BOY, ERASED

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

Why does it happen so often that two movies about basically the same thing get released within a year of each other? I guess Hollywood really is so barren of original ideas that on the rare occasion that one happens, someone else within earshot has to try snatching it. Who knows which person, or studio, had the idea first? All we know is which one got an earlier release date.

And our fun topic in 2018 is . . . gay conversion therapy for minors! What a blast that sounds like! First one out of the gate this time was The Miseducation of Cameron Post, which is also an objectively better film than Boy, Erased. There’s some irony there, because that other film, released in August, was based on an Emily M. Danforth novel of the same name, published in 2012. Boy, Erased is based on a Garrard Conley memoir of the same name, published in 2016.

So Boy, Erased is the true story — or based on one, anyway: it’s also a little overwrought. Clearly some artistic license was taken by director Joel Edgerton, who also adapted the screenplay, and to be blunt, maybe should have ceded at least one of those jobs to someone else. Unlike many adaptations, the characters’ names are changed here. The main character, Garrard, gets the more simplified name of Jared.

Anyway, this is a movie with as much melodrama as star power: Jared is played by the very talented Lucas Hedges (Manchester by the Sea, Lady Bird), his conservative preacher-and-wife parents by Russell Crowe and Nicole Kidman. Kidman, in an honestly kind of ridiculous looking wig, figures far more prominently in the story, but Crowe’s part is no less important.

And I certainly don’t mean to trivialize anything about gay “conversion therapy,” which is a very real problem. The end of this film notes that it has affected “more than 700,000 Americans” — I saw that, and it hit me: I am part of that number. I never dealt with anything as severe as Jared (or, presumably, Garrard), but I did undergo a form of it as a teenager. The experience makes me uniquely qualified to become furious at the very continued existence of these so-called “programs.”

A movie is still a movie though; Boy, Erased is not a documentary, after all — and it could be argued it would have been more effective as one. Then again, it would not be as watched. Not that I expect Boy, Erased to be some hit at the box office. One thing The Miseducation of Cameron Post understood far more than Boy Erased was the value of levity: even people in oppressive circumstances are capable of moments of joy and humor. There is one such moment in Boy, Erased, but it’s so isolated that I laughed perhaps more than it deserved, just because it was a relief.

I have no idea how close Boy, Erased is to the truth because I never read the memoir. For all I know, the insane things Jared witnesses and experiences all really happened. They all run together in this film with just enough contrivance, however, to keep it from quite ringing true. There is an odd detachment to the proceedings, as though Joel Edgerton is more concerned with manipulating emotions than with being authentic.

Much of Jared’s story prior to the conversion therapy program is shown in flashback. His first sexual encounter is traumatic and horrible, and I have mixed feelings about how it is presented here, largely as a plot point. It deserves more nuanced examination than it gets, which is an observation easily spread across this film as a whole. This is what happens when greater importance is placed on sending a message than on telling a story. And the thing is, it was only months ago that a very similar movie came out which had far greater success at maintaining that balance.

There’s no denying that these issues are important, and command attention. As affecting as the lead performances in Boy, Erased genuinely are, they get largely neutralized by distractions, like the casting of young gay musician Troye Sivan in a supporting part, who proves to be a mediocre actor; he’s a far better singer. The unfortunate thing about Boy, Erased is that it’s an okay movie that should have been far better. At least we already got another movie this year that filled that role.

  Nicole Kidman needs a gay son to give her some hair styling tips.

Nicole Kidman needs a gay son to give her some hair styling tips.

Overall: B-

CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME?

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

It’s difficult even to pretend to be objective when it comes to the film Will You Ever Forgive Me? It’s very meaningful to me personally, as a gay man, observing the drastic change in attitudes over the course of my own life.

The irony — and it’s one of many when it comes to this movie — is that this movie places no particularly great focus on the sexuality of its characters. But the incidental nature of Lee Israel (a stellar Melissa McCarthy) being a lesbian and of Jack Hock (an excellent Richard E. Grant) being a gay man is precisely the point. Years ago, I said many times this was exactly what I wanted: a movie whose main characters just happened to be gay, but that had nothing particularly to do with the story being told.

And here I am putting arguably undue emphasis on it. Well, I can promise you this: the more movies like this get made, the less compelled I will be to call attention to it. But right now, particularly in the current cultural climate, it’s heartening. It feels like progress.

Of course, there is the easy counter to such statements: that these parts should be played by actors who are themselves gay. And there are certainly compelling arguments for that. But I would argue, that does not take away from the performances here, both the leads of which are worthy of Academy Award nominations. It doesn’t hurt to see Jane Curtain appear in a smaller supporting role either, as Israel’s publisher. She’s barely recognizable, but also great.

In fact, Can You Ever Forgive Me? is the kind of movie whose greatness increasingly reveals itself the more you contemplate the execution of its nuances of detail. Every single minute, every frame of this movie has an air of authenticity to it, the feeling like these are people and places that exist in the real world, the world we actually live in. That is a rare feat for any motion picture.

The story itself is certainly unique. Lee Isreal, a by now a largely forgotten writer once on the best-seller list with biographies, is far behind on her bills until she turns things around by forging personal letters by famous writers. Book stores and collectors paid hundreds, sometimes thousands for such letters. And this actually happened. It occurred to me to wonder: how much might an original Lee Israel forged-letter go for today? I would consider paying for one myself. And what delicious irony is that!

Israel managed to make money off those letters herself, even after making money off of them illegitimately: she wrote a memoir about the experience, with the same title as this film, which is based on it. She passed away at the age of 75 in 2014, and this is how her legacy lives on.

Melissa McCarthy more than does her justice. McCarthy tends to be great in everything she’s in, even the many rather bad movies she’s done, and Can You Ever Forgive Me? is plainly the best of her films, and the best performance she has ever given. Never before has she ever so completely disappeared into a character.

She easily holds her own opposite Richard E. Grant, with whom McCarthy has a great, if somewhat surprising, chemistry. Even their friendship rings true onscreen, a rare reflection of the highs and lows of true, yet flawed, close friendship. There comes a moment of tragic betrayal, but it still doesn’t nullify what was seen before — the kind of things that made me think, That is a good friend.

The depiction of Israel’s relationships all around — with her friend, with her ex-partner, a woman she dates, even her publisher and the book store owners she sells to — gives her a meticulous sense of dimension. This is not much of a surprise coming from director Marielle Heller, who previously directed the excellent Diary of a Teenage Girl (2015). This is a woman with a deep understanding not just of entertainment, but of effective storytelling. She’s given us films that stay with you well after you leave the theatre, for very specific, unique reasons.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? presents its audience with characters who range from abrasive to literally criminal, yet are unavoidably compelling, even fun. It shows them doing terrible things and refuses to pass judgment — it leaves that up to the viewer. The script has wit to match that of Lee Israel herself, and is given depth by on-location shoots in places such as the real-life Manhattan bar Israel actually spent a lot of time at in the early nineties, or the many New York book stores she visits. It’s a role unusually low-key for Melissa McCarthy, but she is perfectly cast. (That’s not to say she’s never offered effectively dramatic performances before: she was also great in 2014’s St. Vincent.)

Nearly everything about Can You Ever Forgive Me? seems better in retrospect, upon further inspection. Its like how well-constructed and executed it is sneaks up on you after the fact. There is nothing splashy about it, and it’s easy to see how it could mean more to a cinephile like myself than to perhaps some other people. But anyone who bothers to give it their attention will not be disappointed.

  This could be the start of a criminal friendship.

This could be the start of a criminal friendship.

Overall: A-

WILDLIFE

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

Spoiler alert! There is no wildlife in this movie. There isn’t even really any reference to it, which seems odd given a key plot point being Montana wildfires. Unraveling mother Jeanette (a pretty great Carey Mulligan) makes reference to the trees, such as how in a wildfire they are called “fuel,” but she doesn’t really talk much about the animals. She does a little bit, a passing reference to small creatures unable to adapt or move. I think maybe I just stumbled upon this movie’s grand metaphor right there.

Wildlife plays a lot like a movie adaptation of a great novel, and perhaps a competent adaptation, which can only be appreciated as such if you read the novel. The book of the same name on which this is indeed based, by Richard Ford and first published in 1990, was not one I had even heard of before this movie, let alone read.

And as I have said countless times before, a movie should be judged on its own merits. How well does Wildlife work without even thinking about the novel? I’d say it’s . . . fine. The script, co-written by Paul Dano (who also directs, his first feature film) and Zoe Kazan, has an air of vaguely self-conscious, presumed importance: it has something to say.

Reportedly a passion project for Dano, I’m not sure how or why this story should elicit any such passion. It’s a pretty simple story, a three-person white family in rural Montana in 1960, the 14-year-old son Joe (Ed Oxenbould) observing helplessly as his parents’ marriage falls apart. Joe’s dad, Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal), has trouble keeping work, and makes the baffling and reckless decision to take a low-paying job working with the men fighting to keep the firefighters at bay. He must go away for weeks to do this, and in effect abandons his family.

All of this is fairly well executed, although I have mixed feelings about how a lot of this movie was shot. Paul Dano seems enamored with keeping the camera held on a character’s face to show us their reaction to something they’re seeing, for several moments before we get to see it. This is not limited to reaction shots, either; in one scene, the camera waits pointedly after a bus passes in front of it before panning to show us whether Joe boarded it or not. What is the point of this? To keep us in suspense? With a quiet, intimate drama?

This movie will easily bore a lot of people. I was not one of those people; I was engaged, although more than once I wondered why. I felt bad for Joe, a kid clearly struggling with how to cope with parents who were both selfish and neglectful as they indulged their own neuroses. Jeanette is less and less likable as the story goes on. Jerry is fairly likable all along, but increasingly exasperating.

There are certainly aspects of the story, at least as presented here, that seem to skirt with anachronism, the way these characters speak to each other. There’s a moment when Jeanette, speaking about Jerry, tells her son, “We haven’t been intimate lately. You’re old enough now to hear that.” Is he?

Wildlife does contain many indelible images. A brief drive out to the wildfires, evidently something you could drive far closer to in 1960 than could possibly ever be permitted today. Joe gets out of his car and for a few brief moments the camera pans up the hill to show the burning. Early on, when Joe and some classmates are learning about these fires, a girl tells him he shouldn’t bother taking notes: just like with air raids, she says, if it reaches here it’s too late.

Plenty of other critics love this movie, and I feel like I’m missing something, some brand of depth that I’m just not reaching. I, for one, can think of no one in my life this movie would be for. There’s plenty to parse in a college film studies course, I suppose. I’m not sorry I saw it; the performances are solid, even if they’re of characters engaging in mystifying behaviors. This is an odd sort of movie that I kind of liked in spite of the many criticisms I have for it, and I couldn’t really tell you why.

  Okay, so we’ll pretend to be well-adjusted adults for the first fifteen minutes of the movie.

Okay, so we’ll pretend to be well-adjusted adults for the first fifteen minutes of the movie.

Overall: B

BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY

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

I suppose I’ll start with the good things I have to say about Bohemian Rhapsody. There really aren’t that many.

Perhaps most notable is that in spite of the well publicized troubles during production, or maybe because of them, this movie exceeds expectations — particularly from certain points of view. It opening moments in particular are fantastic: the 20th Century FOX logo with fanfare retooled to sound like Queen riffs; an opening shot of Freddie Mercury (a well cast Rami Malik) sitting up in bed and then coughing, indicating instantly where this story is ultimately going.

I hesitate to say it’s all downhill from there, but I will say it’s a steady decline, at least in light of how wildly contrived nearly every moment in this movie is. What passes for an “audition” when Mercury suddenly bursts into song at the other band members who have just lost their lead singer, as they load a van after a gig? Come on.

That said, one can argue both ways as to the effectiveness of “mainstreaming” and “straight-washing” Freddie Mercury’s tragic gay story, and in fact I did just that with the friend with whom I saw the movie. And there are certainly fair points, about there being older audiences who should see this movie — people with revisionist memories of a band they loved but with a lead singer whose sexuality they either ignored or denied. Bohemian Rhapsody makes it perfectly clear that Freddie Mercury was gay, and that he died of AIDS, and it has only empathy for him as such, as do his band mates as portrayed here. These are not insignificant things.

But here’s the sticking point for me. A movie having those noble characteristics does not alone make it good. Freddie Mercury’s sickness itself is presented in a hokey, even dopey manner. When he coughs into a white kerchief and then sees droplets of blood on it, all I could think was, Did he have “the consumption”? This isn’t Moulin Rouge! — or at least it’s not supposed to be.

Its potential for reaching audiences that might otherwise have steered away from it notwithstanding, the sanitizing of nearly every aspect of this story is difficult for me to get past. It falls into tropes of “gay storytelling” that are seriously dated, such as the idea that an audience can stomach seeing a straight couple in bed but not a gay one.

Now, to be fair, the fact of Mercury’s gayness itself is unsubtle here, and not only does he have more than one same-sex kiss, he even gets a poignantly sweet scene with the man who would later become his lifelong partner (Jim Hutton, played by Aaron McCuster). This is kind of the exception that proves the rule in this film, where so much of the story is packed into 134 minutes — a typical problem of biopics — that every part of it is glossed over, and thus denied any real depth.

It’s also nice to see Mercury’s Parsi-Indian heritage get so much play in this story; how many people even knew that about him? He isn’t shown here to have a whole lot of pride in it, though, and according to this account he willfully ignored, if not actively denied it, often rather disrespecting his parents in the process.

Mercury is portrayed here as wildly insecure in every matter except his vocal ability (he pointedly tells us his unusually large mouth allows for greater range), and one is left to wonder how accurate that really was. The same could not quite be said of his band mates, who get a fair amount of focus as a three-person unit, if not so much as individuals. Even though Mercury’s two failed solo albums are indication enough that he owed his existence to Queen as much as the band owed its existence to him, Bohemian Rhapsody resists the idea that this should be “The Freddie Mercury Story,” even though that remains effectively what it is.

So go the limitations of an”authorized biography” — the living members of the band being intimately involved in narrative choices in the telling of their story, obscuring whatever warts there were with the makeup of Hollywood movie making. Almost none of the verbal exchanges in this movie come across as authentic. But, by all accounts, audiences are loving Bohemian Rhapsody far more than critics are, and although I totally understand why, from my critical position I find myself caught in the middle. Here is what is basically a bad movie, which has a certain usefulness. On a certain, sociopolitical level, it works. From a strictly cinematic level, this is just another forgettably bland movie about a beloved rock band which transparently sidesteps the most compelling truths of their story.

bohemian rhapsody.jpg

Overall: C+

SUSPIRIA

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

Spoiler alert: I don’t know what the fuck is going on in Suspiria, and I’m not convinced you will either. Or if you do, maybe you can get back to me and fill me in? Because I am at a loss.

More specifically: what, exactly, are all the witches led by Madame Blanc (a truly fantastic Tilda Swinton, the only great thing about this movie) preparing to do with this new talented dancer arriving at a 1970s Berlin ballet school, Susie (Dakota Johnson)? This is the central conceit through most of this far too long, 152-minute film, culminating in a bloody climax bewildering in its excess, and I could not tell you what was supposed to have happened to Susie in the process. Is she possessed by one of the “three mothers” in the end? Was she actually one of them all along? Susie possesses a curious confidence throughout this story, no matter how truly bizarre and incomprehensible things get.

Swinton, by the way, plays multiple parts. In addition to Madame Blanc, she is also plays the one significant male part, a German psychiatrist by the name of Dr. Josef Klemperer. If this is some abstract feminist statement, it is neutralized a bit by the fact that both the director (Call Me By Your Name’s Luca Guadagnino, whose previous film, A Bigger Splash, also starred both Dakota Johnson and Tilda Swinton — and was much better than this) and the script writer (David Kajganich, also of A Bigger Splash) are men. The original, Italian 1977 version of Suspiria was at least co-written by a woman; in this largely incoherent remake — still set in the seventies — one is left to wonder whether a woman director and/or writer would have made the same choices. By the end, it seems to indulge in blood and gore just for the sake of blood and gore.

To put it more succinctly: at the beginning of this Suspiria, I didn’t know what the fuck was going on. Then Susie arrives at this ballet school, and a comprehensible story seems to be taking form. And by the end . . . I didn’t know what the fuck was going on.

With that in mind, what else can I tell you about it, really? There is a sequence relatively early on in which a spell put on Susie during a rehearsal performance is translated into an instantaneous curse on one of her classmates (Elena Fokina), forcing her into mimicked dance moves to such an exaggerated degree that her limbs are twisted to the point of breaking countless bones in her body. It is effectively horrifying, and the one moment in the film that makes it feel like things are going somewhere.

Later — much, much later; this movie is way too long — the dance troupe puts on a fantastically choreographed performance, shot with equal parts beauty and tension, itself a sequence that could have had far greater impact if it had not occurred far past the point of losing interest in whatever the hell is going on. It’s directly after this great dance, swirling around Dakota Johnson as its star, when witchy rivalries come to a head, more ritualistic, dark dances of the sort that would certainly horrify your conservative aunt take place, and virtually everyone onscreen gets drenched in blood. It’s perhaps what Stephen King’s Carrie would have presided over had she gone on to become a Satanic cult leader.

Suspiria is the sort of movie that prides itself on being simultaneously impenetrable and obtuse, far more enamored with itself as “art” than as storytelling. I can see Film Theory students gleefully intellectualizing its countless contradictions, debating its themes, whatever the hell they are. Some say this movie exists in a theoretical region where any viewer can ascribe any label they like to it, and perhaps that is true. So I’ll take my own stab at it: this is a movie with literally nothing to say.

That is, not even as an example of the horror genre. Sure it has its disturbing moments, but I generally avoid horror films because I don’t like being startled or scared. The very opening sequence, the only scene in which we see Chloë Grace Moretz as the running-hysterical ballet student Susie has come to replace, seems designed to set us up for that very expectation: the horrors she runs from are what we are in for. This movie is more interesting in being confusing, to the point of nullifying any potential horrors.

I would have been better off just taking a nap.

  Maybe just find this dance on YouTube in a month.

Maybe just find this dance on YouTube in a month.

Overall: C+

FREE SOLO

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

Spoiler alert! Rock climber Alex Honnold is still alive. If you have any issues with heights, I’m not sure that will make viewing the documentary about his free solo climbing El Capitan, a 3,000-foot ascent, any less stressful. I spent a lot of time watching this movie thinking this guy was genuinely insane.

Although in one scene Honnold gets an MRI whose greatest insight is that it takes a lot more than it does most people to scare him, co-directors Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi don’t delve a whole lot into the psychology behind Honnold’s motivations. Given his inability to get scared by much, the idea that he’s a “thrill seeker” isn’t quite right. It might be more accurate to say he has an obsessive personality. He notes on camera that multiple ex-girlfriends have theorized he must have one mental disorder or another.

And what of the film crew itself? Many of these are people who regard themselves as friends of Alex Honnold, who are also professional rock climbers, and are waited with baited breath — not to mention previously placed cameras on the rock face — to capture this unprecedented achievement. There is some footage of these individuals contemplating the very real possibility that not only could they see their friend plummet to his death, but they would also be filming it. I did find myself wondering, if Honnold had died in this attempt, would they still have made this film? What would they have done with all this footage? Who would even come to see something so tragic, and preventably so?

Predictably the actual free solo climb itself comes rather late in the 100-minute run time of this film, and it’s edited down to maybe five minutes, the climactic sequence the entire film builds p to. And indeed, there is a huge difference between all the practice runs Honnold and his friends do with secured ropes, and the free solo run. For those few minutes, my heart was in my throat. The same was the case for much of the film crew, who are turned into characters in this story themselves. One camera man, stationed behind a camera on the ground looking up at Honnold, has to turn away and refuses to watch, multiple times. I likewise covered my eyes more than once.

Here is one example where video drones prove to be a tremendously effective and economical device. The cinematography in Free Solo is more evocative than anything, edited between the aforementioned ground cameras, the drone, and other climbers holding strategic positions along Honnold’s predetermined climbing route.

Somewhat curiously, Alex Honnold finds the rare steady girlfriend during the filming, and the added romance in his life throws him off his game a tad, getting injured twice in the space of a month. It’s almost like it’s added to goose the drama, although it does feel authentic. And it adds yet another layer to what’s at stake when it comes to the risks Honnold makes, a stark contrast to when he really has to be only concerned with himself on solo climbs with no emotional attachments to the ground below.

Is Free Solo something I would call enjoyable, though? Honestly I found it more stressful than anything, although once Honnold’s insanely lofty goal is met, there is a palpable sense of emotion and maybe even catharsis. Seeing this movie in a movie theatre is certainly a double-edged sword. It might completely freak you out, but to get the full effect of the stress you must see it on the big screen! This film is perhaps made more for those interested in extreme sports than your average movie-goer.

  Hangin’ in there.

Hangin’ in there.

Overall: B

THE OLD MAN & THE GUN

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

I have no particular criticism of The Man and the Gun, except maybe this, something it seems few people want to say: Robert Redford, now 82, is basically coasting. And he’s coasting on . . . well, being Robert Redford. He’s got a pleasant, quiet demeanor in all of his roles of recent years (Pete’s Dragon, A Walk In the Woods, All Is Lost) and doesn’t deviate much from that, always feeling more like “old Robert Redford” plunked into a story rather than allowing himself to get lost in truly distinct characters.

He seems to be a great guy, though, and in Redford’s case that seems to count for a lot. And here we get back to his coasting. Perhaps he realizes that’s been the case, as this reportedly is to be his last role before retiring from acting. He’s been at it for 58 years. He’s had a good run.

As very late-career roles go, The Old Man and the Gun is a perfectly acceptable one. It’s a fairly quiet story, with its share of charms, far from flashy, even shot in the style of its early-eighties setting. This is the story of Forrest Tucker, a lifelong criminal who spent his last lawbreaking years with a string of Texas bank robberies. To a much lesser extent, it’s also the story of his two frequent accomplices, played with welcome presence by Danny Glover and Tom Waits.

Forrest also meets a quasi-love interest, right in the opening sequence of the film, during his getaway from the bank heist underway when director and co-writer David Lowery first introduces him to us. This is the solitary lady whose kids have grown and gone, and now she lives on her large tract of land with tree horses, named Jewel — played by Sissy Spacek, by far the best performance in the movie. And even she is pretty even-keeled, but Spacek has a knack for a sort of comforting warmth. Her Jewel barely has any kind of internal struggles, yet she feels like the most fully realized character here. Even with her characteristic southern drawl, Spacek is very believable as completely different people.

As Forrest barely keeps his criminal antics a secret from Jewel, there’s a cop on his heels, John Hunt (Casey Affleck). Forrest sees John on local TV announcing his dedication to catching him, and decides to engaged in a bit of subtle trickery with him, a playful bit of cat and mouse.

There is a level of fun and charm to all this, albeit with a definitive lack of depth or insight into any of these characters. Lowery presents this story with a sensibility that says, “Isn’t this a great story,” and little else. The cast is competent with limited material.

There’s something to it being intended as a man’s final role, on the other hand. Redford is hardly going out with a bang here, but neither is he quite going out with a whimper. Not exactly a triumph and not exactly a failure, The Man and the Gun is executed with a quiet confidence. It has nothing in particular to prove, and neither does Robert Redford. They don’t have to, really. This is an old man having the kind of fun an old man can have — without straining himself. It’s tempting to say the same of Forrest Tucker himself, except that he clearly over-extends himself. But instead of showing anything that might require much in the way of action, The Old Man and the Gun just edits it out, and we catch up with its characters just as the are recovering.

This is a movie that is generally pleasant, with a fair share of charms, and no interest in getting intellectual about the proceedings, which it could have done well with. Lowery, and Redford, could have had something clear to say about the aging of a man who never truly matures, but they couldn’t be bothered. But who says every story has to be a challenge, anyway? Sometimes a person just wants to have a last bit of harmless fun.

  Would you believe me if I said I was a geezer who robs banks?

Would you believe me if I said I was a geezer who robs banks?

Overall: B

BEAUTIFUL BOY

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

It might come across to some as being somewhere on the spectrum between disingenuous and self-righteous for me, a white guy, to declare Beautiful Boy the epitome of white privilege, but I can’t deny that I thought a lot about it while watching this movie.

I’ll be clear about this first off: the story of father and son David Sheff and Nic Sheff (Steve Carell and Timothée Chalamet, respectively) dealing with Nic’s persistent drug addiction is a worthy one. It even hits close to home, given that I do have a family member with a history of drug addiction, as many of us do — another family member even loaned me Nic’s memoir, Tweak, one of the two books on which this movie is based; the other is the book of the same title as the movie, written by David. I long planned to read it, and may yet, but still haven’t.

But there is also no denying what informs the very existence of those books, and by extension this movie: the expectation of empathy and a lack of judgment. And where does this expectation come from? This story is about an upper-middle-class, white family.

Late in Beautiful Boy, there is a scene with David and his wife Karen (Maura Tierney), attending an Al-Anon meeting, or something akin to it. They sit in silent resignation about Nic, as they listen to another woman deliver a monologue about having recently lost a loved one to an overdose. This is a clear example of David and Karen knowing empathy in the most tragic of ways, but here’s the thing: Where’s that woman’s movie? There’s a sort of sad irony to having seen Beautiful Boy right after seeing The Hate U Give, which pointedly addresses how institutionalized racism pushes black communities denied resources into drug dealing and addiction, and then blames them and denies them the empathy that Beautiful Boy assumes is a given for its characters. And even in The Hate U Give, the protagonist is a well-educated, stellar young woman who happens to witness the shooting of her best friend by a white cop. It’s far from the kind of “honest examination” of drug addiction that Beautiful Boy purports itself to be.

And strangely, Beautiful Boy doesn’t even bother to show us how the hell Nic got into drugs in the first place. What were the circumstances? Are we to suppose this kid, who had every conceivable advantage, tried every drug under the sun, and ultimately became addicted to crystal meth, simply by random chance? Presumably the memoir reveals that. This movie, on the other hand, tells the story of Nic’s relentlessly vicious cycle, getting clean and relapsing, over and over again, until his loving parents — including the mother who lives in another city, played by the unfortunately under-used Amy Ryan — are forced to accept that they are powerless to save their son from his own self-destruction.

To their credit, the performances are solid all around. I’m not sure that alone means you need to see this movie, however. I don’t regret seeing it, myself, and I suppose it has a usefulness as an indicator that other families in similar situations are not alone. (Again, I get back to this, though: that relatability is aimed squarely at white audiences, this movie’s couple of black characters in very bit parts notwithstanding.) It paints a woefully incomplete picture, with its ending title cards referring to the epidemic of meth addiction in this country. The vast majority of the people having this problem do not look like this family — hell, even the vast majority of white people with this problem don’t — and it says something that it’s this family’s story that was declared worth sharing. I’m all for feeling compassion for the Sheff family, and their story is a compelling one that leaves you wishing them the best. The attention they get is still at the expense of many others who are no less deserving.

  So should we talk about the subtext here?

So should we talk about the subtext here?

Overall: B-

THE HATE U GIVE

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

The Hate U Give is perhaps a good example of what happens when white people shut up, get out of the way, and let people of color tell their own stories. Based on the novel of the same name by a black woman (Angie Thomas), directed by a black man (George Tillman Jr.), and featuring an overwhelmingly black ensemble cast, it has much to relate regarding black experience, and much for non-black people to learn about it.

Now, is any of it particularly new? In a way, yes: the novel is written for a young adult audience, and the film is age-appropriate for adolescents as well. Or, at least, adolescents who must learn hard truths about the world they live in. “We live in a complicated world,” says one character, a black cop who openly admits that he himself is more likely to tell a white suspect to put his hands up before shooting, and more likely to shoot a black suspects.

How polarizing is this movie, I wonder? Perhaps plenty, depending on the people reacting to it. It’s telling the critics are giving it praise — a “must-see” score of 82 at MetaCritic.com — with a decidedly mixed user rating of 5.4. There are plenty of overrated movies, sure, but when the subject matter is race relations, detractors predictably come out of the woodwork for the sole purpose of lowering the averages of viewer ratings. Half the time they’re people who haven’t even bothered to watch the movie or consider what it has to say.

These are no longer the days of Do the Right Thing, however. The Hate U Give isn’t going to be causing any firestorms, no fights breaking out in theatres, arguably largely due to the general desensitization and the commodification of many of the issues here. Are there legitimate reasons to criticize this movie? Sure there are. The aforementioned people of color telling their own stories gets slightly muddled by a white screenwriter, Audrey Wells. That’s not as big a deal with a black director, though, and besides — Wells died of cancer this very month, the day before the movie opened, so there is clearly not much use in pressing this as an issue.

That said, honestly, the dialogue in The Hate U Give can veer into overused platitudes: “It’s the same story, just a different name.” On the other hand, this movie’s target audience is not likely to be old enough to see such statements that way. Maybe our youth actually needs to be hearing these things, and in particular, getting a sense of how the experiences of black families differ from the average white one. It’s great to see the inclusion of a line like “If you don’t see color then you don’t see me,” because for too long white people have insisted on their own moral superiority by claiming not to “see color,” without realizing it has the opposite effect of what they intend.

To the credit of everyone involved, The Hate U Give has far more nuance, and sophistication of storytelling, than most young adult fiction does. One does wonder how many white people will see it just to pat themselves on the back for having done so, otherwise allowing the detractors to continue varying versions of the same cycle the story presents: black people insisting they’re being mistreated (with ample evidence); white people refusing the acknowledge the obvious.

I keep getting back to the target audience, though. If the Parkland shooting survivors have taught us anything this year, it’s that kids as a group have long been vastly underestimated. It’s the grown-ups who can’t be relied on or trusted. Why not tell this story that has been told tragically, over and over, through the eyes of a 16-year old? Specifically, a 16-year-old black girl?

Amandla Stenberg is well cast as that girl, Starr Carter, who is the single witness to the police shooting of her childhood friend Khalil (Algee Smith). Her perspective is a unique one, at least among those usually shared in stories like this: she is caught between identities, code switching in her day to day transitions between her home life — itself an unusually positive portrayal of a peaceful, loving, tight-knit family — and her life at a mostly white private school. And when she is witness to the shooting, she must contend with a kind of pressure no 16-year-old should ever be burdened with.

So, if you suspected The Hate U Give (a reference to a Tupac Shakur lyric’s acronym for “thug”) is a bit heavier than you tend to want in your movie-going experience, you’re probably right. This is more of a thinker than entertainment, although it still works as simply compelling storytelling. The editing and the acting could use a little finessing at times, it runs a little long, and there’s a definite element of preaching to the choir. But if anyone wants to ask, “What’s the point, then?” — I would push back against that. There are many points, actually, not least of which is the worthiness of supporting decent films that feature diverse casts, of which this year in particular has yielded several strong examples. It’s heartening to see this happening in Hollywood, where people seem slowly but surely waking up to the idea that specific stories can appeal to nonspecific audiences.

“Appeal” is a sort of tricky descriptor in the case of The Hate U Give. The story is unappealing, but needed. It’s not quite as terribly sad as you might expect, at least. I grabbed a big wad of napkins with the expectation of crying a lot more than I did. (I only needed one of them.) The large cast is certainly appealing. And George Tillman Jr. uses that cast to illustrate unalienable truths about black existence in America, as opposed to weighing us down with the heaviness. There are even several moments of welcome levity. Some moments are contrived and oversimplified, but mostly in ways that frankly matter less to younger audiences, so really, who cares?

I can’t say I found The Hate U Give particularly illuminating, given that I’ve simply been paying attention to the way things work in this country, but that hardly makes it useless. Until something changes, it’s just as important not to forget these things, or that how easy it can be to forget them, when you have the privilege. Granted, anyone who chafes at the mention of “privilege” will just reject this movie outright anyway. There remains a utility in efforts to be mindful of different experiences, among the rest of us.

  A brief period of tenderness and relaxation before things change for these kids forever — and too many kids like them.

A brief period of tenderness and relaxation before things change for these kids forever — and too many kids like them.

Overall: B+

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