ANNA AND THE APOCALYPSE

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

The zombie genre has been so overdone for so long. now even “funny takes” on the zombie genre are overdone — from Shaun of the Dead (2004) to Zombieland (2009) to Warm Bodies (2013) to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2016). Even television shows are getting in on the “funny take on zombies” action, from The CW’s iZombie to Netflix’s Santa Clarita Diet.

The point is, there really is no original take on zombies at this point. Even the idea of a genre mashup has been done, with roughly the same amount of middling success, with Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (which, if you can believe it, worked better as a novel). Honestly, I should have known better. Anna and the Apocalypse is clearly trying to hark back to the original “edgy comic take” on zombies, Shaun of the Dead, being a low-budget British production with clear affection for the American productions it emulates.

I could be said this film is a mashup of four different genres, if you want to consider “Christmas” a genre. Anna and the Apocalypse is a horror-comedy-musical Christmas movie. The thing is, director John McPhail blends these genres fairly well, all things considered. Most strikingly, the music and songs are good — they’re catchy, the performers have fantastic voices, they often have irresistible beats. The actual zombies don’t show up until maybe a third of the way through, and there are several songs prior to that, as though this story is a perfectly straightforward musical about kids in school. A British High Shool Musical with a slightly quirkier sense of humor.

And to be fair, I did laugh pretty hard a few times. Still, McPhail can tend to linger on the same gag just slightly too long, until the joke runs out of steam. Perhaps the relative earnestness of the songs themselves is part of the joke. But if that’s the case, then that part of the humor is slightly too high-minded to work for a production that basically amounts to “scrappy.”

When the songs aren’t going on, the dialogue in Anna and the Apocalypse is not particularly concerned with wit, which is a bit of a disappointment. There’s a lot of pretty forgettable stuff said in this movie. There are some memorable moments, such as the beheading of a zombie in a snowman outfit.

Anna and the Apocalypse is mostly fine, which is about as glowing a review as it deserves. It would find a comfortable home on any streaming service; there is absolutely no reason for anyone to go out of their way to see it in a theatre. It seems strange that any effort should be made to give movies like this a theatrical release, and such cinematically visionary work as Roma get a single week in theatres before being disseminated on mobile devices.

So, Anna is fun enough, and good for a few laughs. But it does have a key thing in common with all these other comic takes on the zombie genre: it’s okay, not great. The only one that comes within spitting distance of greatness is the original comic British zombie movie, Shaun of the Dead, and one could even make the case that that one’s overrated. Why do we need all these “zombie comedies,” anyway? The endless stream of zombie horror movies wasn’t enough?

Well, it will be eventually. Maybe even with Anna and the Apocalypse, which is about as entertaining as it looks (as in: moderately), and pretty much guaranteed not to make a whole lot of money. Especially if, curiously, it apparently has some kind of promotion deal with MoviePass — making it literally the only movie available to users on the day I went. (I showed my MoviePass card to the cashier and he said, “Yeah, you better use that while you can before the bottom falls out.”)

Granted, I’m not exactly the target audience here. I went to see this movie only barely convinced to: because the critical response was slightly better than average; I had free access via MoviePass; there was nothing better playing at the moment; I love Christmas. I’ve been bitching about there being too many movies about zombies for ages — since before I started bitching about superhero movies (and now also Star Wars movies) over-saturating the market. Tonight, I literally settled for Anna and the Apocalypse. It proved to be a movie that can work if it’s something you’re settling for. It has well-sung, toe-tapping music, at least.

  Anna takes a moment to realize the zombie apocalypse is about to catch up on her.

Anna takes a moment to realize the zombie apocalypse is about to catch up on her.

Overall: B-

ROMA

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

It may be that you have to be a bona fide cinephile to appreciate Roma, which is unique in both its subtlety and depth, and really takes its time. If you’re not given to noticing impressive feats of cinematic execution, you might genuinely be bored. The Venn diagram of lovers of the “Marvel Cinematic Universe” and lovers of foreign intellectual meditations like this one must have the tiniest sliver of overlap.

Distributed by Netflix, Roma has had an unconventional rollout. It opens in theatres today (December 6), only one week before it will be available streaming. Advocates for the film insist it’s an immersive experience that must be seen on the big screen — I took them at their word, and shelled out $17 to see it at Seattle’s unparalleled best movie theatre, the Cinerama. The guy who came out to introduce it raved about its sound mixing: “This will be the best movie you’ve ever heard,” he said. What an odd selling point. So it’s like a radio play, but with pictures?

I have to be honest. I watched the first half or so of Roma wondering what all the fuss was about. Alfonso Cuarón, who serves as cinematographer for the first time on a film he also directs, keeps his camera lingering on a 1970 middle-class Mexico City family living in the neighborhood the film is named after (which is never actually mentioned onscreen). We see them go about their day to day lives.

The central character is the family maid, Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), and when we first see her, she is gathering laundry. She cooks, she makes tea, she gathers dishes — she’s part of the family, at least so far as the four children, three boys and one girl, are concerned. In one scene, in the middle of gathering dishes as the family sits on a couch watching TV, she sits on a discarded couch cushion on the floor next to the couch. Within minutes, however, the kids’ mom is asking her to get them a drink.

The many wide, tracking shots packed with astonishingly well-choreographed action in Roma don’t quite register for some time after they’ve started — in some cases, after the movie has ended — because so much of the first half of the film is in quiet observance of this family. The basic beats of the story arc could not possibly be simpler. Then comes the gripping, tense scene of Cleo giving birth, and its one-shot chaos is reminiscent of the birth scene in Cuarón’s jaw-dropping Children of Men (2006). This time, however, instead of being a ray of light in a truly bleak world, that dynamic is inverted.

The key difference between the feats of editing, cinematography and production design of Children of Men and Roma are that in the former film, one could argue that Alfonso Cuarón was showing off. This time, the details are so subtle they are easy to miss, as you very slowly yet very assuredly become invested in the goings-on of this family. Even the truth about the kids’ mother and father’s marriage takes its sweet time to reveal itself.

And then, a string of visual set pieces, seamlessly woven together. Cleo looking on dumbstruck at babies in a hospital nursury when an earthquake hits. Witnessing “El Halconazo,” or the 1971 massacre of student demonstrators in Mexico City, through a set of second-story windows while crib shopping. A New Year’s Eve forest fire fought by nearby revelers suddenly tasked with passing buckets of water to splash upon the flames, in a chain stretching from a nearby lake. An unbroken shot from shore, well into the waves of the ocean, and back to the beach again, as Cleo goes out to retrieve two kids who swam out too far, even though she herself can’t swim. Details here and there making lasting impressions: earthquake rubble on top of a hospital nursery’s baby incubator. Onlookers at the New Year’s Eve fire calmly sipping from their champagne glasses.

Almost entirely constructed as recreations of Cuarón’s own memories, Roma is packed with detail, but because he refuses to sensationalize any of them, they can be easy to miss. Cleo’s life is marked by hardship, but she herself barely seems to notice. The problems of the family that employs her seem almost laughable by comparison, but she serves as a sort of rock for them.

Roma has clear sociopolitical implications regarding where class and race intersect — Cleo is of indigenous descent. One wonders how this presentation plays within activist circles in Mexico, and what might be considered offensive or overwrought. The story is plainly told from Cleo’s point of view, though, and its presentation seems to be devoid of cliché, at least from my admittedly limited, white-American perspective.

If anything seems to be typical of Alfonso Cuarón movies, it’s that they tend to be marvels of cinema in nearly every way except one. That one flaw seems to vary. Children of Men suffered from glaring implausibility. Gravity (2013), a stunning achievement in visual effects, was thin on story. Roma suffers no such problems, but the acting is . . . not the best. Not only are all the actors (who speak both Spanish and indigenous languages) completely unknown to American audiences, they seem to have no real acting training either.

One could argue that the actors are themselves often props, part of a succession of elaborately designed action-dioramas. It’s easy to go back and forth on this, the idea of “authenticity” when it comes to the acting in Roma. They may not seem schooled in acting technique, but maybe that makes them somehow more real. I found the acting far less compelling than the presentation at first, but — well, that birth scene is really an emotional gut punch, from which no one, in the film or in the audience, quite recovers.

All this is to say Roma can catch you off guard, provided you have the patience for the time it takes. It seeps into you slowly, its roots slowly digging into your soul. It somehow justifies itself after the fact, well after the credits have rolled, as it slowly dawns on you how much better it is than it seemed in the midst of it.

  A family fits as only they can in  ROMA.

A family fits as only they can in ROMA.

Overall: A-

THE FAVOURITE

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

Don’t let anyone who says The Favourite is director Yargos Lanthamos’s “most accessible” film fool you — if we’re honest, that’s not saying much. This is a guy who makes truly, truly odd films: The Lobster was supremely strange in its alternate-reality brilliance; The Killing of a Sacred Deer was a bit unsettling in its exacting perniciousness. The Favourite, now, is somehow simultaneously completely unlike either of those films, and yet undeniably stamped with Lanthamos’s sensibility.

Which is to say, this is far from a mainstream film, and if you haven’t seen those other films, you’re not going to have the same bar by which to gauge how much more “accessible” it is. Most audiences will be thrown for a loop by it. I kind of was, myself — and I did like it. I think.

I suppose you could call this an alternate reality of sorts as well, given the subtly anachronistic attitudes of its characters. The basic gist of the story is pretty simple: 18th-century England’s Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) is easily manipulated by Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz), who is thus governing in her stead, butting heads with members of Parliament (particularly one played with effective petulance by Nicholas Hoult), and also serves as Queen Anne’s lover. Sarah’s cousin Abigail (Emma Stone), whose family has lost their station and rendered her a maid, shows up and over time gets herself into the queen’s good graces, to the point of genuine rivalry and competition.

There’s a lot to love about this scenario for a movie plot, not least of which is the deliciousness of the period-drama between these three women, who are the entire focus of the film. And in their performances, all three actresses are fantastic, particularly Colman, who has a screen presence both vulnerable and raw.

That said, it’s the unfolding of this story, the execution, that can easily leave one bemused. Lanthimose has a clearly dark sense of humor, and The Favourite has its share of genuine laughs, even if most of them mask something serious. There’s a unique authenticity to the pent-up emotions boiling within each character. There are also semi-regular detours into scenes that vary from bizarre to baffling, such as when Abigail walks in on a group of men giddily lobbing fruits at a naked chubby man, who seems very much to be enjoying it.

There is one thing I genuinely hated — an unusual single glaring flaw in the midst of an otherwise impressively meticulous production. Cinematographer Robbie Ryan evidently has a thing for fisheye lenses, often presenting each side of the screen with everything bent nearly to the point of distortion. On occasion he will quickly pan from side to side while using this visual presentation, and frankly it’s annoyingly distracting. Curiously, the production design, and even the cinematography the rest of the time, is spectacular. Generally speaking, The Favourite is quite striking to look upon. It’s just too bad it sometimes has to get literally warped on the sides.

As for the story itself, it leaves much to ponder — particularly the ending, which, let’s, say, lacks clarity (Queen Anne’s many pet rabbits factor prominently). It’s easy to feel like one is not picking up on a kind of depth that might more easily be recognizable upon repeat viewings.

The Favourite is the kind of film that comes as no surprise to be a critical darling, but even with its healthy amount of comedy, will still strike many as being inaccessibly cerebral. Every detail is weighted with intention; it’s identifying what all those intentions are that may pose a challenge. There are some who love such challenges, and therein lies the appeal. Personally, I’m still contemplating exactly how I feel about it — but I look forward finding out if a second viewing might help me decide.

  Lady Sarah aims to make a point.

Lady Sarah aims to make a point.

Overall: B+

MARIA BY CALLAS

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

I’m in a curious position when it comes to any critical response to the documentary Maria by Callas, and I have mixed feelings about it — although I suspect I would have mixed feelings even had I known who the woman was before this year.

Okay, so she was apparently arguably the most famous opera singer of the 20th century. What if you’ve never been particularly into opera? Or more specifically in my case, I was all of one year old the year she died, of a heart attack in 1977? It follows that I would have known little to nothing about her.

How many people alive in 2018 do, I wonder? In retrospect, it comes as no surprise that I was the only one in the theatre where I saw this movie who did not qualify for the Senior Discount. And even for those who do: billing this film as the story of Maria Callas “in her own words” is a little misleading. It’s not exactly an autobiography. Although, sure, everything said about her in the narrative is either Callas herself in archive interviews, or her own words as narrated by Joyce DiDonato, there’s something to be said for editing.

Maria Callas, quite obviously, had no part in making this movie. Other people cobbled the story together using her words, which brings along with it their own biases. It’s directed by Tom Volf, his sole directing credit; edited by Janice Jones; all of this done 41 years after Callas’s death. How much can we trust this as an accurate representation of her life, really? They certainly linger on several of her performances, showcasing her undeniable talent while still making the film perhaps 15 minutes longer than it needed to be.

Well, we can regard it as a collection of insights into the woman’s life, at least — and it must be said, even for someone who has never heard of her, there is much to be fascinated by. For one thing, the old footage reveals that Maria Callas was a woman of unparalleled charisma, memorably beautiful and expressive, even in interviews, for many years. There definitely was something special about her, as an individual as well as a talent. She lights up the screen with her face, even in old, grainy, television footage.

It would also seem as though she embodied the essence of a “diva” in very much the old-school sense of the word. Callas was evidently not much of a feminist in her thinking, stating plainly that a woman is best placed at home in service of a husband. She never had children, though, because first her mother and then her first husband pushed her to focus on her singing career, not to waste her incredible voice. She spoke in interviews as though, as opposed to ever being particularly ambitious, she simply sacrificed the traditional woman’s role in favor of “destiny.” As if she just resigned herself to this fate, of a singer adored literally around the world.

One short sequence in particular really stands out. Reporters are interviewing ardent fans who have been waiting in line since the day before, to see Maria Callas in New York City, performing for the first time in seven years. The interview subjects are nearly all young men, and I found myself wondering not just how many of them were gay (pretty much all of them seemed to be), but how many of them even know it themselves. This was a time half a century before the evolution of queer vocabulary we know today, after all, and it occurred to me that perhaps Maria Callas was a gay icon long before the term was coined. She was only one year younger than Judy Garland, and thus one of her contemporaries.

These are the details I found most compelling, but Maria by Callas is far more concerned with controversies regarding high-profile performance cancellations (sometimes mid-show), and in particular her off-and-on relationship with Aristotle Onassis, who left Callas for Jackie Kennedy, then left Jackie to return to Callas again.

Maria by Callas offers a window into a world-famous, stunningly talented opera singer in the 20th century, and it has its insights, but might be most appreciated by those who are already fans of her. In which case, might not it have been better to make this movie in, say, 1978?

  Maria Callas steps posthumously into the 21st century and . . . Maria who?

Maria Callas steps posthumously into the 21st century and . . . Maria who?

Overall: B-

RALPH BREAKS THE INTERNET

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

There’s an almost defiantly earnest sweetness to Ralph Breaks the Internet that snuck up on me. I was actually moved by it, which I did not expect — 2012’s Wreck-It Ralph, after all, trafficked in nostalgia for old video game characters that meant little to nothing. It was to that film’s credit that I still rather enjoyed it; I was never a gamer of any kind, but it featured a story that transcended anything that might have been foreign to me.

Ralph Breaks the Internet, as the title implies, broadens its horizons, at least in terms of its world — the story smartly focuses on the friendship between Ralph (John C. Reilly) and Vanellope (Sarah Silverman), a truly simple idea with the backdrop of the complexity of the Internet.

And the Internet, of course, is a language I much more readily speak — as does everyone who might possibly see this movie, of course. There’s honestly nothing especially innovative or memorable about the visual rendering of the Internet landscape as Ralph and Vanellope traverse it, but it’s fine. What sets this movie is its thematic sophistication in storytelling, and how it contextualizes real-world concepts for its young viewers.

There is a scene in which Ralph stumbles upon comments being posted online about him — many of them negative and hurtful. We see how it affects Ralph, and the importance of showing such consequences to a character kids love and care about cannot be overstated. The scene is brief but memorable: it makes its point with a lasting impression.

Furthermore, we all know that, depending on where you go, the Internet is — or can be — a true cesspool of awfulness. Ralph Breaks the Internet never quite references those depths, but it does frame some of its world with a sort of amusing darkness. It’s an impressively delicate balance held steady as, for instance, Ralph and Vanellope make their way into a violent videogame called Slaughter Race.

The great thing about this movie, though, is how it depicts characters both inside and outside such a game as essentially good and without judging them. It even takes traditionally unwholesome ideas (violence, for instance) and flips them on their head in myriad ways, perhaps the best of them being that the characters native to Slaughter Race — led by a badass woman named Shank and voiced by Gal Gadot — are all best friends essentially concerned with each other’s emotional support.

There’s a unique sort of dark humor to this movie, in a way that quickly detours into touching sweetness. Ralph Breaks the Internet is at its heart about friendship, how friends can hurt each other, and most importantly, how friendship can survive such mistakes. The many gags, most of them pretty great, about Internet ideas and concepts and trends and, yes, brands — they are mercifully not overbearing, and never come close to overshadowing that core element of the story. There is plenty of richness in the visual details, but you really have to concentrate to see it all, and in all likelihood you’ll be far more concerned with how Ralph and Vanellope will remain friends.

And just to be clear, it will be a while before I stop loving movies with strong willed, badass girls and women who have agency — something this one addresses with finesse: Vanellope visits a Disney fansite and meets several past Disney princesses — all but one of them voiced by the original voice actors from their respective Disney animated feature films. They collectively play a key role in the plot, and one of them even gets to say, “A big strong man needs our help!”

The thing is, whatever Ralph Breaks the Internet sends up, it does with clear affection — and the movie is all the better for it. It’s not retroactively declaring any of those old films to be bad, per se; it’s simply acknowledging how the world has changed, and for the better, particularly for girls. The is a story that champions those underserved in the past without finding anyone to demonize in the process.

In fact, the villain here is . . . Ralph himself. Or, to clarify, a manifestation of his own selfishness — manifested as a sort of “king rat” version of internet virus copies of himself, which climbs a digital tower in a clear visual reference to King Kong. And to be fair, Vanellope makes her own mistakes, and they both learn from them. As a result, Ralph Breaks the Internet is the rare animated feature that seems on the surface to be made mostly for children, but adults can appreciate the depth and layers of what’s being presented to young minds. It’s subtle yet effective in its themes, yet so entertaining you almost don’t notice.

And even with this film’s clear acknowledgment of the dark forces in the world, and particularly on the Internet, the characters across the board are sweet, giving and endearing. Any character supposedly “rough” (such as the slug-like creature with a second face in his neck voiced by Alfred Molina) is somewhere on the spectrum between funny and cute. So it goes with everything in Ralph’s world, where bad things can happen but good people step up when you’ve made great friends.

  Ralph surveys what he’s about to break.

Ralph surveys what he’s about to break.

Overall: B+

WIDOWS

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

It might be easy to write off Widows as just another serviceable heist flick, but there is power in the details. This isn’t only worth seeing because the heist in question is pulled off by four badass women — although, honestly, that was enough for me. But the more you think about this movie, the more of an impression it makes.

Consider the scene in which the camera is placed on the hood of a car, and most of the unbroken shot features the tinted windshield taking up most of the frame. But, a conversation happens between two characters, one of whom is Chicago city politician Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell) and the other his assistant, as they ride between a campaign stop in an impoverished part of Chicago and Mulligan’s opulent home. You might wonder why the hell we just spent a few minutes looking at this windshield, and then the point comes home: these two neighborhoods, one very poor and one very rich, are not far from each other at all.

And there is much more going on in that shot, between the conversation itself (in which Jack asks his assistant if she’s ever slept with a black man) and the one character visible being his black driver.

Director Steve McQueen, returning now with his passion project five years after Twelve Years a Slave (2012), has a lot to say now about contemporary America in Widows, and it’s these many reflections that elevate this film from just another heist flick. I suppose you could consider this and Twelve Years a Slave companion pieces, that one having provided insight into where we once were and where we went from there; this one shows us where we are and brings to mind how we got here.

There was a somewhat curious clip of Viola Davis in recent weeks, which went semi-viral, of her discussion this film’s opening scene, depicting her and Liam Neeson as characters who are middle-aged, very much in love — and incidentally a mixed-race couple. I have to wonder now if that was part of guerilla marketing, because the clip suggests Davis and Neeson as a couple is incidental to the plot of Widows, and that is not the case as all. It’s not the driving force of the action or essential to the plot, but it’s still very much a part of both. The couple’s son and his race proves to be a key plot point.

That said, McQueen has plenty of tricks up his sleeve. Neeson is a pretty big star but barely gets supporting status here, existing almost entirely in flashbacks. And then a twist comes along that I did not see coming at all.

It’s certainly rare to get a movie like this, with such strength of storytelling, with women entirely at the center of the story, though — much less the primary character being a middle-aged black woman (Viola Davis). The basics of the plot are that all these women’s husbands perished in a job gone bad, and with an outstanding debt, they get together to pull the heist the men had planned. Indeed one of the best lines is when Davis’s Veronica says, “No one things we have the balls to pull this off,” and that’s what makes it exciting.

Viola Davis has long proven to be a stellar performer, and the other three women hold their own alongside her — although they are to varying degrees lesser known. They include Michelle Rodriguez of the Fast and Furious franchise as a woman facing the repossession of her clothing store she did not know her boyfriend used to repay his own debts; Elizabeth Debicki (The Man from U.N.C.L.E.) as a young woman intermittently battered boy her boyfriend and with a mother (Jacki Weaver) encouraging her to work as a call girl; and Cynthia Erivo was most recently seen as the best thing in Bad Times at the El Royale, stealing every scene she’s in with her stellar singing voice. She doesn’t sing here — that would be weird — but she does work as a fit babysitter struggling to make ends meet.

All of this is not even to mention Jack Mulligan’s complicated relationship with his own racist politician father (Robert Duvall), Mulligan’s crime boss opponent (Byran Tyree Henry) to whom the widows are indebted, or said crime boss’s ruthless henchman (Get Out’s Daniel Kaluuya). There’s a whole lot to weave together here in 129 minutes of running time, and McQueen does it well, to a degree that the editing in Widows might be its most impressive element.

When things predictably don’t go quite as planned during the heist itself — which takes quite a while to get to, as McQueen paces himself establishing characters, their motivations, and how they get together — what actually happens is not at all predictable. I hesitate to say the story empowers its female characters, given that they are all either criminals or complicit in plenty of crime, most of them evidently turning a blind eye to what their husbands did. They certainly all have autonomy though, and that’s really what makes all the difference.

Widows is cram packed with both story and characters, and that McQueen avoids reducing a single one of them to a stereotype is itself an impressive feat. This is entertainment, true — nothing that’s going to change the world — but Widows is complex ensemble storytelling at its best.

  This is not your mother’s Tupperware party.

This is not your mother’s Tupperware party.

Overall: B+

THE FRONT RUNNER

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

If The Front Runner is any indication, Jason Reitman’s directorial ambition is to be a low-rent Robert Altman. From the opening sequence, we get elaborately choreographed sequences with a lot of low-volume chit chat, overlapping dialogue that is ultimately without much substance.

In this case, it begins with Colorado Senator Gary Hart (Hugh Jackman) conceding his loss of the party nomination at the Democratic National Convention in 1984. The moment comes after the camera pans through media vans and new anchors and packed crowds with political signs outside hotels, then tips up to the window to the room housing the Hart Campaign. This whole pre-credits sequence ends with a similar shot of campaign staff drinking away their disappointment at a bar, which is where Hart declares that winning wasn’t “what it was about.” What was it about, then? “Now they know who we are.”

Jump four years later to the 1988 election campaign, and The Front Runner depicts the three weeks immediately preceding Hart dropping out of the race. We know it’s three weeks because the title card says it specifically: Hart is the Democratic front runner by a large margin, but, “A lot can happen in three weeks.”

In the end, I rather wish this movie did a better job at showing us who the people in it were. Instead, it is far more concerned with the procedural depiction of how the story of Hart’s infidelity made it into the press. There is particular focus on The Miami Herald (with staff played by Kevin Pollack and Bill Burr) and The Washington Post (with an editor played by Alfred Molina), and this is really where The Front Runner stumbles.

This is a movie, more than anything, about how the downfall of Gary Hart marked the end of privacy for politicians in mainstream media. Presumably whether this was the definitive turning point could be debated. The disingenuous thing about The Front Runner is how it depicts journalists who are, to a person, each of them conflicted about the moral dubiousness of what they are doing. Not one reporter here is unscrupulous about this kind of work, which is patently ridiculous. Our country in 2018 being run by individuals who attack a vital free press is one thing; depicting all journalists as somehow being forced to compromise an inherent nobility is not a whole lot better.

Then there is the couple at the center of it, Gary Hart and his wife, Lee (Vera Farmiga, elevating the material with her performance as always). Reitman observes his characters with a consistent detachment, offering a macro view of the media circus as well as the campaign chaos hardly kept under control by a campaign manager played by J.K. Simmons. He never truly gets into the heart of these people, rather settling for a surface reflection of how they handle the media crisis. There is very little in the way of character development.

Granted, Hugh Jackman’s Gary Hart is a guarded man, that being a big part of his downfall. It’s easy in retrospect to declare that there’s no reason to give a shit about what a politician does with his private life, especially after the likes of Anthony Weiner or, god help us all, the Trump Era. Gary Hart’s problems look positively quaint by comparison. Maybe he simply should have learned to be as nakedly shameless as the politicians we have today. On the other hand, I still found it difficult to feel any sympathy for him. He knew very well what world he lived in in 1988, and this was what being a conniving liar got him.

But, okay, Jason Reitman clearly isn’t making any attempt to make the man sympathetic anyway. The Front Runner’s purpose is to show us how we got to where we are today, with Hart’s story as the starting point. But if that’s the only purpose, it might as well have been a documentary. The Front Runner succeeds as an intermittently engaging procedural about media interference, but with a couple exceptional scenes, it fails as a drama.

  Reporters ask Senator Gary Hart how he feels about the shit he stepped in.

Reporters ask Senator Gary Hart how he feels about the shit he stepped in.

Overall: B-

INSTANT FAMILY

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

If you want to get an idea of the sensibility of Instant Family, in which Mark Wahlberg and Rose Byrne play a married couple who fosters three sibling kids, just consider the judge seen at an adoption hearing late in the film: “I’m a giant cornball. I live for this stuff!”

Apparently, so do the makers of this movie, which I found not just sickeningly treacly and ridiculously emotionally manipulative, but oppressively corny. People sit around in a foster parents’ support group and laugh so excessively at each other’s objectively lame “quips” that the film basically becomes a parody of itself. And this specific thing happens not just once, but in several separate scenes.

Now, before I get too far into why I genuinely hated this movie — or, okay, most of it — I want to stop for a moment and acknowledge something in the spirit of fairness. Plenty of people will enjoy Instant Family, and perhaps not even understand my many issues with it. And really, that’s fine. Those people, and me — well, we’re just fundamentally different. But I can say this much for this film: it’s heart is in the right place. The two grandmothers are played by Julie Hagerty and Margo Martindale; what’s not to love about that?

The casting is great all around, really. Wahlberg and Byrne make a lovely couple. The kids, a teenager with two younger siblings played respectively by Isabela Moner, Gustavo Quiroz and Julianna Gamiz, are all quite wonderful. And how can you go wrong with Octavia Spencer and Tig Notaro as adoption agency representatives?

Well, in that last case, by saddling them with dialogue so cheese-dippy it borders on the idiotic. “Inspired by a true story” though it may be, Instant Family rarely rings true, mostly due to a script so contrived it may just cause your eyes to roll right out of your face and onto the theatre floor. And the editing isn’t much better — from the very start, every line of dialogue and every cut in each scene comes at such an unnatural pace there’s never any time for the story to breathe. It’s like plotting on crack.

Once married couple Pete and Ellie do meet these three kids and bring them home, things slow down a tad, although not by much — and the returns to the support group never get any less dumb. I wish I could better describe how truly hokey these scenes are. It’s as if director and co-writer Sean Anders’s life depended on it. Everything is heightened in a peculiar way, almost like it’s an example of wholesomeness on acid. Maybe it’s like alien body snatchers trying to act like good Midwestern Americans and trying a little too hard.

The thing that prevents me from hating Instant Family completely is that, in the end, it has an endearing sincerity — that heart I mentioned previously. Sure, it made me cry, and I found myself slightly resenting it for that: it’s arguable whether that was truly earned or I am just increasingly a sucker for this shit as I get older. Everything about this movie is cookie-cutter cutesiness to the point of nausea, except perhaps for the characters who make up the core family in the story. One wishes these same actors, and even these characters, could have been given better treatment in a completely different movie — one where everyone else around them acted like real humans.

To be certain, I know plenty of people I would happily tell they would enjoy this as a movie certainly suitable for their whole family. It has appropriate messaging and will be easily considered entertaining. What I get stuck on is how much more this movie could have been, what an endless waste of an opportunity it is in the end. What to some is harmless and funny, to me is pathologically silly. This is a movie that should treat all of its characters with respect, and while it does that for the main characters, every single peripheral character is rendered, on some level, a clown. It’s a creates a subtle but bizarre cognitive dissonance.

Some people will be able to take it. I was immensely relieved when it was over.

  If we work hard enough we can look like a stock photo of a happy family!

If we work hard enough we can look like a stock photo of a happy family!

Overall: C+

FANTASTIC BEASTS: THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD

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

I’m of two minds about director David Yates’s sequel to 2016’s Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, which was itself fun but inessential. The same could be said, really, of Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald — perhaps just slightly less fun, and perhaps barely more essential. That is, for die-hard fans of anything in the “Potterverse,” anyway.

And therein lies the rub: How many casual fans of the Harry Potter series will even care about this? After all, in terms of U.S. domestic box office, were we to fold Fantastic Beasts into Harry Potter as part of the same franchise, the original Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them would come in dead last. To be fair, a domestic haul of $234 million is still enviable in its own right. Still, if you compare that film’s $74 million opening weekend to The Crimes of Grindelwald earning $64 million, there is no denying this endless return to the “Wizarding World” universe is yielding diminishing returns.

And now, according to reports, Fantastic Beasts is intended to be a five-film series. If all of them are released a minimum of two years apart, that’s an additional decade of films set in the same universe as the Harry Potter series — which itself took 11 years to get through, in cinema form, at least. The Fantastic Beasts films, by contrast, are original scripts as opposed to literary adaptations, albeit still written by J.K Rowling.

It may be a fair question, though, to ask if Rowling is at least slightly losing her touch, given certain convictions from the Harry Potter productions now abandoned (I still find myself distracted by British actors playing American characters, after any American actors were strictly barred from being cast in Harry Potter films), or the more recent controversy regarding the casting of an Asian woman (Claudia Kim) as Nagini, the snake creature eventually loyal to Voldemort. As far as that is concerned, I suspect many people have jumped to judgment before seeing what nuance the film actually affords the character — but then, what do I know? I’m just a white guy — and I mean that with more sincerity than flippancy.

Beyond that, it must be said that, plot-wise, The Crimes of Grindelwald is a tad overstuffed. One could make the argument that it’s unfair to make definitive judgment of a single chapter before the entire story is completed, and we still have three left to go. That said, with five films in which to tell this story, why cram so much into this one? I found it difficult to follow at times, and, although this film does have plenty of its own fun magical “beasts” and referenced in the title, they are even less relevant to the overall plot — so far, at least — than they were in the first installment. At least Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them had several extended detours focused on said creatures. In this outing, that being the exact title of the book Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne, endlessly modest charm and charisma still intact) is working on, is never even mentioned.

Furthermore, action-packed though The Crimes of Grindelwald may be, once again being a casual observer of the “Wizarding World” is potentially to the audience’s detriment. Unlike the Harry Potter series, in which each story can stand alone if necessary, anyone watching The Crimes of Grindelwald without having seen its preceding installment is apt to get lost quickly. I got lost occasionally myself, and I literally watched the first film the very morning before seeing this one.

Yet, even though the casting of Johnny Depp as the title character seems a dubious choice at best, I absolutely would recommend The Crimes of Grindelwald to existing fans of this magical world. The production design details remain fantastic; the visual effects are up to standard, if far from cutting-edge; the characters are comfortably familiar. Speaking of the characters, this is one element of the script I will commend: some of them go in very different directions from what their arc in the first film may have suggested. After this many years, there is value in the ability to surprise — even if the characters themselves may disappoint. That is the nature of human imperfection, after all.

We do meet Dumbledore as a young man, at least, and Jude Law works well in the part. We meet him back in London, the exclusive setting of the previous film of 1920s New York City now giving way to several international locations — including even the French Ministry of Magic. It’s a nice broadening of scope to the story proceedings, if also allowing for a bit of an excess in complexity.

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald isn’t great, but for fans of the “Wizarding World,” it’s good enough. It’s . . . fine. It effortlessly holds your attention for well over two hours, and even if it fails to prove truly exceptional, it does leave you ready still for more. It’s like a cinema version of binge-watching a streaming television show: if the credits included a box you could click that said, “Watch next episode,” you’d still think to yourself, I still want to know what happens next! —*click*. One can only hope that, in the end, the inevitable road to Voldemort is more than just puzzle pieces clicking into place, and that the whole of this series proves better than the sum of its parts.

  Newt Scamander and a surprisingly drab beast, reluctantly ready for their closeup.

Newt Scamander and a surprisingly drab beast, reluctantly ready for their closeup.

Overall: B

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-