EIGHTH GRADE

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

Eighth Grade is a revelation, and that's not just hyperbole. I mean that literally: approaching my mid-forties, this movie revealed to me how aging creates biases even in those of us who actively push against a biased look at contemporary youth.

I've spent a lot of time thinking about how radically the world is for young people and kids today, compared to when I was a kid. I'm not even that old, and when I was in high school, we had one special room dedicated to computers. We didn't have these laptops at every desk, let alone mobile devices in every hand. I've spent so much time thinking about how technological advances have inevitably changed later generations, I lost sight of how the way kids are, their hopes and their anxieties, they way they interact with each other -- on a purely emotional level, nothing has really changed at all. It's just the platforms that have changed.

Watching thirteen-year-old Kayla (a superb Elsie Fisher) navigate her world with all-consuming uncertainty is like a time-warp to when I was the same age. She's raised by a single parent, as was I, as were a huge number of us. Unlike my single mother, Kayla lives with a single dad, Mark (Josh Hamilton, also excellent). And he worries about his daughter, tries awkwardly to connect with her, makes his own stupid mistakes, and swells with a pride for her that she is too preoccupied to see.

First-time feature writer-director Bo Burnham, previously known as a musician-comedian (his two comedy specials, from 2013 and 2016, are currently streaming on Netflix), has said in interviews how deliberate he was about choosing a girl for his protagonist in this movie rather than a boy. Boys this age aren't that emotional -- boys talk about Fortnight, he says; girls bear their souls. He allowed Elsie Fisher to guide him in his depiction of eighth-grade living and attitudes, which was an inspired choice. This is a guy who, to me, is himself very young: he's all of 27 years old. But that's still a hell of a lot closer to teen years than I am now, and makes him a better choice for reflecting the lives and challenges of school kids today.

He is more than up to the task and executes it nearly flawlessly. Eighth Grade avoids any pitfall or cliche of typically storytelling you can imagine. Wherever you might think you know where it's going, it never goes that way -- but neither does it have any "twists," per se. It just offers characters who feel genuine and real, and Kayla's semi-desperate lack of confidence is heartbreakingly familiar. Fisher does a fantastic job of giving us a sense that she has great potential to grow into herself.

I did find myself thinking about the number of adults I've known who continue to struggle with the same sorts of awkward anxieties. Some people never quite grow out of it. Lucky for any of us watching Eighth Grade, it seems Kayla is poised to grow out of this problem. Many of us do get lucky on that front. That said, if I had any complaint, I rather wish Burnham had included some indication that Kayla's hurtfully dismissive classmate Kennedy (Catherine Oliviere) had her own struggles -- if not exactly the same, then ones that ran parallel. Because who in middle school doesn't?

Still, even though Eighth Grade is relentlessly awkward, it pulls off a rare magic trick in that every scene is also either a delight, a tightrope of tension, or an emotional gut punch. For the great many people poised to relate to this movie in a way they perhaps never have to any other, rooting for Kayla feels like rooting for one's former self. I suppose when it comes to boys, maybe it's different for gay ones like me. Or maybe not? Although Burnham certainly depicts many of the young boys here as having a bit of a one-track mind, any adult regardless of gender or sexuality who is open to a movie like this to begin with is bound to find themselves deeply moved.

This is a movie about a specific time of life that is rarely depicted, bookended between milestones. Kayla, about to finish eighth grade, opens a "time capsule" box filled with things she left for herself at the end of the sixth grade, when she was about to start middle school. By the end of this story, she is assembling a new box for herself to open in four years when she finishes high school. She makes YouTube videos filled with advice she's mostly incapable of taking herself, which virtually no one watches. But then it gets watched by at least one person who matters, and the video she leaves for herself offers a glimpse of her dawning realization of how much she matters.

It's a retroactive comfort to many of our former selves, a kind of reassurance we wish we could travel back in time to give. Eighth Grade isn't going to be for everyone, but to the people it's for, it's near perfection.

  Adolescent actors to watch for: Elsie Fisher is superb in  Eighth Grade .

Adolescent actors to watch for: Elsie Fisher is superb in Eighth Grade.

Overall: A

SORRY TO BOTHER YOU

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

It's hard to decide what to make of Sorry to Bother You. This is a movie with something clear to say, although exploring the corrupting influence of money and power is hardly a new idea. What's very new here is the way first-time writer-director Boots Riley does it. To say that very late in the story, things take a hard turn for the fucking weird -- that's an understatement.

I wanted to love this movie, I really did, but I just couldn't. Most of it is technical issues. It so lacks polish and refinement that it feels much like a rough draft turned in as the final product.

Plenty of people are loving this movie, so I still won't spoil any of the major twists. I went in ready to be all in, and progressively lost my patience for it. Part of the concept is that when Cassius Green (Atlanta's Lakeith Stanfield) gets a job at a telemarketing company, he's advised by a coworker, Langston (Danny Glover, great to see), that he'll only make sales if he talks in his "white voice." When Langston demonstrates, we hear the voice of Steve Buscemi. When Cassius finds his "white voice," it's David Cross. When Cassius is promoted to "Power Caller" upstairs, his unnamed new boss (Omari Hardwick) is voiced by Patton Oswalt.

Part of the joke, of course, is that these three white actors couldn't be more white, at at least the sounds of their voices couldn't. Oswalt in particular is playing up how this is "his whitest moment" as he gleefully promotes the film. It's very much like voice talent being hired for an animated film, except here it's live action and the onscreen actors appear to be lip syncing. And honestly, this is executed with mixed results, very few of them including finesse. It's amusing, and the satirical point is clear, but it's also distracting. It nearly always seems as though they could have used a bit more rehearsing, as the lip movements barely succeed at matching. To be fair, I guess, that is likely far more the fault of the voice talent than the onscreen actors, given the likelihood that instead of lip syncing per se, the scenes were shot first and then the voices looped in later. But it's still up to the director to make sure it looks right.

As such, this entire production feels rushed. And that's not to say I have no issues with the script, either: A money-hungry Cassius being called "Cash" for short is just one of many things in this movie that are a bit too on the nose. That twist at the end is a "workhorse" metaphor just as obvious as it is bizarre.

The actors nearly across the board have undeniable charisma, at least, and Lakeith Stanfield gives Cassius a lot more dimension than the script does. He has great chemistry with Tessa Thompson, who plays his girlfriend. Armie Hammer is perfectly cast as the CEO of WorryFree, a company that gives workers "contracts for life." If you blink you might miss Forest Whitaker in a rather surprising context.

The thing is, I can understand someone loving this movie. I can even see credible arguments that I just didn't "get it." (Although I think I pretty much do.) Maybe everything I criticize here was done by Boots Riley pointedly and for a reason. Or maybe it was they were crunched for time and budget. This is Riley's debut feature film, though, and it feels very much like it -- the kind of film you might give a backhanded compliment by saying it's good for a debut. Boots Riley has clear talent, and a clear eye for talent. If nothing else, Sorry to Bother You certainly leaves me looking forward to what he might do next, with more time and a bigger budget that hopefully is the byproduct of this movie's success.

  I'll give credit to the costume designer, at least.

I'll give credit to the costume designer, at least.

Overall: B-

SKYSCRAPER

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

I was never going to think Skyscraper was great, but this is the thing: I love skyscrapers. How could I not see this? So here's what I did. I went with a friend to Happy Hour beforehand, and had three margaritas.

I didn't get drunk enough.

I was big on disaster movies as a kid. As a lover of skyscrapers, I particularly loved The Towering Inferno (1974). Kids seeing Skyscraper now at the age I first watched The Towering Inferno on VHS probably have no idea the latter movie ever even existed. That one was set in San Francisco and featured a fictional tower that had 138 floors -- only slightly far fetched for its time, as then the tallest building in the world in real life was the World Trade Center in New York City, which stood at 110 floors.

We now live in a world in which Dubai's Burj Khalifa stands with 163 floors, 2,717 feet. Any fictional "tallest building in the world" in 2018 has to up the ante yet again, so Skyscraper's The Pearl stands in Hong Kong at 220 stories. A brief media clip at the beginning of the film even gives height comparisons in a graphic: it "dwarfs the Burj Khalifa and triple the height of the Empire State Building." The Empire State Building has 102 floors, by the way. If The Pearl's 220 floors are tripe that height, those most be some seriously high individual floor ceilings. Maybe it's that 30-story "park" in the middle of the building.

The Pearl's design makes it look like a giant Twizzler stick with a gargantuan baseball wedged into the opening at the top. Or, you know, a pearl. Every single level has protruding ledges under the window panels that would never be part of any real-world skyscraper design, but hey, they sure are convenient for Dwayne Johnson to step on!

And what director Rawson Marshall Thurber does with this movie is no more than rip of equal parts of The Towering Inferno and Die Hard. The former movie was about hubris and greed resulting in a disastrous skyscraper fire; the latter about a terrorist hostage situation in a Los Angeles skyscraper (that one all of 40 floors) -- they both stand the test of time incredibly well. Skyscraper is about a criminal syndicate attacking a building, disabling its fire safety system, and setting it on fie; it was dated before it even got released.

I mean, I won't lie -- I had some fun watching it. "Some" being the telling, key word. Dwayne Johnson is watchable enough; Neve Campbell in the role of his wife is given far more agency than women ever are in these movie -- so, props for that. Johnson's ex-cop security analyst, in fact, only survives thanks to her. That part's pretty cool. Having one of their twin kids have asthma in a movie about being stuck in a burning building is a little on the nose.

All of the setup at the beginning of the movie, establishing the characters and the story, is so dull we might as well be looking at a live feed of a freshly painted wall. For the first half hour or so, Skyscraper redefines blandness. Once Johnson's Will Sawyer realizes his family is trapped in the otherwise not-yet filled residential portion of the tower, he finds his way inside -- via a construction crane. Here we get a couple sequences on par with the Mission: Impossible movies, as in ridiculously improbable. The difference is in sophistication of execution. Mission: Impossible movies are preposterous but have finesse. Skyscraper is preposterous and . . . dumb.

Too much of Skyscraper winds up devolving into unnecessary shootouts, which themselves have zero style. It's repetitive and monotonous enough to put you to sleep. At least until Neve Campbell starts kicking some ass. She's the best thing in this movie. Still, you can see that shit in any action movie. Get back to the death-defying stunts a thousand feet above the ground!

There's a maybe twenty minute stretch in the middle when Skyscraper transcends its eminent mediocrity and becomes truly gripping, in spite of its rampant idiocies. Even there, every single thing seen onscreen is executed far better in the jaw-dropping Burj Khalifa sequence in Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol (2011). That movie's available from Netflix right now and has been for several years. Honestly you should skip Skyscraper and just watch that.

  Strike the pose: Dwayne Johnson flies over Hong Kong.

Strike the pose: Dwayne Johnson flies over Hong Kong.

Overall: C+

THE LAST SUIT

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

I'll give The Last Suit this much: it has a novelty to it I had not yet encountered -- namely, a story about Polish Jewish immigrants in Argentina. Typically movies about Jewish people are either seen through the lens of American perspectives, or if they are foreign films, either German or Israeli -- for obvious reasons. Conversely, most films from Latin America are specific to the Latino experience. This movie combines those two things.

Beyond that, however, Argentinian director Pablo Solarz oversimplifies things a tad, in so doing somewhat cheapening the truly tragic history of the Jewish people. Even though we learn that the elderly Abraham Bursztein (Miguel Ángel Solá) once witnessed the Nazi execution of both his parents as well as his sister, this movie never truly succeeds in bearing down the weight of the Holocaust. It's too busy following this eccentric man's travels and exploring diversions with people he comes across.

We do learn that he was born in 1927. A reference to the iPhone 6 by one of his great grandchildren establishes the present day to be fully modern: the story is set now. Being released in Argentina in 2017, that would make Abraham 90 years old. Miguel Ángel Solá was born in 1950, which means the actor was significantly aged for the part. I'll admit the movie's makeup department does a good job here.

Abraham, disillusioned with grown children who now want to put him in a retirement home (he's ninety, for fuck's sake), skips town in Argentina and takes flight to Europe, on his way to the Warsaw of his youth to reunite with the best friend who nursed him back to health after returning from a concentration camp. The first stop is Madrid, where his one estranged daughter still live. He travels, over the course of the story, from Madrid through Germany -- much as he tries to get to Poland without having to set foot in Germany -- to Warsaw.

Other characters come and go through his travels. The young man sitting next to him on the airplane, who gives him a ride to his hostel. The older woman working the front desk at the hostel, who takes him out. And potentially the most problematic, the middle-aged German woman he meets on the train who seems to exist only as an avatar for German's national shame about the Holocaust. "Things have changed in Germany," she says, after speaking to him in Yiddish because she studied it in college, and then spends a good portion of the film being a sort of German Good Samaritan for his benefit.

All of this is readily engaging, but never really gets to the meat of the issues, or particularly the history at play. Furthermore, it's maybe halfway through the film before we get flashbacks to 1945 Warsaw, and the scenes of Abraham being nursed by the young friend he's now searching for -- the lack detail and context, to the point that they fail to ring true. Those scenes in particular feel a little like watching an amateur play.

The Last Suit does have its charms. It's about a cranky old man bringing a suit back to a friend, now a taylor (hence the film's title), he hasn't seen in seventy years. Those charges are incongruous with the horrors in the man's past, barely touched on, mentioned almost in passing. Those family murders are only brought up as justification for Abraham's hatred of all Germans. Predictably, his heart softens with the German woman after a while.

It's all just too tidy. As a film, there's nothing terribly wrong with The Last Suit, but neither does it ever feel quite right.

  Still waiting for all this to come together satisfyingly .

Still waiting for all this to come together satisfyingly.

Overall: B-

WHITNEY

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

I think maybe I never gave Whitney Houston enough credit. God knows I wasn't the only one: even when a superstar changes the landscape before an untimely and tragic end -- the light the burns twice as bright burns half as long, and all that -- it's inevitably that end that people remember most. Especially when, in the end, that person was reduced to a series of punch lines.

When I was a kid and knew nothing about Whitney Houston besides her music, I thought her music was . . . fine. I was too young to understand the significance of her extraordinary talent. And her early uptempo pop hits, honestly, didn't really highlight those talents. The ballads she sang certainly did. When she blew the world away singing the National Anthem at the Super Bowl in 1991, I wasn't even paying attention.

When it comes to documentaries about specific people, particularly pop stars, naturally I usually see the ones about people I already have some familiarity with. In those cases, the eternal question is whether the film works well even for someone who is not already a fan. Whitney, the new film by Kevin MacDonald (The Last King of Scotland), definitely fits that bill. I was never especially a fan of Whitney Houston, never owned any of her albums. Okay fine, for some years I did own a copy of the Bodyguard soundtrack -- I mean, who didn't? -- but as of now the only Whitney Houston track I have in my possession is the Thunderpuss Club Mix of her 1999 single "It's Not Right but It's Okay," gifted to me by a DJ friend. And yet, after seeing Whitney, it struck me as genuinely illuminating. I left the theatre seeing Whitney Houston in a way I did not going in.

Most of that simply comes down to empathy. Whitney Houston's story is a particularly tragic one, with a meteoric rise and a gradual but persistent fall. What Whitney does effectively, though, is invert the narrative that makes the most piteous parts of her story the most memorable. Kevin MacDonald reminds us of her powerhouse talent, and forces us to remember it.

This is a woman who broke many records. Best selling debut album by a solo artist. Only artist to have seven consecutive #1 singles (from her first two albums). She was even the first major artist to play a concert in post-Apartheid South Africa in 1994. A fair amount of time is spent in Whitney discussing what she meant to black audiences, both in America and around the world. And not even any of that compares to when The Bodyguard, whose soundtrack sold 42 million copies worldwide and is one of the five best selling albums in history, in spite of it containing only six of her songs. Still, this isn't just about effective marketing of vapid crowd pleasing pop. It's about a voice to be reckoned with.

Although the context is unique and specific, Whitney still illustrates how that kind of fame can wreck a person, as well as the people close to them. MacDonald gets a remarkably well-rounded group of people to speak on the record, from Whitney's singer mother Cissy Houston, and her siblings, to record producer Clive Davis, to The Bodyguard costar Kevin Costner, to even ex husband Bobby Brown. These names barely scratch the surface when it comes to those speaking on the record.

Bobby Brown actually says, on camera, with a straight face, "Drugs has nothing to do with her life." He didn't want to talk about her drug use. "That has nothing to do with this documentary," he says. Um. What?

Even people with comparatively little familiarity with Whitney Houston -- that would be me -- know that she had a drug problem, and it was what killed her. Some other things that don't seem widely known: at last two people in this film suggest, when discussing an extremely close friend who was a lesbian, that Whitney Houston was bisexual. Perhaps most significantly, two other people confirm that Whitney Houston told them she was molested by a female cousin as a child.

These sorts of things are laid out in Whitney with some very skilled editing, certain sound bites being repeated later in the film, revealing more of what was said than before, and thereby deeply expanding their meaning -- and, in some cases, their tragedy. To MacDonald's credit, this is never done in a gimmicky way. All it ever does is shine a light on what created every iteration of Whitney Houston in a life cut short.

In the end, Whitney Houston was a bigger mess of contradictions than it clearly seemed in the beginning -- in a time when marketing a talent like hers was much simpler. One wonders what a Whitney Houston would have looked like had she been born twenty years later and grown up in the age of social media. As it is, MacDonald gets hold of some clearly very rare early-career home video footage. Some of it is surprisingly delightful: in the late eighties, her mother (unfairly) talking shit about Janet Jackson; in the same conversation, Whitney (quite fairly) talking shit about Paula Abdul.

I do wish MacDonald had included more about the specific stages of Whitney Houston's career, a bit more about specific albums. But maybe that's just my OCD talking. This is a story much more about the stages of this incredible woman's life, who got into drugs quite early on and ultimately paid the price for how blasé she was about it. And that story, as presented here, is an incredibly effective and memorable one, worth seeing whether you regard yourself a fan or not.

  How Will I Know? By watching this documentary.

How Will I Know? By watching this documentary.

Overall: B+

SICARIO: DAY OF THE SOLDADO

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

Believe it or not, Ocean's 8 and Sicario: Day of the Soldado have something in common. They are both relatively solid, competent and compelling films on their own terms, which suffer needlessly by insisting on tying themselves to earlier, far superior work.

I keep thinking of one of the few lines in Day of the Soldado that really stuck with me. When Josh Brolin's CIA agent Matt Graver says, "Doesn't change anything," Catherine Keener's Cynthia Foards from the Department of Defense replies, "It changes the fucking narrative!"

Indeed, changing the fucking narrative is something Day of the Soldado does in multiple ways -- some not quite to its benefit, such as the broader implications of the narrative in its own film series.

And then there's its political and social context within the real world. As far as I'm concerned, Day of the Saldado begins with a misstep. These movies are supposed to be about the unrelentingly messy nature of Mexican drug cartels and how they affect life at the border, yet for some reason director Stefano Sollima and writer Taylor Sheridan kick things off with suicide bombers at the border who are not necessarily Mexican, but more importantly, Muslim. Prayer rugs left behind at the scene of a bombing. Another set of suicide bombers inside a grocery store in Kansas City.

So, not only does this movie conflate Mexican drug criminals and radical Muslim terrorists, but plenty of conservatives are going to see this movie as a grand advertisement for the president's border wall. Day of the Soldado doesn't bother to offer the well-worn statistics showing that more Mexicans are actually leaving the U.S. than entering it -- why? Because it changes the fucking narrative.

To be fair, it's also well known that Mexican drug cartels are an enduring and lethally dangerous problem. And when it comes to those suicide bombers, most of them are later revealed to have been not from some Middle Eastern country, but from New Jersey. That's not so much a spoiler as vital information that too many in this film's audience -- having been marketed to as though this is a cool action flick rather than a contemplation of thorny moral issues -- are likely to glean over. In that sense, Day of the Soldado is too nuanced for its own good.

It's entirely possible I'm not giving this film's audience enough credit. I'm open to that possibility. Either way, the fucking narrative is still changed. Frankly, I feel bad for some of the nonwhite actors in this movie, who just want an acting career and are forced yet again to utter the lines "Allahu Akbar!" before blowing themselves up. I suppose the same could be said of countless Mexican characters reduced to drug criminals, but at least they are given some comparative humanity and gravitas here.

In 2015, the original Sicario was a far superior film, one of the year's very best -- if not for Inside Out having been released the same year, I would have said it was the very best. Director Denis Villeneuve had a stunning visual flair that Stefano Sollima here lacks, although he hints at it with clear attempts at replication. The tense musical score is similar, and similarly effective. Perhaps most curiously, Taylor Sheridan, who also wrote a masterful script for Hell or High Water in 2016, wrote both of these movies. What that really means is . . . Taylor Sheridan is better than this.

Because although Day of the Soldado is far less contrived than most movies -- and that honestly makes it still a better bet than most other movies in theatres right now -- it's far more contrived than its nearly flawless predecessor, and of Sheridan's other work. Sicario was a clear commentary on a woman navigating spaces run with testosterone on overdrive, with the great Emily Blunt absent, we're just left with more of that testosterone.

We also, however, get more of Benicio Del Toro's Alejandro -- he being the Sicario ("Hitman") of both titles. Del Toro can always be relied upon to elevate material, and to mesmerize with even understated performance. He's even well matched with Isabela Moner as Isanel Reyes, the young teen daughter of a Mexican cartel leader. The CIA orchestrates her kidnapping in an attempt to pit a war between cartels, and her time with Alejandro reveals a capacity for empathy in him that the previous film never betrayed.

Then, by the very end, Sheridan's script is nearly shocking in how it veers into the genuinely hokey with its final lines, and some genuine disappointment sets it. It's a disappointment only in context, though: Day of the Soldado has much to redeem it, including battle sequences well enough choreographed and orchestrated to rival those of the original Sicario. It offers plenty of its own provocative food for thought, if you're looking to dig deep enough for it. This is the kind of movie that should force such contemplation on its audience, though, instead of giving it an option to be let off the hook and just be "entertained." We have movies like Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom for that nonsense.

  "Day of the Soldier,"   huh? We'll see about that!

"Day of the Soldier," huh? We'll see about that!

Overall: B

THE SEAGULL

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

I think the reason I can't quite decide how I feel about The Seagull is that it can't quite decide what it is. Is it a tragedy? A comedy? A flight of fancy? It's certainly not unheard of for a story to occupy the space in the middle, and this one doesn't exactly swing jarringly from one extreme to the other. What it does manage is a steady tone -- of being in the middle, in a vaguely uncomfortable way.

Tepid may be the best word for it. Not exactly a ringing endorsement. There's certainly a lot of talent on display here, particularly in the form of Annette Bening, as Irina, the self-involved matriarch stage actress visiting her country estate for the summer. Corey Stoll is Boris, her much younger and more famous writer lover, who himself falls for young Nina (Saoirse Ronan), who is pined after by Irina's son Konstantin (Billy Howle, who looks rather like he could be Eddie Redmayne's younger brother). But it doesn't end there! Konstantin is the subject of unrequited love by the estate manager's daughter, Masha (Elizabeth Moss), who is herself the unrequited love interest of local school teacher (Michael Zegen).

It's just a pandemic of unrequited love, going round and round, none of it coming back from the right person. This is thus presented with a certain level of lightheartedness, as though, even though the story is not quite laugh-out-loud funny, it's just a pleasant diversion. Until, of course, it isn't. Masha in particular has a kind of depression that is indeed played for laughs in its exaggeration: she wears black to "mourn her life," thanks to Konstantin never loving her back. She drinks both excessively and openly.

Maybe that was the point with Anton Chekhov's original late-nineteenth-century play, from which this screenplay by Stephen Karan is adapted: that all these deeply unhappy people are desperately pretending that life is good. Indeed, the script comes off a lot like a play, with its relatively theatrical dialogue, a vague suggestion of meta commentary in its main characters being writers and actors themselves. Irina never takes Konstantin's theatrical and writing pursuits seriously, either making fun or dismissing them entirely.

A lot of this feels like it perhaps played better in 1904, where the film is set, in Moscow -- the characters all meant to be Russian, although the actors all speak English with American accents. The cast, an ensemble consisting of many great actors (including Brian Dennehy as Irina's aging an ailing bachelor brother), has charisma but rather lacks chemistry. For all the plot machinations and everything going on, director Michael Mayer can't seem to find a clear hook.

I could never quite muster up the energy to care much about any one of these characters, all of whom are self-involved to a silly degree. The silliness seems deliberately, which is inconsistent with its increasingly somber themes and tragic end. The closest I could come to caring is for Irina, and in that case only because Annette Bening has a talent that transcends a universe of mediocrity she otherwise inhabits here. She can make even an unrepentant narcissist compelling. But not even she can elevate this ultimately forgettable tale that evidently, judging by the two old men loudly snoring in the theatre I went to see this at, serves best as a bedtime story for the elderly.

  Spoiler alert! Saoirse Ronan is The Seagull. Before you glean how or why, you'll be asleep.

Spoiler alert! Saoirse Ronan is The Seagull. Before you glean how or why, you'll be asleep.

Overall: C+

JURASSIC WORLD: FALLEN KINGDOM

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

The days of being in awe of the technical achievement of photorealistic CG dinosaurs are long since passed. Back in the day, with both the original Jurassic Park (1993) and its thrilling-if-dippy sequel The Lost World (1997), Steven Spielberg perfected the art of the long game, the subtle tease, the jaw-dropping reveal.

Five movies and 25 years into this franchise, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom has none of that. Its plot machinations are not just stupid, but oppressively stupid -- this script, by Derek Connolly and Colin Trevorrow, both of whom also worked on 2015's Jurassic World, makes the bland contrivances of Jurassic Park III (2001) look like Shakespeare.

I can't say that Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom is any better or worse than its predecessor, on the whole. With its mind-numbingly preposterous story, and its many objectively thrilling action set pieces, it sort of evens out. It's both worse and better on those respective fronts.

In a sense, director J.A. Bayona understands something Colin Trevorrow kind of didn't: what audiences want from this franchise so many installments in. You could call Jurassic World a reboot, or you could call it a sequel -- one that basically ignored the previous two sequels. It was also overly enamored with direct references to and nostalgia for the very first Jurassic Park, something it could never live up to.

Fallen Kingdom doesn't even try. All this one wants to do is thrill, and once it gets its idiotically hyper-sped plot gynmastics out of the way, it does that spectacularly.

The first half could be called Jurassic Volcano. The second half Jurassic Monster House. Things start at a macro level, with the fabled Isla Nublar threatened by a long dormant volcano about to erupt -- which, naturally, it waits to do until our heroes are all there, in a grand attempt to relocate the animals. Special effects in this movie may be unable to break new ground, but they sure are put to memorable and invigorating use. It even offers up some haunting imagery, helpless animals left to suffer an extinction level event as the boat floats away. Of course none of the people drown and they all conveniently get missed by all the flying volcanic cinder debris, but, whatever.

The comparatively few animals saved from the island are taken to the estate of one Benjamin Lockwood (James Cromwell), an old business partner of John Hammond. Lest things get any less than totally ridiculous, a dino auction is staged. Can you guess whether things go wrong? Well, here's the cool part: it's where the macro turns into the micro, and we get dinosaurs loose inside a giant mansion. It becomes a bit of a haunted house movie, except instead of ghosts it's actual monsters.

Granted, one of them is a creature genetically cross bred between a Tyrannosaurus rex and a velociraptor -- one of the many things in this movie that make you think, Really? I mean, if we can actually grow a human ear on a rat, then, why not? Granted, I don't think a rat has ever been given a blood transfusion with human blood. And in this movie a velociraptor gets a blood transfusion with T-rex blood. While strapped to a gourney in the back of a truck.

Oh, just go with it! In the last movie we got a trained velociratpor, after all -- as if! -- and "Blue" returns this time around, offering one of several more callbacks to the original Jurassic Park -- they're just much more subtle this time around. There are also parallels to The Lost World: Jurassic Park (at least this one has greater logic in full titling), what with poachers on an island of free-range dinosaurs, and dinosaurs being transferred to a residential setting.

I think the advantage Fallen Kingdom has over its predecessor is its innate inability to disappoint. No one is coming to this movie expecting brilliance, or any of the provocative ideas given serious consideration upon this franchise's inception. At best we get a cameo by Jeff Goldblum as "chaotician" Ian Malcolm -- now in his third one of these movies -- offering the same basic concepts as rehashed platitudes to a Senate committee hearing. (Boring. Bring on the dinosaurs!)

No one with a working brain could in good conscience call Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom a "good movie." They could quite accurately, however, call it a hell of a lot of fun. I had a blast. Honestly, its ending is the freshest thing about it, ironically as a means of finally arriving at the inevitable with these movies. And, miracle of miracles, it makes me excited for the next one, as it ushers us into a new environment that finally lives up to the title Jurassic World.

  A few things go bump in the night.

A few things go bump in the night.

Overall: B

TAG

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

Hey, guess what! The movie Tag is "inspired by" the real life group of friends who attended Gonzaga Prep in Spokane, Washington. Spokane happens to be where I grew up, so when I saw the characters in the movie all flying home to Spokane, I hoped to see some identifying landmarks. No such luck: in this movie, Atlanta stands in for our state's second-largest city. So, that's . . . new. (To my surprise, not even the Spokesman-Review's article about the Spokane premiere mentions this.)

I don't suppose it matters. The story is about a group of friends, after all, and not about a city. Honestly, as I watched this movie, in which five guys have been playing the same game of tag one month out of every year for three decades. I imagined the real-life guys weren't as "fun" as they are in the movie. They must be a really disruptive pain in the ass to everyone around them, particularly as teenagers. There's a scene in the movie where these guys as middle-aged men are chasing each other through a hospital, and no one around them seems to care. Uh-huh, okay.

And then? At the very end, we see home video clips of the real-life guys taping themselves finding creative ways to tag each other, some of them reflecting scenes that had been depicted in the movie. Or were these home movies staged to replicate the scenes? Either way, watching the old guys play the game proves surprisingly endearing.

And that's the thing about this movie. It's not hysterical, but it's funny enough. Maybe with the exception of a seriously misguided sequence in which a gym receptionist is threatened with waterboarding. Director Jeff Tomsik, here making his first feature film, seems unsure of exactly how much of a joke to make this. And a movie like this, where boundaries are always being pushed, needs an assured hand.

It's the cast who is here to make sure Tag doesn't feel like a waste of time. Ed Helms, Jon Hamm, Hannibal Buress, Jake Johnson, and Jeremy Renner as the friend who has managed never to get tagged in all thirty years of the game -- they all have great chemistry, and it's easy to believe them as longtime friends who managed to find a novel way to stay connected over the years. Isla Fisher is a standout as Ed Helms's ridiculously competitive wife; she steals nearly every scene she's in. Annabelle Wallis is a bit wasted as the Wall Street Journal reporter along for the ride (the article she wrote about them actually having been a real thing, published in January 2013). She never gets anything particularly interesting thing to say or do, except be a prettier version of the male journalist who actually wrote the piece.

Hence the whole "inspired by" bit -- the extensiveness of artistic license is pretty obvious here. But, there is a genuineness to it too. In spite of an uneven script, even the fictionalized characters are endearing. I found myself surprisingly touched by all their shenanigans in the end.

There's plenty of dumb, slapstick humor, sure. You don't go into a movie like this exactly expecting depth, although there's a little more of that than you might expect. It's refreshing, after all, to see healthy close friendships between a bunch of straight men. God knows what kind of collateral property damage they've caused over the years, but their bond is of a unique kind that can't be broken.

 The  Tag  team.

The Tag team.

Overall: B

AMERICAN ANIMALS

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

At the beginning of American Animals, we see text that reads, THIS IS NOT BASED ON A TRUE STORY. Then the words NOT BASED ON disappear. Clever, I guess? The thing is, even with the crafty weaving in of interviews with the actual people from this story -- thereby making this a hybrid of fiction and documentary -- the "based on" element is unavoidable. Artistic license abounds, no matter how buried in the details it is.

That said, writer-director Bart Layton -- whose resume up to this point has indeed been nearly exclusively documentaries, mostly on television -- does a great job of acknowledging how unreliable memory itself can be. When Spencer (Barry Keoghan) and best friend Warren (Evan Peters) recall the same conversation in different locations, the setting of the dramatization shifts, from a party to inside a car. They both remember "it was cold." When a guy they meet in Central Park is remembered by one of them as wearing a blue scarf and the other remembers it differently, the color changes.

Telling the story this way does give it an unusual level of authenticity, and Layton presents it in a way that heightens the tension. It should come as no surprise that an attempted heist of books so rare they are worth millions, kept in a Lexington college library, didn't go as planned. But it doesn't happen quite in a "Hollywood movie" way. Well, except maybe for the apparently requisite scene of a distressed character running to let off steam. In any case, real life is messy, which American Animals illustrates well.

That title, by the way, is a reference to the most notable book on display and primary target of the robbery, the a first edition of Birds of America by John James Audubon. I guess the producers decided calling the movie Birds of America wouldn't be catchy enough. We need the suggestion that these four college kids are animals.

They aren't quite, though. They're just dipshits. Spencer and Warren rope two more into their scheme: academic Eric (Jared Abrahamson) and jock Chas (Blake Jenner), when they realize they can't pull off this robbery on their own. Admittedly there came a point in this film where I wondered what the hook was supposed to be. Why isn't there more about what the hell they thought they were thinking? It's clear from the beginning that this isn't just some fun story about a group of guys who committed a major, if unique, crime. Because they didn't get away with it. This is a story that needs gravitas.

To Bart Layton's credit, in the end, he comes around to it. These guys suffered real consequences that severely affected many lives -- not least of which was that of the one librarian who worked the secure room housing the rare and valuable books worth millions. The young men had to -- or felt they had to -- incapacitate her, and being amateurs, they weren't very efficient at it. We also get a few minutes of interview with the real librarian Betty Jean Gooch, played by the wonderful Ann Dowd, the most well-known actor in the film. By the time she's offering some observations at the end, the seriousness of what these guys attempted is really sinking in.

And this is all by design, thanks to ingenious editing and a singular brand of storytelling. That is what sets American Animals apart. You don't have to drill down all that deep to find anything worth criticizing in this movie; it's not much of a surprise that the reviews are only slightly better than mixed, as it's not for everyone. The marketing presents it something a bit snappier than it really is, which is, ultimately, a bit heavy. It's a better final product as a result.

It's a fascinating thing, to see this story of four young men caught up in what they think of as the adventure of their lives, with the idea that it will make them all rich, told by their older selves a decade and a half later. American Animals packs a certain punch it could never have otherwise, with the real guys now struggling to reconcile their memories of infectious recklessness with midlife regrets.

Is the movie fun, then? Sort of. It bursts with tension and a bit of suspense. It's affecting, a little hard to shake, and you can't take your eyes off it.

  These guys aren't as mature as they present.

These guys aren't as mature as they present.

Overall: B+