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-

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-