ASSASSINATION NATION

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

Assassination Nation is basically an ultra-violent feminist revenge fantasy. Full disclosure: that kind of makes it my jam.

It’s far from perfect. But when a quartet of teenage girls are turning this country’s love of guns on its head, annihilating their mid-sized town’s institutionalized misogyny, basically in justifiable self-defense, who gives a shit? This is the kind of movie Quentin Tarantino might have made if he weren’t a willfully ignorant shit bag. Writer-director Sam Levinson knows what’s up.

Granted, it took me a minute to come around to this movie. Taking a hard look at our social media, tech-obsessed culture isn’t exactly novel, and near the beginning, as we meet Lily (Odessa Young) and her three best friends, there’s a fairly chaotic sequence with an extended period of split screen with three panels of action to follow. I found myself thinking, if the whole movie is like this, I’m not going to like it nearly as much as I wanted to.

I suppose you could call this a satire, except the satirical elements veer between lacking clarity and being far too obvious. The story, in which an entire town goes wild after an unidentified hacker leaks half of their entire digital histories for public consumption, is wildly contrived — the time it takes for any effective law enforcement to arrive strains credibility. Then again, to over-focus on that misses the point.

Levinson has much to say about our culture’s double standards, pretty much none of it new. The key is how he says it — and to his credit, that does set this movie apart. And once those nearly incomprehensible early scenes level off, the story propels forward with a kinetic energy aided by a propulsive soundtrack and exceptional editing.

One scene in particular stands out. Lily and her friends Bex, Em and Sarah (Hari Nef, Abra and Suki Waterhouse, respectively) have been falsely accused of perpetrating these leaks, and a mob of self-appointed town vigilantes have secretly descended upon the house in which they hang out. The camera steadily swoops from one side of the house to the other and back, gazing in through windows and sliding glass doors, observing attackers as they make their way inside and capture them. It’s a sequence as suspenseful as those in the best thrillers.

It devolves into a shootout, as does a whole lot of the rest of the movie. Characters you’re rooting for die, and it gets very bloody very quickly. The flip side is that these young women are given agency not often seen in movies at all, let alone in movies of this sort.

Bex, by the way, is a young trans woman, played by — wait for it! — a young trans woman. Specifically, model Hari Nef. This should be incidental, but we still live in a world where this is important. For a while I wondered if she was playing a cisgender woman, which would have been a forward-thinking choice in its own right. But then Bex identifies herself as trans, as she declares no empathy whatsoever for the town’s mayor, the first victim of a hack — because he was a conservative politician working against queer equality. Actually, more than once, the way Bex puts it is “LGBTQIAA people,” and it’s delivered with no resentment whatsoever at having to rattle off all those letters. (It took me a while to figure out why the two A’s — oh, right: asexual and allies.) And while that mayor’s hypocrisy brings him down, his proclivities are treated with unusual respect: when photos of him cross-dressing are made public, these kids only zero in on his terrible taste in lingerie.

Lily and her other friends are generally indifferent to all this, except when Lily suggests empathy even for those who might be their enemy. By and large, all three girls are preoccupied with typical stuff, albeit with some vaguely dark undertones — such as Lily’ predictably problematic sexting relationship with her much-older neighbor (Joel McHale). Lily gets some threatening online messages early on from the unknown hacker, and she’s smart enough to look up the IP address at their source. Of course, this digital meddling clearly designed to pitch everyone in this town against each other comes from . . . Moscow, Russia. You can’t get much more on the nose than that but whatever.

The crux of it all, really, comes down to Lily being slut shamed, thanks to the hundreds of selfies taken in various states of undress texted to her neighbor, now open for the entire pubic to see. But Assassination Nation also takes aim at mob mentality and knee-jerk reactions in public shaming, such as when the local high school principal gets hacked, and the town goes apeshit and accuses him of being a pedophile because he happens to have naked photos of his daughter when she was six. They all live in world where everything is sexualized, and then sexuality is demonized.

After the bloodbath that is the movie’s final twenty minutes or so, sort of John Wick meets Carrie for the 21st century, the central mystery of who was really behind the leaks is revealed. It includes a kicker of a last line that evokes the notion that “some people just want to watch the world burn” — filtered through the stereotypical vapidity of Generation Z. Honestly the gun fighting gets a little tedious well before we get to that point, but again, maybe that’s also the point.

A fair amount of Assassination Nation is overstuffed, overdone and overblown. That didn’t stop me from having a blast watching these young women turn the tables and kick some ass of their own — even if it looks increasingly like their defiance is simply an act of taking their adversaries down with them. The movie’s opening title sequence includes a litany of “trigger warnings” — all the sex and violence and abuse and assault and attempted assault you’re about to see. It’s about a town that makes a mess of things, and the movie itself is a bit of a mess at times. But it’s an exhilarating mess.

  Who’s the bitch whore now?

Who’s the bitch whore now?

Overall: B+

THE HOUSE WITH A CLOCK IN ITS WALLS

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

Fantasy stories about witches and warlocks aren’t exactly new, so it would be unfair to call The House with a Clock in Its Walls a retread of, say, the Harry Potter series. But in a world where Harry Potter exists, a movie like The House with a Clock in Its Walls still feels decidedly low-rent. It doesn’t have anything particularly new to offer; it’s also about an orphaned kid who realizes previously unknown magical potential; it feels like the start of an intended franchise.

One might wonder if the John Bellairs novel on which the movie is based feels low-rent. I never read it. But, it could hardly owe any debt to Harry Potter — which, it must be noted, was technically derivative itself, throughout the series; it was just better at adding a new, modern spin — as it was first published in 1973. This movie, though, as directed by Eli Roth, is the first-ever film adaptation, and having waited all this time, it does feel a bit like a cash-grab so late to the party that even the peak of early-21st-century movies with fantasy and magic has passed.

Roth is the director behind the first couple of films in the Hostel franchise, and he does bring a subtle undercurrent of horror in The House with a Clock in Its Walls. It’s a rated-PG kind of horror, clearly meant for kids but kids old enough to handle a few jump-scares. I jumped pretty hard at least once. And that seems to be the niche Eli Roth is attempting to carve here: Harry Potter dipping his toes in the horror genre.

Alas, the story, at least as presented here, just isn’t that compelling. Young Lewis (Owen Vaccaro) has lost his parents to a car crash at the age of ten and is being sent to live with his next of kin, a heretofore estranged Uncle Jonathan (Jack Black), who has a close but platonic relationship with his neighbor, Florence (Cate Blanchett). Lewis learns quickly that Jonathan’s house is alive with its very own magical personality, and is also afflicted with a hexed clock in its walls left by Jonathan’s late magician partner Isaac Izard (Kyle MacLachlan). Trouble brews when Lewis succumbs to peer pressure from a new friend at school and opens the locked cabinet he’s forbidden from opening. This is literally the single rule Unlce Jonathan imposes on him, but of course Lewis breaks it.

Much of what happens in this movie is due to characters refusing to be fully honest with each other about things. The story never gives any particularly plausible motivation for this caginess, except to contrive a story that winds up not being quite as exciting as it wants to be.

It doesn’t help that Jack Black and Cate Blanchett are so mismatched, have such little chemistry, that they almost seem like people from different movies. Blanchett is as great as ever, as it happens; she has a knack for intensifying her own charisma by being restrained. Jack Black is a different story, always just slightly over-acting and never quite believable in his delivery. This is surprising indeed, given how fantastically he played a teenage girl trapped in the video game avatar of a middle-aged mad in last year’s Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle. He clearly can be a great actor, and has demonstrated as much many times over the past couple of decades. He just doesn’t manage it here.

There are also running gags in this movie which are simply dumb, such as the “topiary griffin” that power-poops leaves out of its ass. It’s well-rendered CGI whose impact is neutered by playing for easy, silly scatalogical laughs. Jonathan looks upon the collection of mechanical dummies in his house, which eventually come to life, and says “So creepy!” — several times. Duh? On the other hand, I’ll give this movie credit for its brief forays into memorable weirdness: it’s not every day you see Jack Black’s head on the body of a baby, which even pees. Such an example is the exception that proves the rule, though: this movie hints at a direction that could truly set itself apart, but then never truly commits to it. A scene in which our heroes battle a yard full of living jack-o-lanterns could have been something far better executed than the silly farce of a scene Eli Roth makes it here.

The special effects are arguably the best thing about The House with a Clock in Its Walls, and it’s never showy. There’s a pretty fantastic scene in which celestial bodies and stars are conjured into the air over the house’s large backyard, complete with the topiary griffin batting at the stars like any cat would, and it is all too brief. So here we end up with a movie not great enough to sing its praises; not bad enough to complain much about. It’s just . . . fine. But unless you’re a fanatic for all-things magic, then why bother?

  A trio with great skill at magic but not so much at chemistry.

A trio with great skill at magic but not so much at chemistry.

Overall: B-

FAHRENHEIT 11/9

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

If there is any liberal Democrat to take other liberals and other Democrats to task, it’s Michael Moore. Of course he takes down the Republicans and Donald Trump as expected, but he also exposes the double standard regarding the left that not enough people talk about: when one of our own does something awful, there’s no great outcry among us. How is that different from Republican complicity with the current criminal president, exactly?

So I’ll just get this part out of the way early on here: in Fahrenheit 11/9, Moore also unsurprisingly puts a lot of focus on his home state of Michigan — his 1989 debut, Roger & Me, was about the initial depression of his hometown of Flint, when General Motors closed all of its local manufacturing closures. This is a state which elected its own highly unqualified ultra-rich CEO “businessman” governor Rick Snyder, effectively a state-level trial run for the ascension of Trump. And when Republican leadership in Michigan switched Flint’s drinking water source from Lake Huron to the far less clean or fresh Flint River, ultimately resulting in thousands of children being exposed to lead, to this day not nearly enough has been done to rectify the matter.

But I was going to mention Democrats, right? When then-President Obama made his first visit to Flint two years after the water crisis began, he made a show of a publicity stunt of drinking a glass of filtered water in the middle of his speech — not once, but twice, at separate events. Let’s just say local leaders and activitsts were not impressed. Moore himself even spoke out about it at the time: thousands of children poisoned and twelve deaths are not things to be trivialized. And you know what? I never bought into the lie that Obama was a saint (though I don’t hate him), but I never heard anything about this. And I agree with Moore: this kind of political pandering is disappointing at best.

To be fair, I’m not always the biggest fan of Michael Moore’s tactics, either. I never saw much utility in his own stunts, such as in Bowling for Columbine (2002) when he brings a couple of shooting victims to K-mart supposedly to claim a refund on the bullets still inside their bodies. Similarly, in Fahrenheit 11/9, he brings a camera crew to record an attempted “citizen’s arrest” on Michigan Governor Rick Snyder. He doesn’t get any further than security at the entrance, so he brings a giant truck full of Flint water to spray all over the front lawn of the governor’s mansion. I can’t say he accomplished much with that, aside from an admittedly fun, indelible image.

So, okay, Michael Moore isn’t perfect either. Neither are his movies. But it could still be argued that they are vital, and they are undeniably entertaining. This being a thematic sequel to his 2004 film Fahrenheit 9/11, in which he delved into the Bush Administration’s suspect motives for the wars in Iraq in Afghanistan, I honestly approached Fahrenheit 11/9 with some trepidation: just how fucking depressing will this be? How much painful footage of the most despicable president this country has ever had will we have to suffer through?

Actually — not too much. I mean, plenty, still. But Trump himself is not the sole focus of this film, even if 11/9 is a direct reference to the date on which he was declared president in 2016. (The election was held 11/8, but the presidency was not declared until well after midnight, so, a nice bit of reverse-engineering in movie title marketing there). Moore takes a more macro look at how Trump is a symptom, not the disease, and looks at how both Republicans and Democrats brought us here. I think he’s slightly unfair to Nancy Pelosi as he laments so-called “Democratic establishment,” but whatever. You can’t have everything.

Crucially, Moore uses much of this movie to be hopeful rather than downbeat — the very tactic that made his last movie, Where to Invade Next (2015), so great. Here he offers up extended segments on the groups of people offering inspiration when they could easily despair: the teenage activists coming out of the Parkland, Florida shooting who organized the March for Our Lives on their own; the fiercely independent (read: non-establishment), young minority and largely female congressional candidates coming up the ranks in current local elections across the country; effective statewide teacher strikes in deeply conservative regions.

It’s not all cheer leading, however. Michael Moore just isn’t the type. He doesn’t let any of us off the hook — hence the pointed reference to our Beloved Obama’s own missteps (and a reminder that Obama took more in donations from Goldman Sachs than from anyone else). When he speaks to local Democratic voters in West Virginia disillusioned by overhalf their states superdelegates voting Hillary Clinton at the Democratic National Convention even though every single county in the state went Bernie Sanders in the primary, it’s easy to see how voters throw their hands up and give up. (And I say this as someone who was always a Hillary supporter and who feels continued resentment toward Sanders is more than justified.)

If you want our democracy to work for you, or to work at all, you don’t just have to participate in it — you have to do it in numbers large enough to demand that it run properly. Not perfectly, but properly. Otherwise, the country you get is the country you deserve. Michael Moore doesn’t say that outright, but it’s the basic, simple point, and one he gets across in ways both sobering and entertaining. He’s never been perfect in his efforts, but all-or-nothing demands for perfection is what got us into this mess in the first place.

  Michael Moore does his own stunts.

Michael Moore does his own stunts.

Overall: B+

A SIMPLE FAVOR

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

“From the darker side of Paul Feig,” or so the trailer promised: this is the director who brought us Bridesmaids and The Heat. What they don’t mention is that A Simple Favor has plenty of its lighter moments as well. It’s like a thriller-comedy — a bit more of an awkward combination, it turns out, than the numerous horror comedies now out there. It seems to have slightly loftier aims of sophistication. But then Anna Kendrick comes along with her winning goofiness.

And I don’t say that derisively; the actors in A Simple Favor make up for a lot of the script contrivances. And even those, I have to admit, are entertaining, even if they are increasingly ridiculous. This is a movie that really tows that line. It creeps right up to the precipice but remains consistently just this side of outright dumb.

Kendrick plays Stephanie, a widowed “mommy vlogger” who befriends Emily (Blake Lively), the mother of her son’s friend at school. Emily invites Stephanie over for drinks as their kids have a play date, dismissing how impressed Stephanie is with her elegant house with a huge kitchen she never uses, except to make stiff martinis. Much of the story is told in flashback, as Stephanie tells her vlog viewers about how Emily has been missing for five days.

Honestly, although Stephanie is supposed to be the “normal” one here, she comes across a little crazy herself. She mentions countless times that Emily is her best friend. Did I mention she’s only known her for five days?

Well anyway, the “simple favor” Emily asks is for Stephanie to pick up her son from school — and then she never shows up to pick him up. I won’t spoil the rest of the story, except to say that although I could never have predicted what the many twists and turns were, that there would be many twists and turns was wildly predictable. You can see a mile away that no one is as they appear to be, and to a degree that includes seemingly goody-two-shoes Stephanie herself. I must say, though, that her “dark secret” isn’t so much dark as taboo, and part of a backstory inadequately fleshed out.

Those twists and turns, though: they did keep me interested, ridiculous though they were. I won’t go out of my way to tell anyone else to see it, but I did have fun at this movie.

That said, the execution of a litany of recognizable faces in small roles is a mixed bag. The group of gossipy parents in Stephanie’s son’s class includes Aparna Noncherla and Andrew Rannells, two performers who are fantastically entertaining . . . in everything but this, apparently. It’s not their fault; they simply weren’t given very entertaining parts (although Rannells does get a pretty great moment at the end). They are criminally under-utilized talents here. On the other hand, it’s delightful to see Jean Smart nailing a small but key role.

That’s the crux of it, really: under any critical scrutiny, A Simple Favor is a mixed bag at best. But even a mixed bag can average out to a fun couple of hours — nothing that makes any deep and lasting impression, but not a waste of time either.

  A toast to intermittent wit that barely elevates mediocrity!

A toast to intermittent wit that barely elevates mediocrity!

Overall: B

PICK OF THE LITTER

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

Well, this one’s a no-brainer. Do you like dogs? Do you love puppies? Then you’ll thoroughly enjoy Pick of the Litter, the super-sweet, illuminating and moving documentary that follows five dogs in a single litter of five who have been bred specifically to be Guide Dogs for the Blind.

We are told that out of 800 dogs going through GDB’s training program each year, only about 300 graduate to become full-time guide dogs. So, we’re set up from the beginning not to expect all five of the dogs from this one litter to make the cut. But, like many documentaries set up with a framework of competition, we find ourselves rooting for all of these very sweet puppies — many of which just don’t develop the right temperament, or meet all the expectations and needs of a dog a person’s very life can depend on. Some of them have setbacks and then just need a bit of extra care and training.

A few turn out so great that they become breeders. That concept makes total sense in this context, although it did bring subtle shades of The Handmaid’s Tale to mind. These are literal animals, though, and this is a movie designed to be heartwarming, very successfully so.

And the “competition” here isn’t of a typical kind — it’s really more like dogs competing with themselves. They’re not trying to be better than other dogs; they are being trained to be good matches for specific people. The camera crew also follows around a couple of people waiting to be matched with a dog — one a young-ish blind man and another a slightly older blind woman.

One wonders how much footage wound up on the cutting room floor, camera crews following people around who did not wind up matched with any of this specific litter. Maybe they “guided” the narrative just for this specific case. Either way, paring it down to a brisk 81 minutes left it with an impressively engaging story, as each of these five puppies find their way between GDB handlers to volunteers who spend time training and socializing the dogs and back to the official guide dog training at GDB facilities again.

It’s easy to misplace where and how the heartstrings are being pulled. Pick of the Litter does not go out of its way to dwell on the dogs themselves being attached to any of their handlers, many of whom naturally get very attached on their own parts. Some of them are on their 10th puppy; some, such as a sweet boy in high school, are on their first. GDB can re-assign dogs to different volunteers at will and with no warning, which occasionally upsets a volunteer. This film shows how effective this can be, though: a dog with one handler who seems to be doing everything right but the dog still doesn’t quite behave, thrives with a new person.

This is really about the people, though — specifically, the visually impaired people whose lives are changed by the dogs. Audiences cheer when the cream of the crop graduates to become official guide dogs; they’re wiping away tears when the blind people they are placed with get introduced. I would have been interested to see a bit more about the incredible sophistication of how these dogs are trained — to stop with a particular buffer between them and oncoming cars; to disobey clear commands if they can see the command will put them and their walkers in danger.

Overall, Pick of the Litter is a true crowd pleaser, the rare documentary that doubles as a genuine feel-good movie. You’ll leave the theatre completely charmed, with a giant smile on your face.

  Making one person’s entire world a better and bigger place.

Making one person’s entire world a better and bigger place.

Overall: B+

SEARCHING

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

I suppose it’s an exaggeration to say this movie blows. It’s telling, however, that although I was kind of into it as the story unfolded, once it was over, the more I thought about it, the less I liked it. So perhaps this is the best advice: if you want to enjoy this movie, go ahead and watch it, and then immediately move on to some other thing that makes you forget all about it. Because Searching seriously fails at standing up to any kind of scrutiny.

This movie is, however, dumb. That is not an exaggeration. I never actively set out to solve whatever mystery might be at hand; even in otherwise relatively predictable stories, I am happy just to go along for the ride and be surprised, even if no one else isn’t. And if even I saw the “twist” coming a mile away, that tells you a lot about Searching. As in, it’s predictable enough to insult your intelligence.

And this is no poor reflection on John Cho, for the record. He’s the best thing in this movie, the reason you want to keep watching, anguish etched across his face as his David Kim searches for his missing daughter, Margot (Michelle La). And kudos to this movie, if nothing else, for making it to #4 in box office its first weekend of wide release, thus making two movies with Asian American leads in the American top 5 (along with Crazy Rich Asians at #1), surely a first. Michelle La also makes a strong debut as Margot, very believably cast as a teenager still grieving the loss of her mother to cancer.

But these two people cannot overcome Searching’s insurmountable problems. Debra Messing as an investigator, frankly, comes across as Grace Adler pretending to be an investigator. It’s unfortunate that Messing cannot break free of her iconic role from Will & Grace, but it’s still the reality. Searching would have worked better with another actor in the part.

Not that her part, or any part, is particularly well written. Because I haven’t even gotten to the gimmick in Searching, and it’s a doozy of a gimmick, one the movie leans into hard: the entire movie is shown as computer screens or mobile device screens, all the live action seen as FaceTime video feeds or home movie clips being shown on a desktop, usually without the window being maximized, so we see bits of other open programs behind it, or even parts of the desktop image. Even when Morgot’s case gets into local news segments, these clips are shown as video being watched online by David, the point of view always being the screen he’s looking at, any sight of his face only the front-facing camera showing his reverse feed when he speaks to people.

It’s not exactly subtle, by the way, that every single computing device being used is an Apple product. And while I remain an Apple loyalist and will sing its praises as a superior brand over Windows, the idea that no screen ever freezes at any time, and page downloads or file uploads always finish instantaneously, is preposterous. Okay, I get it that it’s a movie and it has to be edited this way to give the story propulsion, but it’s still an idea ripe for parody. Lots of things happen on these screens that never actually occur in the real world, such as that reverse camera activating to show David sleeping in bed while his daughter attempts to call him in the middle of the night. Hello, the camera doesn’t come on until you answer the FaceTime call! (In the Windows Version of Searching, all the video calls are done on Skype.)

It’s not always video feeds, incidentally. We get plenty of other action on these screens, showing email drafts and iMessage texts and browsing of files and so on. On the surface, it’s kind of a neat trick, this high concept that distracts the viewer from how dumb the story actually is. I suspect few of the many people who are into this movie (it’s getting a pretty positive consensus in its critical response) are thinking of how very much a snapshot of its time it is — maybe even slightly more behind the times than people realize. This is not a movie that will hold up well very far into the future. It’s going to look very dated very quickly. Like, next year. Maybe next week.

This “computer screens” framing device (literally!) also requires some pretty contrived scenarios for the presentation of key scenes. When David feels the need to confront his suddenly suspicious brother Peter (Joseph Lee), he sets up several devices around his living room and kitchen in an attempt to record “proof” of his guilt. This allows for a pivotal scene to unfold from multiple angles. It’s easy to call this clever. As a viewer, I call it distracting. Realistically, an anguished father like David would never be that successfully savvy. Peter even opens a kitchen cupboard right where one of the cameras is and never notices it.

I’ll give Searching this much credit: considering the conceit, and its presentation unlike that of any other conventional mainstream movie, I found myself pretty easily sucked into the store, in spite of all its predictable stupidity. I won’t deny that it held my attention. Does that mean the movie is good? Okay — it’s entertaining. What bugs me about it, though, is that it seems to have duped a great number of people into thinking it’s “smart.” I would fervently beg to differ on that point.

  John Cho is  searching  for something in this movie to take seriously.

John Cho is searching for something in this movie to take seriously.

Overall: C+

WE THE ANIMALS

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

It makes me sad knowing how few people will see We the Animals -- and how many fewer still will see it in a movie theatre. This is a rare thing, where it's not a big blockbuster or a huge Oscar-baiting prestige picture, but an independent release that still begs viewing on the big screen.

I try to imagine someone getting absorbed into this movie on a small screen, in someone's home, where a litany of distractions will pull the viewer out of its impeccably constructed world. First and foremost I must mention cinematographer Zak Mulligan, making unusually justified use of handheld cameras, and co-editors Keiko Deguchi and Brian A. Kates, together constructing a story that doesn't quite gel into a unified whole until a singular, heartbreaking moment near the end. But, I guess director and co-writer Jeremiah Zagar (adapting from the novel by Justin Torres) is still the boss of them all. This is his movie, and it is a singular vision.

I must admit, We the Animals hits unusually close to home for me. My upbringing was really nothing like this, but I did have an accidental revelation of my sexuality far sooner than I was ready for, very similar in nature to what happens to the youngest of the three brothers who are the focus of this story. I only wish I could have had a fraction of the defiance this kid ultimately has in the face of it.

Then again, this is fiction -- and increasingly stylized as the story unfolds. This is not a straightforward depiction of reality. This is art. And it is by turns charming, sad, and beautiful. Sometimes shocking. I did find myself wondering what could possibly become of ten-year-old Jonah (Evan Rosado), given his choices in the end. It left me feeling unsure of how to feel about his potential fate.

The same could be said of his brothers, all very close in age, although Manny is the youngest: there's also Joel (Josiah Gabriel) and Manny (Isaiah Kristian). They are such a tight-nit group of brothers that, to be honest, it's quite a ways into the movie before any particularly distinguishing characteristics come to light. They even all look alike, with identical haircuts. I'm not sure Joel and Jonah ever quite become more than interchangeable.

It seems for a very long time as though this is their story, a long succession of visual vignettes of their childhood, growing up poor with two parents who both work nights, a white woman (Sheila Vand) and a Puerto Rican man (Raúl Castillo). Nearly every scene is inside their home, or in the surrounding woods and streets. There's never even any indication that these kids go to school. When marital disturbance results in Dad leaving for some time, Mom descends into a depression for days, and the kids are left to fend for themselves.

Jonah has a sketch book he keeps hidden under the bed he shares with his brothers. He gets up every night after they have fallen asleep, and creates wonderful scribbled humanoid and insect-like images, which are consistently animated with an affecting melancholy throughout We the Animals. There's more than initially indicated inside this sketch book, something which draws a line in more ways than one. It is the catalyst for Jonah's relationship with everyone in his family being forever changed.

A whole lot of We the Animals unfolds in a semi-dreamlike state, fractured snippets of scenes like those recalled in inevitably fractured memories. The way it all gets tied together is its greatest achievement. It seems, for a long while, to be simply a portrait of a brief period of time in three people's childhoods. But there is a clear story arc through it all, no frame of it wasted on the way there, just waiting to be revealed.

That is why it works best in a movie theatre, an environment designed to get lost in the world being constructed and presented. It's a unique experience that can't be replicated anywhere else.

  Subtle implications of fatherhood role modeling come and go in  We the Animals.

Subtle implications of fatherhood role modeling come and go in We the Animals.

Overall: A-

THE WIFE

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

The Wife is a decent movie with very good performances -- and a bit of a trap it set for itself, telling the story of "great writers" without featuring any particularly great writing itself. The screenplay, by Jane Anderson based on the novel by Meg Wolitzer, is hardly bad. But neither is it winning any awards.

Having seen this film, I feel a little bad for Glenn Close, who is far and away the best thing in it. If you see this for any reason, it will be her. I wonder how much hope she's allowing herself amidst mounting Oscar talk for this role? Surely even the most restrained of legendary actors let their egos get the better of them. Why wouldn't they? In this instance, though, it's a little unfair. The rest of the Best Actress race would have to be dismal indeed for her to have any chance of winning an Academy Award for this movie, which means I would lay down money right now to bet Glenn Close is not getting that Oscar. Not this year. A nomination, maybe.

Her 2012 role in Albert Nobbs comes to mind: a great performance in a movie that is otherwise . . . fine. That role had Oscar talk swirling around it as well, and The Wife is set for a similar trek through awards season. The two movies even have similar points of view, looking back at the consequences of how gender was defined in the past.

The Wife is decidedly more modern a story: Joan Castleman (Close) indeed gets a great line when asked what her profession is -- by Swedish royalty, no less -- and she replies, "I am a kingmaker." Director Björn Runge takes an unusually critical look at the idea behind the old saying "behind every great man there is a great woman," as Joan spends her entire adult life supporting the masterful literary career of her husband, Joe Castleman (Jonathan Pryce). With the exception of a few flashbacks, the majority of the story takes place in Stockholm, where Joe is joined by his wife and their son David (Max Irons) for the ceremony in which he receives the Nobel Prize in Literature.

There's a moment in one of those flashbacks, something one might be justified in identifying as a fatal flaw in this film. Young Joan has just started being honest in her harsh critique of the first draft of Joe's first novel, and she actually says, "The dialogue is a little stilted." There follows a scene of histrionics during which young Joe actually bellows, "Life is so fucking unfair!"

It would be nice if, in a story about someone capable of beautiful writing, we could actually experience some beautiful writing. The only thing here that I would call "beautiful" is the refined nuance of Glenn Close's performance, which includes several extended shots of increasing yet always subtle anguish on her face. But the word would never be used for the writing, satisfyingly unexpected turns of the plot notwithstanding. If nothing else, the story being told turns out not to be quite what it seems at the start, and it is indeed more compelling than this movie's marketing would suggest.

And, again: Glenn Close elevates The Wife a great deal. As does Jonathan Pryce as the often obliviously pompous literary star with a wandering eye. There's something pretty pathetic about an old man transparently enamored with a woman perhaps a third his age, and he plays it well. When it comes to the rest of the supporting cast, however, it kind of feels like a bit more rehearsal may have been helpful. Christian Slater as the would-be biographer eager to get the scoop on what seems suspicious about Joan and Joe's relationship is maybe an exception, but he isn't given much to do besides serve as exposition or plot device.

It would be fair to say that The Wife fills the role of "counter programming" at the late-summer movie theatre sufficiently well. God knows, you could do worse for an evening out at the movies, and it's a decent choice for more mature audiences (both emotionally and literally). It's just not the great movie that Glenn Close still deserves to shine in. All credit to her for shining in whatever movie she's in regardless.

  Glenn Close, but no cigar.

Glenn Close, but no cigar.

Overall: B

THE LITTLE STRANGER

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

The genre of The Little Stranger is perhaps up for debate. iMDB.com lists several genres for it: "Drama | Horror | Mystery | Thriller." I would agree with three of those, in that order. I wouldn't call it particularly thrilling.

And I knew nothing of this movie until mere hours before seeing it. I felt like going to see a movie, and did something I very, very rarely do: just looked up what was playing at the theatre I wanted to go to, and made a choice. Okay, I did look it up on the critical aggregate websites, and was satisfied to see it getting generally good reviews. I do rather like Domhnall Gleeson. I don't generally go for horror, but what few things I found online seemed to stress this movie opts more for a mood of impending dread than jump scares. I can go for that.

I did not realize until she showed up in the movie that it also stars Charlotte Rampling, as the mother living in the post-World War I British mansion in which most of it is set. Here is a woman with a bit of dipshittery in interview comments in recent years -- but a great actor. She has a knack for conveying warmth that has a tinge of something sinister just beneath the surface.

Her grown children, Caroline and Roderick (Ruth Wilson and Will Poulter), live with her, along with only one young maid (Liv Hill), in a giant house long since past its prime and now falling into disrepair. Gleeson is Faraday, the son of a former maid in the same house, now a local doctor who comes to meet the Ayres family when called upon to treat Betty the house maid.

The story is told entirely through the eyes of Faraday, who has a vivid memory of once getting inside the house as a child, and how it basically became a mythological place in his mind. As he gets to know the Ayers family, they seem in turn to be going mad. It's well into the film, maybe more than halfway, before it even becomes clear the family lost a young child many years ago, and after a terrible incident with another visiting little girl and the family dog, they become increasingly convinced the deceased daughter is haunting the house.

There is a curious way this story, directed by Lenny Abrahamson (Room) and written by Lucinda Coxon (The Danish Girl) based on a novel of the same name by Sarah Waters, moves from what seems a straightforward drama tinged with mystery to something closer to mystery-horror. It's fairly gradual. No sudden plot turns. As Faraday holds onto his skepticism, however, we the viewer come to know that certainly something mysteriously horrible is going on, especially in a pivotal scene when the older Mrs. Ayers appears to be attacked by unknown forces in a empty upstairs bedroom. Things get subtly weird.

--Too subtle, arguably. I can get into slow-moving stories when a palpable sense of mood and atmosphere is conjured. The Little Stranger offers some real tension and a certain dread, but none of it as palpable as it could be. Then it ends with a shot ambiguous to the point of being baffling. I basically left the theater thinking, What's that supposed to mean? It seems I was supposed to. Ambiguity can be satisfying, but it isn't particularly here. At least the story still kept me interested the entire time.

  Wait, what?

Wait, what?

Overall: B

THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS

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

If anyone or anything is getting murdered here, it's the movie The Happytime Murders itself -- 23% "Rotten" score on Rotten Tomatoes; score of 27 on MetaCritic; one movie critic whose opinion and point of view I have long respected has repeatedly called it "painfully unfunny." By virtually all accounts, this movie is one giant pile of shit.

In other words, I did this movie a huge favor but coming in with "giant pile of shit" as the bar by which to judge it. So instead of leaving it thinking, Well, that was disappointing, I left it thinking, That wasn't a giant pile of shit at all!

Because The Happytime Murders has its moments. To be clear, it doesn't have a lot of them -- but they're there. At least two or three times, I laughed pretty hard. Granted, for every such moment, there were ten moments clearly designed to be funny that fell completely flat.

Let's call this movie one hell of a missed opportunity. It could have been great. The trouble is, with movies that wear their irreverence on their sleeve, where the basic gimmick is little more than their penchant for raunchiness, rarely does it come out very well in the end. Maybe it's because too many people with such base senses of humor actually have an eye of genuine quality. You really can find high-quality raunchy humor, but that's still not a Venn diagram that has much of an overlap.

Why doesn't someone just adapt the semi-notorious Off Broadway play Avenue Q into a movie? That would have been a far better idea. Granted, if you're really honest, even Avenue Q is slightly overrated. Instead, we get Jim Henson's son Brian Henson, using his name in a way that is itself a flat-falling punch line: I can turn my dad's beloved wholesome ideas of puppet character into something pointlessly crass! It'll be hilarious!

I mean -- it could have been hilarious, had he worked with writers who could actually come up with a barrage of good jokes. This movie has only a few good jokes, and of course half of them are used up in the trailer -- including the idea that an orgasming muppet ejaculates silly string. That's pretty funny.

The premise, all things considered, is fine -- except for one pesky little detail. Phil Philips (voiced commendably by Bill Barretta) is a puppet ex-cop now working as a private investigator, tasked with solving the mystery of the cast of a nineties sitcom starring puppets called The Happytime Gang. He and his ex-partner Detective Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy, who I love, but frankly, she's usually better than what she has to offer here) reluctantly rejoin forces to work the case, and in so doing work through the resentments of a backstory I won't spoil here, even though it doesn't matter because you don't need to see this.

Oh, and that pesky little detail? In this world, focused here on Los Angeles, puppets are effectively second-class citizens, looked down upon by all humans. Given what's going on in the world right now, and The Happytime Murders's refusal to mine this idea for anything even close to insightful, this isn't just truly terrible timing (never a great sign in comedy). It trivializes real-world issues to the point of being insulting.

But, okay. There's a couple of memorable (or eye-searing, depending on your point of view) sight gags. The people making this movie clearly had a blast, and somehow that does make a little difference. Maya Rudolph shows up as Phil Philips's secretary, and here is a woman who can sharpen the flattest of humor around here no matter where she's at. It remains on some level a kick to see her in any of her scenes. Elizabeth Banks gets a supporting role too, but, like so much of this movie, is generally wasted on pointlessness at worst and mediocrity at best.

So, I wouldn't go so far as to call The Happytime Murders "painfully unfunny." I've seen plenty such movies, and didn't quite get that from this. It is, however . . . just not very funny. And for this to work, it really should have been very funny. It could have been, but Brian Henson & co. were much more concerned with achieving relatively impressive puppetry with both practical skill and green screen than with infusing their script with consistent wit. In other words, just because this movie isn't nearly as terrible as many would have you believe still doesn't mean you have any reason to see it.

  We could have been great. We could have been ... something.

We could have been great. We could have been ... something.

Overall: C+