puppies? Then you’ll thoroughly enjoy Pick of the Litter, the super-sweet, illuminating and moving documentary that follows five dogs in a single litter of five who have been bred specifically to be Guide Dogs for the Blind.

We are told that out of 800 dogs going through GDB’s training program each year, only about 300 graduate to become full-time guide dogs. So, we’re set up from the beginning not to expect all five of the dogs from this one litter to make the cut. But, like many documentaries set up with a framework of competition, we find ourselves rooting for all of these very sweet puppies — many of which just don’t develop the right temperament, or meet all the expectations and needs of a dog a person’s very life can depend on. Some of them have setbacks and then just need a bit of extra care and training.

A few turn out so great that they become breeders. That concept makes total sense in this context, although it did bring subtle shades of The Handmaid’s Tale to mind. These are literal animals, though, and this is a movie designed to be heartwarming, very successfully so.

And the “competition” here isn’t of a typical kind — it’s really more like dogs competing with themselves. They’re not trying to be better than other dogs; they are being trained to be good matches for specific people. The camera crew also follows around a couple of people waiting to be matched with a dog — one a young-ish blind man and another a slightly older blind woman.

One wonders how much footage wound up on the cutting room floor, camera crews following people around who did not wind up matched with any of this specific litter. Maybe they “guided” the narrative just for this specific case. Either way, paring it down to a brisk 81 minutes left it with an impressively engaging story, as each of these five puppies find their way between GDB handlers to volunteers who spend time training and socializing the dogs and back to the official guide dog training at GDB facilities again.

It’s easy to misplace where and how the heartstrings are being pulled. Pick of the Litter does not go out of its way to dwell on the dogs themselves being attached to any of their handlers, many of whom naturally get very attached on their own parts. Some of them are on their 10th puppy; some, such as a sweet boy in high school, are on their first. GDB can re-assign dogs to different volunteers at will and with no warning, which occasionally upsets a volunteer. This film shows how effective this can be, though: a dog with one handler who seems to be doing everything right but the dog still doesn’t quite behave, thrives with a new person.

This is really about the people, though — specifically, the visually impaired people whose lives are changed by the dogs. Audiences cheer when the cream of the crop graduates to become official guide dogs; they’re wiping away tears when the blind people they are placed with get introduced. I would have been interested to see a bit more about the incredible sophistication of how these dogs are trained — to stop with a particular buffer between them and oncoming cars; to disobey clear commands if they can see the command will put them and their walkers in danger.

Overall, Pick of the Litter is a true crowd pleaser, the rare documentary that doubles as a genuine feel-good movie. You’ll leave the theatre completely charmed, with a giant smile on your face.

  Making one person’s entire world a better and bigger place.

Making one person’s entire world a better and bigger place.

Overall: B+

SEARCHING

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

I suppose it’s an exaggeration to say this movie blows. It’s telling, however, that although I was kind of into it as the story unfolded, once it was over, the more I thought about it, the less I liked it. So perhaps this is the best advice: if you want to enjoy this movie, go ahead and watch it, and then immediately move on to some other thing that makes you forget all about it. Because Searching seriously fails at standing up to any kind of scrutiny.

This movie is, however, dumb. That is not an exaggeration. I never actively set out to solve whatever mystery might be at hand; even in otherwise relatively predictable stories, I am happy just to go along for the ride and be surprised, even if no one else isn’t. And if even I saw the “twist” coming a mile away, that tells you a lot about Searching. As in, it’s predictable enough to insult your intelligence.

And this is no poor reflection on John Cho, for the record. He’s the best thing in this movie, the reason you want to keep watching, anguish etched across his face as his David Kim searches for his missing daughter, Margot (Michelle La). And kudos to this movie, if nothing else, for making it to #4 in box office its first weekend of wide release, thus making two movies with Asian American leads in the American top 5 (along with Crazy Rich Asians at #1), surely a first. Michelle La also makes a strong debut as Margot, very believably cast as a teenager still grieving the loss of her mother to cancer.

But these two people cannot overcome Searching’s insurmountable problems. Debra Messing as an investigator, frankly, comes across as Grace Adler pretending to be an investigator. It’s unfortunate that Messing cannot break free of her iconic role from Will & Grace, but it’s still the reality. Searching would have worked better with another actor in the part.

Not that her part, or any part, is particularly well written. Because I haven’t even gotten to the gimmick in Searching, and it’s a doozy of a gimmick, one the movie leans into hard: the entire movie is shown as computer screens or mobile device screens, all the live action seen as FaceTime video feeds or home movie clips being shown on a desktop, usually without the window being maximized, so we see bits of other open programs behind it, or even parts of the desktop image. Even when Morgot’s case gets into local news segments, these clips are shown as video being watched online by David, the point of view always being the screen he’s looking at, any sight of his face only the front-facing camera showing his reverse feed when he speaks to people.

It’s not exactly subtle, by the way, that every single computing device being used is an Apple product. And while I remain an Apple loyalist and will sing its praises as a superior brand over Windows, the idea that no screen ever freezes at any time, and page downloads or file uploads always finish instantaneously, is preposterous. Okay, I get it that it’s a movie and it has to be edited this way to give the story propulsion, but it’s still an idea ripe for parody. Lots of things happen on these screens that never actually occur in the real world, such as that reverse camera activating to show David sleeping in bed while his daughter attempts to call him in the middle of the night. Hello, the camera doesn’t come on until you answer the FaceTime call! (In the Windows Version of Searching, all the video calls are done on Skype.)

It’s not always video feeds, incidentally. We get plenty of other action on these screens, showing email drafts and iMessage texts and browsing of files and so on. On the surface, it’s kind of a neat trick, this high concept that distracts the viewer from how dumb the story actually is. I suspect few of the many people who are into this movie (it’s getting a pretty positive consensus in its critical response) are thinking of how very much a snapshot of its time it is — maybe even slightly more behind the times than people realize. This is not a movie that will hold up well very far into the future. It’s going to look very dated very quickly. Like, next year. Maybe next week.

This “computer screens” framing device (literally!) also requires some pretty contrived scenarios for the presentation of key scenes. When David feels the need to confront his suddenly suspicious brother Peter (Joseph Lee), he sets up several devices around his living room and kitchen in an attempt to record “proof” of his guilt. This allows for a pivotal scene to unfold from multiple angles. It’s easy to call this clever. As a viewer, I call it distracting. Realistically, an anguished father like David would never be that successfully savvy. Peter even opens a kitchen cupboard right where one of the cameras is and never notices it.

I’ll give Searching this much credit: considering the conceit, and its presentation unlike that of any other conventional mainstream movie, I found myself pretty easily sucked into the store, in spite of all its predictable stupidity. I won’t deny that it held my attention. Does that mean the movie is good? Okay — it’s entertaining. What bugs me about it, though, is that it seems to have duped a great number of people into thinking it’s “smart.” I would fervently beg to differ on that point.

  John Cho is  searching  for something in this movie to take seriously.

John Cho is searching for something in this movie to take seriously.

Overall: C+

WE THE ANIMALS

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

It makes me sad knowing how few people will see We the Animals -- and how many fewer still will see it in a movie theatre. This is a rare thing, where it's not a big blockbuster or a huge Oscar-baiting prestige picture, but an independent release that still begs viewing on the big screen.

I try to imagine someone getting absorbed into this movie on a small screen, in someone's home, where a litany of distractions will pull the viewer out of its impeccably constructed world. First and foremost I must mention cinematographer Zak Mulligan, making unusually justified use of handheld cameras, and co-editors Keiko Deguchi and Brian A. Kates, together constructing a story that doesn't quite gel into a unified whole until a singular, heartbreaking moment near the end. But, I guess director and co-writer Jeremiah Zagar (adapting from the novel by Justin Torres) is still the boss of them all. This is his movie, and it is a singular vision.

I must admit, We the Animals hits unusually close to home for me. My upbringing was really nothing like this, but I did have an accidental revelation of my sexuality far sooner than I was ready for, very similar in nature to what happens to the youngest of the three brothers who are the focus of this story. I only wish I could have had a fraction of the defiance this kid ultimately has in the face of it.

Then again, this is fiction -- and increasingly stylized as the story unfolds. This is not a straightforward depiction of reality. This is art. And it is by turns charming, sad, and beautiful. Sometimes shocking. I did find myself wondering what could possibly become of ten-year-old Jonah (Evan Rosado), given his choices in the end. It left me feeling unsure of how to feel about his potential fate.

The same could be said of his brothers, all very close in age, although Manny is the youngest: there's also Joel (Josiah Gabriel) and Manny (Isaiah Kristian). They are such a tight-nit group of brothers that, to be honest, it's quite a ways into the movie before any particularly distinguishing characteristics come to light. They even all look alike, with identical haircuts. I'm not sure Joel and Jonah ever quite become more than interchangeable.

It seems for a very long time as though this is their story, a long succession of visual vignettes of their childhood, growing up poor with two parents who both work nights, a white woman (Sheila Vand) and a Puerto Rican man (Raúl Castillo). Nearly every scene is inside their home, or in the surrounding woods and streets. There's never even any indication that these kids go to school. When marital disturbance results in Dad leaving for some time, Mom descends into a depression for days, and the kids are left to fend for themselves.

Jonah has a sketch book he keeps hidden under the bed he shares with his brothers. He gets up every night after they have fallen asleep, and creates wonderful scribbled humanoid and insect-like images, which are consistently animated with an affecting melancholy throughout We the Animals. There's more than initially indicated inside this sketch book, something which draws a line in more ways than one. It is the catalyst for Jonah's relationship with everyone in his family being forever changed.

A whole lot of We the Animals unfolds in a semi-dreamlike state, fractured snippets of scenes like those recalled in inevitably fractured memories. The way it all gets tied together is its greatest achievement. It seems, for a long while, to be simply a portrait of a brief period of time in three people's childhoods. But there is a clear story arc through it all, no frame of it wasted on the way there, just waiting to be revealed.

That is why it works best in a movie theatre, an environment designed to get lost in the world being constructed and presented. It's a unique experience that can't be replicated anywhere else.

  Subtle implications of fatherhood role modeling come and go in  We the Animals.

Subtle implications of fatherhood role modeling come and go in We the Animals.

Overall: A-

THE WIFE

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

The Wife is a decent movie with very good performances -- and a bit of a trap it set for itself, telling the story of "great writers" without featuring any particularly great writing itself. The screenplay, by Jane Anderson based on the novel by Meg Wolitzer, is hardly bad. But neither is it winning any awards.

Having seen this film, I feel a little bad for Glenn Close, who is far and away the best thing in it. If you see this for any reason, it will be her. I wonder how much hope she's allowing herself amidst mounting Oscar talk for this role? Surely even the most restrained of legendary actors let their egos get the better of them. Why wouldn't they? In this instance, though, it's a little unfair. The rest of the Best Actress race would have to be dismal indeed for her to have any chance of winning an Academy Award for this movie, which means I would lay down money right now to bet Glenn Close is not getting that Oscar. Not this year. A nomination, maybe.

Her 2012 role in Albert Nobbs comes to mind: a great performance in a movie that is otherwise . . . fine. That role had Oscar talk swirling around it as well, and The Wife is set for a similar trek through awards season. The two movies even have similar points of view, looking back at the consequences of how gender was defined in the past.

The Wife is decidedly more modern a story: Joan Castleman (Close) indeed gets a great line when asked what her profession is -- by Swedish royalty, no less -- and she replies, "I am a kingmaker." Director Björn Runge takes an unusually critical look at the idea behind the old saying "behind every great man there is a great woman," as Joan spends her entire adult life supporting the masterful literary career of her husband, Joe Castleman (Jonathan Pryce). With the exception of a few flashbacks, the majority of the story takes place in Stockholm, where Joe is joined by his wife and their son David (Max Irons) for the ceremony in which he receives the Nobel Prize in Literature.

There's a moment in one of those flashbacks, something one might be justified in identifying as a fatal flaw in this film. Young Joan has just started being honest in her harsh critique of the first draft of Joe's first novel, and she actually says, "The dialogue is a little stilted." There follows a scene of histrionics during which young Joe actually bellows, "Life is so fucking unfair!"

It would be nice if, in a story about someone capable of beautiful writing, we could actually experience some beautiful writing. The only thing here that I would call "beautiful" is the refined nuance of Glenn Close's performance, which includes several extended shots of increasing yet always subtle anguish on her face. But the word would never be used for the writing, satisfyingly unexpected turns of the plot notwithstanding. If nothing else, the story being told turns out not to be quite what it seems at the start, and it is indeed more compelling than this movie's marketing would suggest.

And, again: Glenn Close elevates The Wife a great deal. As does Jonathan Pryce as the often obliviously pompous literary star with a wandering eye. There's something pretty pathetic about an old man transparently enamored with a woman perhaps a third his age, and he plays it well. When it comes to the rest of the supporting cast, however, it kind of feels like a bit more rehearsal may have been helpful. Christian Slater as the would-be biographer eager to get the scoop on what seems suspicious about Joan and Joe's relationship is maybe an exception, but he isn't given much to do besides serve as exposition or plot device.

It would be fair to say that The Wife fills the role of "counter programming" at the late-summer movie theatre sufficiently well. God knows, you could do worse for an evening out at the movies, and it's a decent choice for more mature audiences (both emotionally and literally). It's just not the great movie that Glenn Close still deserves to shine in. All credit to her for shining in whatever movie she's in regardless.

  Glenn Close, but no cigar.

Glenn Close, but no cigar.

Overall: B

THE LITTLE STRANGER

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

The genre of The Little Stranger is perhaps up for debate. iMDB.com lists several genres for it: "Drama | Horror | Mystery | Thriller." I would agree with three of those, in that order. I wouldn't call it particularly thrilling.

And I knew nothing of this movie until mere hours before seeing it. I felt like going to see a movie, and did something I very, very rarely do: just looked up what was playing at the theatre I wanted to go to, and made a choice. Okay, I did look it up on the critical aggregate websites, and was satisfied to see it getting generally good reviews. I do rather like Domhnall Gleeson. I don't generally go for horror, but what few things I found online seemed to stress this movie opts more for a mood of impending dread than jump scares. I can go for that.

I did not realize until she showed up in the movie that it also stars Charlotte Rampling, as the mother living in the post-World War I British mansion in which most of it is set. Here is a woman with a bit of dipshittery in interview comments in recent years -- but a great actor. She has a knack for conveying warmth that has a tinge of something sinister just beneath the surface.

Her grown children, Caroline and Roderick (Ruth Wilson and Will Poulter), live with her, along with only one young maid (Liv Hill), in a giant house long since past its prime and now falling into disrepair. Gleeson is Faraday, the son of a former maid in the same house, now a local doctor who comes to meet the Ayres family when called upon to treat Betty the house maid.

The story is told entirely through the eyes of Faraday, who has a vivid memory of once getting inside the house as a child, and how it basically became a mythological place in his mind. As he gets to know the Ayers family, they seem in turn to be going mad. It's well into the film, maybe more than halfway, before it even becomes clear the family lost a young child many years ago, and after a terrible incident with another visiting little girl and the family dog, they become increasingly convinced the deceased daughter is haunting the house.

There is a curious way this story, directed by Lenny Abrahamson (Room) and written by Lucinda Coxon (The Danish Girl) based on a novel of the same name by Sarah Waters, moves from what seems a straightforward drama tinged with mystery to something closer to mystery-horror. It's fairly gradual. No sudden plot turns. As Faraday holds onto his skepticism, however, we the viewer come to know that certainly something mysteriously horrible is going on, especially in a pivotal scene when the older Mrs. Ayers appears to be attacked by unknown forces in a empty upstairs bedroom. Things get subtly weird.

--Too subtle, arguably. I can get into slow-moving stories when a palpable sense of mood and atmosphere is conjured. The Little Stranger offers some real tension and a certain dread, but none of it as palpable as it could be. Then it ends with a shot ambiguous to the point of being baffling. I basically left the theater thinking, What's that supposed to mean? It seems I was supposed to. Ambiguity can be satisfying, but it isn't particularly here. At least the story still kept me interested the entire time.

  Wait, what?

Wait, what?

Overall: B

THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS

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

If anyone or anything is getting murdered here, it's the movie The Happytime Murders itself -- 23% "Rotten" score on Rotten Tomatoes; score of 27 on MetaCritic; one movie critic whose opinion and point of view I have long respected has repeatedly called it "painfully unfunny." By virtually all accounts, this movie is one giant pile of shit.

In other words, I did this movie a huge favor but coming in with "giant pile of shit" as the bar by which to judge it. So instead of leaving it thinking, Well, that was disappointing, I left it thinking, That wasn't a giant pile of shit at all!

Because The Happytime Murders has its moments. To be clear, it doesn't have a lot of them -- but they're there. At least two or three times, I laughed pretty hard. Granted, for every such moment, there were ten moments clearly designed to be funny that fell completely flat.

Let's call this movie one hell of a missed opportunity. It could have been great. The trouble is, with movies that wear their irreverence on their sleeve, where the basic gimmick is little more than their penchant for raunchiness, rarely does it come out very well in the end. Maybe it's because too many people with such base senses of humor actually have an eye of genuine quality. You really can find high-quality raunchy humor, but that's still not a Venn diagram that has much of an overlap.

Why doesn't someone just adapt the semi-notorious Off Broadway play Avenue Q into a movie? That would have been a far better idea. Granted, if you're really honest, even Avenue Q is slightly overrated. Instead, we get Jim Henson's son Brian Henson, using his name in a way that is itself a flat-falling punch line: I can turn my dad's beloved wholesome ideas of puppet character into something pointlessly crass! It'll be hilarious!

I mean -- it could have been hilarious, had he worked with writers who could actually come up with a barrage of good jokes. This movie has only a few good jokes, and of course half of them are used up in the trailer -- including the idea that an orgasming muppet ejaculates silly string. That's pretty funny.

The premise, all things considered, is fine -- except for one pesky little detail. Phil Philips (voiced commendably by Bill Barretta) is a puppet ex-cop now working as a private investigator, tasked with solving the mystery of the cast of a nineties sitcom starring puppets called The Happytime Gang. He and his ex-partner Detective Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy, who I love, but frankly, she's usually better than what she has to offer here) reluctantly rejoin forces to work the case, and in so doing work through the resentments of a backstory I won't spoil here, even though it doesn't matter because you don't need to see this.

Oh, and that pesky little detail? In this world, focused here on Los Angeles, puppets are effectively second-class citizens, looked down upon by all humans. Given what's going on in the world right now, and The Happytime Murders's refusal to mine this idea for anything even close to insightful, this isn't just truly terrible timing (never a great sign in comedy). It trivializes real-world issues to the point of being insulting.

But, okay. There's a couple of memorable (or eye-searing, depending on your point of view) sight gags. The people making this movie clearly had a blast, and somehow that does make a little difference. Maya Rudolph shows up as Phil Philips's secretary, and here is a woman who can sharpen the flattest of humor around here no matter where she's at. It remains on some level a kick to see her in any of her scenes. Elizabeth Banks gets a supporting role too, but, like so much of this movie, is generally wasted on pointlessness at worst and mediocrity at best.

So, I wouldn't go so far as to call The Happytime Murders "painfully unfunny." I've seen plenty such movies, and didn't quite get that from this. It is, however . . . just not very funny. And for this to work, it really should have been very funny. It could have been, but Brian Henson & co. were much more concerned with achieving relatively impressive puppetry with both practical skill and green screen than with infusing their script with consistent wit. In other words, just because this movie isn't nearly as terrible as many would have you believe still doesn't mean you have any reason to see it.

  We could have been great. We could have been ... something.

We could have been great. We could have been ... something.

Overall: C+

OPERATION FINALE

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

I bet a written account of Israel's capture and trial of the last remaining Nazi leader in hiding, Adolf Eichmann, would potentially be more compelling than even the best filmmakers could manage to make it. The story of several people in a safe house for ten days with a Nazi war criminal captive isn't the most cinematic on its face.

And here is the curious thing about Operation Finale, the movie that tells this true story, starring Ben Kingsley as Eichmann and Oscar Isaac, the guy who was most instrumental in extracting him. There actually have been books accounting this story. One, published in 1997, was even called Operation Eichmann. But, Operation Finale, the film, gives no credit to any author whose book the film's screenplay is based on. It just gives credit to Matthew Orton for its original screenplay.

And as presented here, the story is compelling enough; I found myself engaged from beginning to end -- but, not to any particularly notable degree. The story as presented here is not long on intrigue. And with an incredible story like this, you would think it would be. Plenty of superior movies about the Holocaust are brimming with tension, which Operation Finale decidedly lacks.

It has solid performances, at least. Ben Kingsley never disappoints, and you never quite know whether his Eichmann is telling Peter Malkin (Isaac) the truth. It's fairly easy to suspect not, but director Chris Weitz never draws a clear line. After Malkin and several other Israeli operatives locate Eichmann in Buenos Aires and capture him, there are many scenes with Malkin and Eichmann alone in the room where Eichmann is being kept. There is great potential for head games, but instead it's little more than mutual appeals for compromise as Eichmann must be convinced to sign a document stating he will come to Israel willingly.

There are many complications with his extraction, you see, and that much you might expect. It gets slightly tedious regarding available resources in the Israeli government, as well as Argentinian government complicity. None of it is given particularly sharp focus.

I did find myself wondering about the extent of artistic license. Were there really this many narrow escapes -- from the local authorities as they finally leave the safe house; even as they fly out of the airport in the end? Just because most of the movie is not that cinematic doesn't mean it escapes the trappings of movie clichés.

Mind you, I have nothing against a movie that is heavy on dialogue and light on action -- if the dialogue is written well enough, it can be just as gripping as any action thriller. Operation Finale exists in a curious sort of happy medium, never boring but also never really exciting. Given the real-world weight of the story, certainly it could have been more exciting.

And that's the harshest criticism I can give this movie: it's fine. It's not a waste of time. Neither is it essential viewing. You'll be into it if you have an abiding interest in stories where justice is served in the end with Nazis. Or, you might just like knowing that such a thing happened, with last of the major organizers of the Holocaust (or the so-called "Final Solution," hence the title), fifteen years after the fact. A fine but ultimately forgettable movie isn't going to be any assistance in the longevity of historical memory.

  Drinking with the enemy: Ben Kingsley's Adolf Eichmann tries to reason with his captor (Oscar Isaac).

Drinking with the enemy: Ben Kingsley's Adolf Eichmann tries to reason with his captor (Oscar Isaac).

Overall: B

PUZZLE

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

You know what? I would have liked Puzzle a lot more if it didn't insist on turning the relationship between the two co-leads into a romance. Why couldn't Agnes (Kelley Macdonald) become an independent woman in the process of partnering with Robert (Irrfan Khan) in competitive puzzling without the two of them winding up in bed together?

--Oh, right. Spoiler alert! I guess I was supposed to say that before revealing that they sleep together. Rest assured that it hardly matters to the broad point of the story. And that's kind of the problem, really -- this turn of events is not integral to the plot. It's the one thing that feels a bit shoehorned in, as though some studio executive had told the script writers, "This needs a love story!"

And the thing is, it basically already has one: Agnes is a decidedly old-school, Catholic church-going housewife, whose husband Louie (David Denman) is a good guy but basically takes her for granted. She's got two loving teenage sons (Austin Abrams and Bubba Weiler) and a busy but increasingly unfulfilling domestic life.

At Agnes's birthday party where she's doing all the work as hostess, one of the gifts she's given is a jigsaw puzzle. As director Marc Turtletaub introduces us to Agnes's family at this party, Puzzle eases gently into her increasingly acute interest in puzzles. As she and Louie discuss their concerns about their sons, she's in bed reading a pamphlet on puzzling strategy. Who even knew there was such a thing?

Interested in more, similar puzzles, Agnes finds out from the gift giver where it was purchased, and she takes the train into New York City -- and at the puzzle store in Manhattan, she finds a flyer for someone "desperate" for a puzzling partner eager to get into a national competition. This is how she meets Robert, an independently wealthy divorcée riding on a patent and now with a lot of time on his hands. He's delighted to witness how quickly Agnes can put puzzles together.

Puzzle would have been a better film had the story left it at that: a middle-aged woman discovering a passion that serves as a route to independence and assertiveness. Even how this affects her relationship with her husband could have been just as effectively examined without it involving this other guy falling in love with her. That aspect of the story makes Puzzle way too much like way too many other movies.

At least no other movies are about competitive puzzling. This movie could have used more about how such competitions go down, rather than focusing on romantic confusion and sexual misguidedness.

Such as it is, though, Puzzle remains a pleasantly understated story with a dash of subtle feminism. Most importantly, the cast is as lovely as they can be, and Kelley Macdonald and Irrfan Khan make a pair with surprising chemistry. Even if the story arc itself fundamentally lacks innovation, it's nice just hanging out with them for a couple of hours.

  Kelley Macdonald and Irrfan Khan pretend to think outside the box even though they don't really.

Kelley Macdonald and Irrfan Khan pretend to think outside the box even though they don't really.

Overall: B

CRAZY RICH ASIANS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Overall: B

THE MISEDUCATION OF CAMERON POST

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  Headed for a different brand of education.

Headed for a different brand of education.

Overall: B+