BOOK CLUB

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

The bottom line with Book Club, really, is that if you like the four classic female actors who headline the cast, it's basically a given that you'll like this movie. To be certain, with forty years or more of acting experience behind each one of them, they have all been in bad movies before, and this one isn't great -- but I must admit, I enjoyed it more than I thought I would. Each one of these women is a pleasure to spend time with onscreen, and having that with even one actor can elevate the experience. Here we get it four times over.

When it comes to the storytelling itself, first time feature director Bill Holderman (previously a director on films like A Walk in the Woods and All Is Lost -- this guy seems to specialize in vehicles for aging movie stars) really isn't offering anything new or innovative here. In fact there are some pretty eye-roll inducing moments a few times in the script, where I thought to myself, That's really dumb.

It's unfortunate, but there is something pretty forward-thinking about a mainstream movie featuring four women actors who range in age from 65 (Mary Steenbergen) to 72 (both Diane Keaton and Candice Bergen) to 80 (Jane Fonda). Women like this are getting comparatively steady work that they never would have gotten two or more decades ago, but even now it's unheard of for four of them to be headlining the same movie.

Some great actors play their love interests: Andy Garcia (62), Don Johnson (68), Craig T. Nelson (74), even Richard Dreyfuss (70), who we rarely get to see in movies anymore. Ed Begley Jr. (68) shows up as an ex; Wallace Shawn (74) has a brief scene as a date. So many old people! And okay, sure, there are still more men than women, but that's a technicality. Who gets ninety percent of the screen time? These four fantastic women.

Admittedly, the inciting incident -- what sets all four of them off on a late-in-life journey of self-discovery -- is definitively hokey: these friends, who have all met for a book club every month for forty years, move from intellectually stimulating literature to reading Fifty Shades of Grey. To be fair, they basically do it for a laugh, and none of them take it especially seriously -- but it is the tool by which a new kind of fire ignites in all of them. The book still gets made fun of, at least a little bit, but never in a mean-spirited way, which makes it easy to imagine author E.L. James signing off on its widespread use in the film. This is product placement at both its most brazen and its most seamlessly integrated.

And this is also why it's easy to imagine Book Club being a far worse movie than it is. It's actually perfectly decent, and made more fun by the actors in it -- all of them great, but none more so than Candice Bergen with her dry wit and smooth delivery.

It's not even as much about sex as you might expect. Sure, Carol (Steenbergen) is notably frustrated by her husband's (Nelson) apparent loss of sexual interest in her. This results in a sequence after she slips him a couple of Viagra pills that, like much of the movie, winds up being fun in spite of how hokey it is. Sharon (Bergen) delves into online dating for the first time, and her having nothing but pleasant experiences with that is beyond unrealistic, but whatever; watching her fumble with the website is funny anyway. Vivian (Fonda) has a story line that inverts tropes, where she is the successful woman fine with sex but uninterested in the complications of romance, but then falls for an old flame from forty years ago (Johnson). Diane (Keaton) curiously winds up being both the most focused-on character -- she narrates -- and the least interesting, with two daughters (played by Katie Aselton and Alicia Silverstone) laughably over-protective of their aging, widowed mother and trying to convince her to move from California to their basement in Arizona. In fact, this was the one story strand that genuinely annoyed me, because no woman in Diane's position in the real world would defer to her annoying children to the degree that she does.

And Holderman seems to have taken a page out of the Nancy Meyers playbook and given each of these fabulous older women fairly wealthy lifestyles that don't necessarily match their respective careers (or lack thereof). It makes for a lot of scenes set in beautiful homes, though, so Book Club is always pleasant to look at. This is a movie that could certainly use more depth in its unfolding plot, but focusing too much on that misses the point. No one here is aiming for anything higher than to have a good time, and these actors all clearly had a great time making this movie. That alone makes watching it about as pleasant -- and, surprisingly so, consistently funny -- as anyone could ask for.

  Everyone here is delighted to learn how much better this movie is than the book they're reading.

Everyone here is delighted to learn how much better this movie is than the book they're reading.

Overall: B

I FEEL PRETTY

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

Did you hear there was a backlash against I Feel Pretty? It was dumb as shit, perpetuated by many people making judgments based on the trailer alone. Well, I actually saw the movie, and guess what? Well . . . okay, it's also kind of dumb. But not dumb as shit! Also, it's fine. A pleasant enough, silly diversion.

Honestly, stupid reactions based on preconceived notions or not, conceptually, this movie would have fit much more sensibly in the cinema landscape of, say, the late nineties. It's not like the concept of a woman who does not fit traditional notions of "standard beauty" being confident and capable and sexy is all that novel these days. I Feel Pretty does kind of try to make it seem as though it is. Then again, sexism still runs rampant, and anyone who thinks resulting insecurity, particularly among women, is nonexistent is basically a moron.

So really, you can kind of go both ways with this movie. But here are some noteworthy redeeming values.

First and foremost is the impressively subtle performances. Amy Schumer as Renee Bennett has nuance arguably not seen before in her other movies, both as the insecure woman who can't conceive of herself as pretty, and as the more confident version of herself who suddenly sees only a spectacular beauty in the mirror after hitting her head in a Soul Cycle accident. She carries the movie well, and Aidy Bryant and Busy Philipps are lovely as her two best friends. Rory Scovel in particular is impressively subtle as Ethan, the boyfriend bemused by Renee's antics and inspired by her confidence.

The real standout, though, is Michelle Williams as Avery LeClaire, the CEO of the cosmetics company where Renee works. Perhaps her squeaky high voice was intended as comedy, but unfortunately Williams doesn't get much in the way of laughs, which means she won't get the notice she deserves. But she really commits to the part, to the point where it would be easy not to realize it's even her. Comedies don't usually feature acting this good. At the very least, Williams makes her character sincere and relatable, even as someone regular people would not tend to relate to.

But, they are launching a new, lower-end line of products aimed at stores like Target, which is how co-directors and co-writers Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein infuse the script with one of multiple odd parallels to the movie Big. Renee happens to be present at a meeting where she's offered the chance to make a "surprisingly" incisive observation, and in no time at all she's flying in a private plane with company leadership. Also, she literally watches the "I wish I were big" scene in Big and goes to make her own "I wish I were beautiful" wish with a coin in a fountain.

Which is to say, the idea that I Feel Pretty is contrived, and truly predictable, is an understatement. However dated the concept and message may seem however, they are still worthy. The very fact that people criticize this movie because Amy Schumer is supposedly "too beautiful" -- a famous blonde -- to be believable in the role is preposterous. Just spend two minutes reading any comment threads about her and within two sentences you'll find vile statements about her looks and her weight. Such critics, ironically, prove the film's actual worthiness.

Sure, I Feel Pretty has legitimate flaws, and won't be remembered as any kind of classic. It's also silly fun, with a message that may be hokey but is also important. Certain plot developments, and especially the "rousing speech" at the end, might justifiably elicit eye rolls, but there's nothing worth hating here. I found myself fairly charmed, all things considered.

  If only everyone felt such joy in what they saw in the mirror.

If only everyone felt such joy in what they saw in the mirror.

Overall: B

RBG

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

Given that Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg is -- you guessed it -- notorious as one of the more liberal justices on the federal bench today, it seems unlikely that many conservatives would watch the otherwise competently made documentary RBG and consider it a particularly objective portrait. And since I am rather liberal myself, I'm not sure how much weight it carries for me to insist that it is.

That said, co-directors Julie Cohen and Betsty West go out of their way, in this surprisingly subdued look at the woman and her extraordinary life's work, to note her longstanding friendship with her ideological opposite on the Supreme Court, Justice Antonin Scalia. And it's easy to be of two minds about this. As one of Ginsberg's respectful associates marvels, "I don't think I could be close friends with a right-wing nutcase." It's a line that gets a laugh. But, there is another way to look at it: considering the impediments of the extreme divisiveness of the country today, maybe this kind of friendship is an ideal to which the entire country should aspire?

After all, Ginsberg, as it turns out, has multiple key conservatives who disagree with her on just about everything, but find themselves nevertheless offering her respect. This film features kind words about her from Utah Senator Orin Hatch, a Republican who voted to confirm her in 1993. Quite extraordinarily, the Senate at the time voted to confirm her 96 to 3.

And in all likelihood, you'll have no idea how much work Justice Ginsberg has done to change America, specifically for women, long before she came to be on the Supreme Court, until you see RBG. She was always quiet, unassuming, and had a demeanor that belied her stealth ability to affect change. Incidentally, she is seen onscreen here noting that real, "enduring change, comes step by step." People on both sides of really any issue would do well to keep that in mind.

In any case, RBG will fill you in on Ginsberg being one of only nine women in her class at law school in the fifties; the five out of six cases she won arguing before the Supreme Court in the seventies and eighties; and how she became an icon of dissent in the 21st century. She brings up examples of shockingly horrible ways in which ways women were treated in otherwise polite company when she first started out, and this film illustrates with a somewhat quiet fascination how she played key roles in events that changed that.

RGB is also honest about her being human and not infallible -- such as when she made the clear mistake of speaking out against Donald Trump during his campaign. You can be rightly furious at this president all you want, but it doesn't change the role of a Supreme Court Justice and how inappropriate that was -- not to mention how much it undermines any work to resist him and policies.

Amazingly, it's Orin Hatch then seen coming to her defense, reminding us that nobody's perfect and everyone makes mistakes. Again, a lesson in mutual respect.

Honestly, I expected, or at least wanted, RBG to be a more overtly entertaining movie than it is. The information contained therein is essential, to be sure. But as a movie, RBG is occasionally a little dry. Then again, its subdued tone matches that of Justice Ginsberg herself, who proves not quite to the task of living up to all the "Notorious RBG" memes (the perpetrators of which are also interviewed), much as she is clearly amused by them.

How you respond to RBG as a movie is pretty much down to however you already respond to her as a person. I watched this movie, feeling both fearful of her age taking her off the Supreme Court when a madman could replace her with someone her ideological opposite at best, and a nutcase at worst; and hopeful as I watched clips of her working out with a trainer every morning. Someone else might just as easily watch this and feel the opposite on all counts. That is, unless they are like the Republicans featured here, who can still respect someone with whom they disagree. If there is any lasting legacy of this film, and of this woman, it should be that.

  Still here!

Still here!

Overall: B

THE ENDLESS

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

Well, you should be relieved to know that, counter-intuitively, The Endless clocks in at just under two hours. In the wrong hands, even at that length, a title like that could be dangerously provocative. In this case, even after the premise proves a little contrived, the story is consistently compelling.

It's easy to say essentially the same words about a whole bunch of different movies, after you've seen and discussed enough of them. It can take a lot for a movie to stand out. The odd thing about The Endless is that it certainly sets itself apart, but struggles to be especially memorable in the vast ocean of cinema history. Should you rush out and see this in the theatre? "Rush" is a strong word. I mean, I don't regret seeing it.

The best thing with The Endless is not to think too much about the details. It's better if you just go with it. I get hung up on strange details after the fact, like co-directors Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead playing the lead characters, brothers named . . . Justin and Aaron. According to the credits, in the movie their last name is Smith. Justin Benson, incidentally, wrote the script. This is the third feature film they have made together.

These brothers, as the story begins, receive a camcorder videocassette in the mail. On the tape is a recording of a young woman who was at the "death cult," as they have convinced themselves it was, they left nearly ten years before. Their lives are tedious and teetering on poverty and friendless and without romance, and Aaron convinces Justin to go back to the "commune" for a visit.

It's hardly unpredictable that this cult, which never is given a specific name, is not quite what it seems. Not to us, and not to Justin and Aaron. This extends even to what turns out to be their quite extensive past with this group of people, with is curiously top-heavy with men as opposed to women. I kept wondering about this, whether it was a specific artistic choice or just the common byproduct of casting in most movies. Out of maybe ten key characters, only two of them are women. And antidote to this, particularly when it comes to stories with mystical mysteries, might be revisiting the films written by Brit Marling (Another Earth, Sound of My Voice; she also did the Netflix series The O.A.).

These brothers, anyway, are from San Diego, and presumably the location of the people in this "cult" or mysterious "commune" or whatever you want to call it, is not particularly far from there. The Endless was clearly made on a small budget, and the filmmakers certainly make the most of what little they had. Things get weird in unexpected ways. To a degree, The Endless surprised me with elements of horror. It scared the shit out of me more than once.

What turns out actually to be going on, which is a stretch when it comes to plausibility, fascinates more than it horrifies. Benson and Moorhead use this construct as a device to tell the story of a close and complicated relationship between brothers. The more it focuses on that, the cornier it gets. Even more than when it focuses on the potentially supernatural.

Benson and Moorhead also served as co-producers and co-editors, and, while Benson wrote the script, Moorhead served as cinematographer. Taking on so many more roles than any individual usually does on a given movie production is indeed impressive, and The Endless comes across better in that context. These guys clearly have talent. Sure, it's the kind of talent that tends to stay in the realm of low-budget, independent film, but the stories they tell are well suited to such constraints.

  Things aren't as obvious as they seem!

Things aren't as obvious as they seem!

Overall: B

TULLY

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

Tully is like the "mom version" of Fight Club, if you swapped the emotional effects of toxic masculinity for those of postpartum depression. I honestly can't quite decide what to make of it, the turn the story takes near the end. It does beg the question: how well will this movie age? I can tell you for certain, Fight Club aged very, very poorly. It now comes across as self-congratulatory and almost oppressively pretentious. What will it be like to watch Tully in twenty years?

With script writer Diablo Cody (Juno, Young Adult), if nothing else, the stories she offers are reliably unique. Tully does indeed show a portrait of modern motherhood that is at once mundane, frustrating, funny, and deeply empathetic -- even for those of us who can't possibly give birth.

Charlize Theron, as Marlo, the mother in question, seems to have a thing for being a beautiful woman who can convincingly play "ugly" -- or at least beaten by exhaustion. "We might look like we're all better," she says, "but if you look close we're all covered in concealer." Theron, now 43, might be sending a message about herself as much as women in general. How would she look if she weren't famous, rich, and were dealing with two young children, one of them with special needs, and a baby? Probably not how she looks at the Academy Awards.

Marlo is pregnant with an unplanned baby, having started with her other kids two years before. Her brother Craig (Mark Duplass), who is much more well off than she is, offers to gift her the serves of a "night nanny," something she predictably scoffs at. But, when she finds herself overwhelmed, the night nanny appears in the form of Tully (a young -- although several years older than her character -- and pointedly thin and pretty Mackenzie Davis). Marlo's husband, Drew, is distracted by his work and playing video games at night and never really sees Tully.

Drew, by the way, is played by Ron Livingston, of Office Space fame, and this turns out to be an odd bit of casting. He and Mark Duplass look remarkably similar, and casting them as brothers in a movie would be and inspired idea. Here, however, they are brothers-in-law, and I found it jarring -- for a second I actually thought they were the same person and was confused. Are we meant to think that instead of the cliché of marrying her father, she effectively married her brother?

But, okay, that's beside the point. The real focus of this story is on Marlo and Tully and their relationship. Perhaps Tully is meant to represent Marlo's idealized vision of her younger self. Tully the movie should certainly be commended for its success in avoiding by-the-numbers storytelling. Usually in a movie about any kind of relationship -- romantic, platonic, whatever -- there comes a conflict that threatens to destroy the relationship, which must then be overcome. Tully does not unfold that way. In fact, Tully and Marlo never have any particularly confrontational moment.

That's not to say there is no conflict. It's just not what you think it is, and once the nature of the conflict is revealed, it puts the entire film into a new light. The Twitter outrage machine is already declaring it "problematic," suggesting it conflates depression with psychosis. One could argue that take reads too much into what the story is trying to say. It actually may be simpler and less sinister than that.

That said, as a storytelling device, I found it a little deflating, and a lot disappointing. For a minute. Somehow, once that disappointment -- which took me out of the movie, never a good thing -- passed, the longtime team of writer Diablo Cody and director Jason Reitman ties things together in a surprisingly touching way. I was won back over with impressive swiftness, wiping away tears brought on a by a final shot that is both beautiful in its simplicity and deeply moving. So, is it a clever glimpse into the mind of modern motherhood, or is it a gimmick? It may take some years of history to judge.

  Too tired to cry over spilled juice.

Too tired to cry over spilled juice.

Overall: B

FINAL PORTRAIT

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

Are you fond of Armie Hammer? Geoffrey Rush? Swiss Italian artist Alberto Giacometti? Still portraits? Well, then Final Portrait might still not be the movie for you! It might be if you enjoy watching people stare off into space though.

Here is one of those films that the critics praise, audiences barely register, and which makes barely more than nothing at the box office. Domestic box office has nearly reached $300,000! Nobody is paying any real attention to this movie, and to be honest, they don't particularly need to. So, neither do you. Is there any point even in continuing to read this review? Whatever, I'll say a few more things about it just for shits and giggles.

Final Potrait clocks in at all of ninety minutes, and it feels like it's an hour longer than that. Rush and Hammer are serviceable as Giacometti and his young friend James Lord, as is Tony Shaloub as Alberto's apparently live-in artist brother, Diego. The trouble is that Stanley Tucci, as director, doesn't give us a whole lot else to hold onto.

I suppose those who enjoy this movie -- and to be fair, there are one or two -- might cite the chemistry between Rush and Hammer, as Roberto and James develop an odd relationship over the course of about three weeks. At an exhibit, Roberto offers to paint James's portrait, promising that it'll be quick. A couple of hours, one afternoon, tops! But then he drags the process on and on, and on, and on -- all the while somehow duping James into spending a fortune changing his flight home to New York, several times.

Evidently we're meant to think of Roberto's lack of focus, his flightiness, and his obsession with a local prostitute (Clémence Poésy) as charming. I found it all, and especially his stringing James along, a steady process between tedious and annoying. The first time I saw Roberto "undo" days of work by painting over my face with broad gray strokes to start all over, I'd have been like, fuck this shit, I'm out of here.

To be fair, I can't quite say Final Portrait is boring. I'd say it barely stops short of that. This is not exactly a ringing endorsement. It all just goes on way too long, these repetitive scenes of largely the same things: artist at a canvas, subject sitting in a chair and staring. Tucci attempts to liven things up with tensions between Roberto and his wife, Annette (Sylvie Testud), and boisterous interludes with Caroline the whore.

With a few exceptions, almost the entire film takes place in Roberto Giacometti's studio. It's all very drab, nothing but varying shades of grey. About the only thing really worth an extended gaze is Armie Hammer's handsomeness. And all he ever does is sit, sometimes get up to stretch. Chat a bit. This movie could have used a little more crackle in its dialogue. There are hints of potential there occasionally, but it never ultimately proves fruitful.

I suppose I should clarify. It's true, I wasn't quite completely bored by this movie -- just almost. But you will be.

  You'll love it if you like sitting and staring into space!

You'll love it if you like sitting and staring into space!

Overall: C+

YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE

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

It's not often a movie practically forces you to pay attention to its cinematography and editing. You Were Never Really Here does from its first moment, as writer-director Lynne Ramsay uses close-ups and carefully mixed sounds to drop us in the middle of her main character's world. Most of the story we ultimately see takes place in New York, but we meet Joe (Juaquin Phoenix) in a Cincinnati motel room. He's finished up a job that has something to do with a young girl, packs up and disposes of several small items, and we follow closely behind as he walks out the back door into a dingy alleyway. Lest we forget the violence of the world he inhabits, some random guy attempts to mug him, and Joe just head butts him into submission. Then he takes a taxi to the airport.

This doesn't sound that compelling, but You Were Never Really Here is the kind of movie that makes even the most mundane things compelling. Given the rattling noises constantly bombarding us from around Joe's immediate environments, we are meant to get a taste of the total lack of calm inside Joe's head. Back in New York, we learn, as he does, that his next job involves rescuing another young girl from a life of forced sex work. She is the daughter of a state senator.

Very little in this story is predictable, save for the totally expected element of things not quite going as planned. And as we see Joe, cleverly edited through the lenses of security camera footage, making his way through guards with his trusty hammer, his procurement of Nina (a steadfast Ekaterina Samsonov) seems to go as planned far longer than you might expect. This is the kind of movie in which you expect twists to happen, but then the twists only come just when you begin to think they won't.

And as much praise as I want to give this movie -- which is very well done -- I must say I was slightly disappointed with the ending. I won't spoil it, except to say that it offers a twist of its own, but in a downbeat, unexpected way. Just when you think something exciting -- or at least shocking -- is going to happen, it's a slight let down, as of the air were suddenly let out of the tires of this movie's tension, which up until that point is nearly relentless. That said, I also have a healthy respect for a subtext that only gets more depressing the more you think about it.

And You Were Never Really Here offers plenty to think about. Joaquin Phoenix has never been better, here embodying a character who has a surprisingly comforting presence given how violent and tortured he is. Ramsay even provides us with a suitably dark reason for the hammer being his weapon of choice -- again, quite effectively revealed through stark visual and sound editing. More than once I jumped during this movie, not because of deliberate jump-scares but just because of the way sound is used.

One of the oddest twists of this story is that it could have benefited from being more unsettling. Or maybe I've just watched too many disturbing movies. I mean, if you're used to family entertainment, then this probably will keep you up at night. Otherwise, Ramsay uses hyper stylization to compensate for the script being, even if only to a minor degree, its weakest element. To that end, though, she does a bang up job.

  Joaquin Phoenix and his beard team up as a force to be reckoned with.

Joaquin Phoenix and his beard team up as a force to be reckoned with.

Overall: B+

LEAN ON PETE

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

I listened to a guy on a podcast recently insisting he's only interested in movies about people, never movies about animals. Movie animals are always anthropomorphized, he said, as a means of emotional manipulation.

Someone should show that guy Lean on Pete, the movie about a teenager named Charley (a truly excellent Charlie Plummer) who runs away with a racehorse. I'm not going to lie: this movie is a tearjerker. It even goes to some surprisingly dark places, and ends with the kind of cry that is a relief.

But the titular racehorse? Writer-director Andrew Haigh is never at all sentimental about him. This really is a human story, one about a boy with no anchor in his life, an absent mother and a negligent father, who projects his own emotions onto that horse. The jockey he meets, in the form of Chloë Sevigny, who has twenty years experience racing horses, tells him over and over not to get attached to the horse.

The thing is, Charley never lets on to any of the people he runs across exactly what's going on in his life. Before he's even taking off with the horse he learns is otherwise headed to slaughter in Mexico, he's sleeping overnight in one of the stables of the guy he's started working for (Steve Buscemi). His home life takes a suddenly violent turn and Charley can't bear to stay there. There are many more details there that I don't want to spoil.

Maybe the first half of Lean on Pete focuses on the job Charley gets at the horse racetrack, earning money from a potential father figure, of the kind he sorely needs. All the people he's working with know is that Charley is steadily becoming too attached to that horse. They have no concept of why, and once Charley decides to take off with the truck and its horse trailer, they are never seen again.

The second half, then, follows Charley as he attemps to travel from Oregon to Wyoming, where he understands the beloved aunt, who had a falling out with his father four years before, lives. It's a sort of unusual road trip movie, which gets more depressing the more filthy Charley gets. He does sneak into someone's house to use their washing machine.

Call it a spoiler if you like, but I think anyone who sets out to watch Lean on Pete should be warned that things don't exactly bode well for that horse. The revelation of Lean on Pete's fate is jarring, to say the least. Some might call it genuinely disturbing. To the movie's credit, at least, it's not in the least bit contrived -- as can be said for most of the story. What becomes of Pete, and particularly of this horse, is about what could be expected of a wandering teenage boy with little experience.

It's still a while even after that before we find out what's waiting for Charley in Wyoming. There's time for yet another stop along the way for Charley to spend some time in the bad part of a city he's passing through, where he meets a conniving homeless man (Steve Zahn). Lean on Pete never takes the clichéd paths traveled by other movies, but still it does show Charley sinking to some very bad behaviors, just to get by.

It's hard to take your eyes off of it, though. Its Eastern Oregon desert vistas are well shot, the performances across the board are excellent, and Charlie Plummer, previously seen as John Paul Getty III in last year's criminally underappreciated All the Money in the World, is reason to see the movie on his own. Most notably, it takes an unusually realistic look at the animals it features, presenting them as they really are -- undeserving of suffering, of course, but also not in any way inhuman. Charley's attachment to Lean on Pete is entirely a reflection of Charley and really, all Lean on Pete cares about is getting some needed space and a place to shit.

That doesn't make Lean on Pete any less effective as a film -- and it could be argued it's made even more so by it. All the compassion is aimed at Charley, which is where it should be. You'll cry for the horse as well, certainly, but the cathartic tears are reserved for that poor boy. And that's a good thing. There comes a point in Lean on Pete when it begins to feel like maybe just a little too much despair, but don't fret. This movie will leave you feeling hopeful about the things the truly resilient can survive.

  Walking through the Eastern Oregon desert with a horse with a long name...

Walking through the Eastern Oregon desert with a horse with a long name...

Overall: B+

FOXTROT

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

Foxtrot is presented in three acts, each pretty radically different from the last, almost as though watching three separate 35-minute short films. They are inextricably linked, however, and as such do not feel so separate, in spite of the jarring change of environments.

The first and third act feature the same characters, but a different focus. The first is on middle-aged father Michael Feldman, played by Lior Ashkenazi, who looks rather like a cross between Christoph Waltz and Steve Carell. Writer-director Samuel Maoz takes an almost uncomfortably intimate look at a father's grief when he is told his son was killed in action, Ashkenazi showing a shattered vulnerability rarely seen with men onscreen.

In this first act, Michael's wife, Daphna (Sarah Adler), has been drugged and spends much of the time incapacitated in bed. I began to wonder if Foxtrot would be a disappointment in its sidestepping of its female characters. But when the story returns to these two in the third act, the focus shifts much more on her.

In between, the story shifts suddenly to the military post where their son, Jonathan (Yonaton Shiray), is stationed with three other young men manning a checkpoint out in the middle of nowhere. Just as often as the gate is raised for Palestinians passing through, it's raised for a camel meandering down the road.

In spite of these soldiers' general lack of emotion, this entire second act is hypnotic in its pacing and in its stark imagery. Grimy computer equipment is used to scan passport photos to check for clearance; makeshift tools are used to keep a run-down radio working. It all feels like an old vision of a dystopian future, distant echoes of films like Blade Runner, as if to demonstrate that such dystopian visions are very real, current realities in certain parts of the world.

The soldiers have an eerily dispassionate approach to their jobs. In one memorable sequence, a middle-aged Palestinian couple dressed in formal attire is asked to step out of their car. They wait as their passports are scanned, drenched quickly under a sudden torrential rainfall.

Foxtrot is full of fairly obvious metaphors, not least of which is the title itself, with separate characters at different times literally dancing the Foxtrot to demonstrate how they always wind up right back where they began. The young Israeli soldiers hang out inside an abandoned shipping container, which is slowly lowering into the ground at one end. One of them says, "We're sinking." Indeed. Somehow, though, obviousness notwithstanding, these metaphors stop short of feeling forced.

With another carload of young Palestinians, something goes terribly wrong, a simple mistake turned into tragically fatal error. Jonathan is involved, but the way he fits into the broader story arc of Foxtrot is not quite what you first expect. Sudden turns of events that alter people's lives and fates can come out of nowhere, quite randomly, with no apparent link to moral cause and effect. In the real world, there is no karma -- only senselessness.

There's a sort of elusive perfection to this movie, a clear precision, a unique finesse, without spelling out exactly what Samuel Maoz is trying to say. Certainly plenty of Israelis feel they understand it, as this movie has proved controversial in its country of origin. That's hardly surprising. For the rest of us, further removed from those cultural biases, it's easier to take Foxtrot as a beautifully artistic portrait of familial grief, and how perception can radically alter meaning. Jonathan's parents observe one of his drawings left behind, of a bulldozer moving a wrecked car, as a representation of themselves. They have no idea the drawing is a straightforward representation of a life changing event.

Foxtrot is the kind of movie that stays with you, both provocative and deeply moving. It reminded me in certain ways of The Hours, otherwise very different but also a portrait of emotional pain, from varying perspectives that click into place like a psychological puzzle. Its themes are definitively depressing, but there's something extremely satisfying about it.

  It's a dance that just brings you back to where you started.

It's a dance that just brings you back to where you started.

Overall: A-

OUTSIDE IN

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

It's too bad when an indie movie is shot locally in a small town, and even reflects pretty positively on that town, and yet the movie does not show in any theatres close to that town. Outside In is set in Granite Falls, 15 miles northwest of Everett, and was shot both there and in Snohomish county -- director Lynn Shelton (Humpday, Your Sister's Sister) grew up in Seattle and tends to set her films in the area. It's too bad any of the roughly 3,000 people who live in Granite Falls would have to travel 43 miles to see it at the one theatre it's playing at in Western Washington, SIFF Cinema at the Uptown on Lower Queen Anne.

Lucky for me, I only life two miles from there! And I'm just one degree removed from residents of the area where the story takes place -- I have an aunt and cousin from Granite Falls. I have no idea if this would hold any interest to them, except to recognize their hometown. And of course, people from Snohomish County will quite easily be able to see this movie on some streaming service before long -- if they think to look for it. Well, take note: this Lynn Shelton woman makes consistently lovely movies, and this one, like the aforementioned ones, is worth looking for. I'm just a bit of a cinema snob myself, and it's always nice to see Pacific Northwest greenery, soggy with rain, depicted on a big screen.

This particular story features Jay Duplass as Chris, a 38-year-old man just out of prison after serving twenty years (in Walla Walla!) for having been associated with a crime in high school. It's made clear he was "in the wrong place at the wrong time," but due to sentencing minimums he was given an unfairly long prison sentence. He's only been released even now thanks to the tireless legal work of his high school English teacher, Carol (Edie Falco).

Outside In examines the struggles of such a person re-entering public life after two decades behind bars, including an understandable infatuation with Carol, his one true friend on the outside through all that time. Acclimating to smart phones is the least of his troubles.

Carol, for her part, is stuck in a lifeless marriage and feels increasingly distant from her daughter Hildy (Kaitlyn Dever), who herself takes an interest in Chris, although that interest never quite crosses over into the romantic. Chris also has a brother (Ben Schwartz, very convincing as a Duplass brother) who feels very guilty, and is thus surrounded by people who desperately want the best for him, don't quite know how to help him get it, and find themselves enmeshed in his life in variously awkward ways.

And if there is anything Outside In traffics in, it's awkwardness. I squirmed in my seat at this movie more than I do at many horror movies. Edie Falco is excellent in her depiction of a conflicted woman who can't really decide whether she feels the same way Chris unabashedly feels about her.

Beyond that, the story here unfolds both organically and pleasantly, and in spite of all the awkwardness, in the end it's rather sweet. With the exception of Carol's husband (Charles Leggett), who is kind of a clueless dipshit, these characters all offer their own reasons to make you wish you could just give them a big hug. Jay Duplass is very well cast for this sort of thing.

And getting back to that setting, this is also of note: Lynn Shelton is one of the few directors who knows how to present the Pacific Northwest, and particularly its precipitation, in a realistic way. No claps of thunder! No torrential rainfalls! It's actually raining in only a few of the scenes, and then only lightly; the rest of the time it's -- well, green, gray and damp. For about three quarters of the year around here, that about sums it up. But the camera in this movie also shows effectively how beautiful that leaves the region, especially the rural areas, roads cutting through hills thick with pines.

The small town people are depicted realistically and respectfully, for the record, with no particular agenda in representation. The most political this gets is Carol's tireless work to combat unfair sentencing. This is a simple story of a duck out of water, or maybe more specifically a duck that's been away from water too long and no longer quite knows what to do with it. It makes for a refreshingly unique story, and an ultimately heartwarming one at that.

  I guess you could call it a May-September romance.

I guess you could call it a May-September romance.

Overall: B+