FOXTROT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Overall: A-

OUTSIDE IN

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Overall: B+

πŸ“ BLOCKERS

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

One can only hope word of mouth will provide some assistance to πŸ“ Blockers, because, inexplicably, the marketing for this film isn't doing it many favors. If you saw the trailer, you might understandably think it looks like another cornball teen comedy just like countless that came before it, and why bother? That's certainly how I responded at first, until I started paying attention to surprisingly good buzz as its release date neared.

On the other hand, the current audience score on Rotten Tomatoes is all of 57% of viewers liking it. What the hell? Okay, how about on MetaCritic? 6.8 out of ten average user score is a little better, I guess. I don't often mention these things, except that word of mouth is the best chance this surprisingly funny and sincere movie has going for it. Fully understanding that critical consensus rarely moves most movie-goers the way it does me, 83% and 69 ratings on the two aggregate sites, respectively, is actually quite fair.

A quick look at the user reviews -- always a mistake, honestly -- confirms some of my suspicions: the people who hate it have no understanding of nuance, give the lowest possible ratings and thereby lower the average, and are "offended" by so-called "leftist propaganda." Jesus Christ, lighten up!

If you want to call this "leftist propaganda," so be it. It's insane how many people think of "feminist" as a fatal flaw, but I do not: πŸ“ Blockers is feminist by default, without ever being preachy or positioning itself as a "message" movie. It's a teen sex comedy for the 21st century, truly progressive and -- gasp! -- actually sex positive. Ironically, hardly any sex actually happens -- in sharp contrast to all those sex comedies from the eighties and nineties with wall-to-wall sex in them, much of their content deeply sexist.

The premise is admittedly hokey, the kind of thing that keeps movie snobs from seeing "dumb Hollywood movies." But give it a chance and it might just surprise you. Three best friends, Julie, Kayla and Sam (Kathryn Newton, Geraldine Viswanathan, and Gideon Adlon, all of them great) have all made a "sex pact," to lose their virginities on Prom Night. Julie is set on doing the deed with her sweet boyfriend of six months; Kayla up and decides, basically, why not? -- and sets her sights on her stoner Chemistry class lab partner. Sam makes the choice just to be a team player, and finds a lovable doofus of a guy for herself,  even though she's actually a closeted lesbian.

This is just one aspect of many where the script, the most delightful surprise of this movie, must be commended. Written by brothers Brian and Jim Kehoe, with a bit of steering with the female perspective of director Kay Cannon (she was the one to say Kayla needed to state she wanted to have sex before drinking alcohol, as otherwise it's not consensual), something as potentially hacky as a "sex pact" gets presented with believable realism and sincerity.

And the kids are just half the equation. The "cock blockers" of the title (and that title -- calling it just Blockers with a πŸ“ above the word on posters is awkward at best) are three of the kids' parents: This Is Forty's Leslie Mann as Julie's fawning single mother, Lisa; John Cena as Mitchell, Kayla's lovable crybaby of a dad; and The Mindy Project's Ike Barinholtz as Hunter, Sam's distant divorcΓ©e father.

In lesser hands, the rest of the parents would be reduced to afterthoughts, but even with pretty small parts, they are given plenty of dimension, and even some humor. Although we never do meet Julie's apparently not-in-the-picture dad, we do meet Kayla's mom (and Mitchell's wife -- who does get some lines that are pretty sternly feminist -- played by Sarayu Blue), as well as Sam's mother (June Diane Raphael) and stepfather (Hannibal Buress, who doesn't get to be as funny as he could be, but makes the most of it anyway). The trio of Lisa, Mitchell and Hunter wind up teaming up together when Lisa gets wind of the "sex pact." Lisa is convinced Julie will make a mistake of the same magnitude she made at the same age, and Mitchell is too deluded by his protectiveness to realize Kayla can protect herself. Hunter, to his credit, starts off believing they should all stay out of it, but gets involved when he realizes Sam may do something she doesn't want to do with a boy, when he knows better than Sam does that she's gay.

The thing is, even though people -- okay, really just the grown-ups -- make a lot of stupid mistakes, none of the characters in πŸ“ Blockers are stupid people. The kids have all been raised well. They're well put together and have a sense of sophistication and maturity increasingly becoming clear of real-life kids these days but rarely depicted onscreen. The grown-ups can be bone-headed but out of sincere love more than typical parental oppression.

So, given the astonishing number of things πŸ“ Blockers does right, is it funny? Yes, it is! The laughs are rarely especially hard-hitting, but they are consistent and satisfying. It does make the always-unfortunate assumption that any R-rated comedy must include gross-out gags, from a sequence involving "butt chugging" beer (admittedly amusing, but a rare case of relatively lazy, easy laughs) to a whole lot of puking in a limo. That said, the uber-sex-positive parents of Julie's date (Gary Cole and Gina Gershon) appear for a pretty great sequence involving a sort of "Marco Polo" nude sex game using blindfolds.

Kay Cannon flips the script of typical teen sex comedies in a whole lot of ways, not least of which a couple of full frontal shots with a male actor, and none with the women. The women in girls are treated with a respect in πŸ“ Blockers almost never seen in the movies, and especially in comedies. If nothing else, this proves a whole bunch of effective jokes can be made about women without degrading them.

Okay, I guess this whole review is my own "leftist propaganda." I can only hope it works.

πŸ“ Blockers  decode emoji.

πŸ“ Blockers decode emoji.

Overall: B+

GOLDSTONE

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

Who is Goldstone for, exactly? Who are the people for whom it holds lasting appeal? People who appreciate perspectives from outside the U.S., perhaps -- it's an Australian crime thriller, a sort of Western noir set in the outback. Certainly critics, for those same reasons, although to be honest, its ending is a bit overwrought. To be honest, the original score is trying a little too hard. Do we really need these sweeping and emotionally manipulative crescendos here?

The director, Ivan Sen, seems to think so. Well, here's a curious tidbit: Ivan Sen is also credited with the original music. How often does that happen? Well, this guy also wrote the script, served as cinematographer, and editor. Is there anything he doesn't do?

He should have delegated. Goldstone is a movie with great potential largely unrealized. It's a good movie, and very impressive for one man doing all those things, but it could have been great. It's always great to see Jacki Weaver, as the mayor of the titular town, but the part she is given is criminally underdeveloped, none of her lines given lasting impact.

Boy, though, does this movie look good. For a setting out in the middle of nowhere, nearly nothing but flat land and dust, it's beautifully shot. If only everything else could have been given this level of attention. The editing could have used some tightening, taking maybe ten minutes out of this rather leisurely paced story. I was never bored, mind you, but I can think of few people I know who would not have been.

There is a climactic shootout, when things get genuinely exciting after about an hour and a half. The sequence is expertly shot, though, the camera gliding overhead of a bird's-eye view of two law enforcement officers weaving through a maze of trailers in pursuit of criminals. For me, this was nicely satisfying. For most, it will be too little too late.

Sen wants us to be thinking about the sociopolitical landscape of the Australian outback, the lingering effects of history between colonizers and Aborigines, distilled down to a tiny town run by corrupt people across the board with an understandably weary native population. These issues aren't examined with great clarity, but I suppose their acknowledgment is something.

The first characters we meet are Goldstone police officer Josh Waters (an endlessly handsome Alex Russell), who happens upon state police detective Jay Swan (Aaron Pedersen), drunk behind the wheel of his truck. Before long we learn that one of Swan's parents was Aborigine, giving him a curious position between the town leadership's eagerness to expand the nearby mining operation, and the native population being pressured into granting consent. 

In the middle of all this, Swan is in the area investigating a missing person -- a young Asian girl likely connected to the Asians being flown in for brief periods for sex work. How much truth is there to this scenario, I wonder? All these young women appear to be there under duress, although in execution it feels more like plot device than cinematic realism.

It's entirely possible there is some massive context I am missing, which prevents me from recognizing Goldstone's greatness. To be fair, I did like it, for the most part, until the very end, which falls prey to a few too many Hollywood clichΓ©s -- unfortunately ironic for a movie not at all out of Hollywood. In any case, Sen creates a tone and an aesthetic that is unique and specific. To be honest, an Outback-set film that succeeds better on all those fronts would be The Rover (2014). It may not be quiet as pretty, but it's both quiet and better paced, with superior performances.

These are movies with limited reach, but with their own rewards. Those of Goldstone are sufficient, to varying degrees even impressive, if in the long run relatively unmemorable.

Jay and Josh strike a pose in the outback.

Jay and Josh strike a pose in the outback.

Overall: B

ISLE OF DOGS

Directing: B+
Acting: B
Writing: A-
Cinematography: A-
Editing: B+
Animation: A-
Production Design
: A-

Isle of Dogs is only Wes Anderson's second foray into stop-motion animation, but he turns out to be uniquely suited to the form. Plenty of his live-action films seem like they might as well be animated, with their static shots of stunningly detailed, colorful tableaus. This gives a strangely static tone to many of his films, as though the characters live in a world just off from the real one.

That's not so much of an issue with animation, as was the case with Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009). What makes Isle of Dogs the superior of the two films is a sentimentality that's missing from many of Anderson's other films. Rather than being witty and clever just for its own sake, this film gets to the heart of the bond between people and their pets. And rather than being multiple species who all wear clothes, these are dogs who actually act more like dogs than people -- sure, they talk, but it's still more realistic and thus more relatable.

The plot is surprisingly complex, set in Japan twenty years in the future, a corrupt mayor declaring all the dogs in the city of Megasaki infected by a canine virus a public menace and exiling them on the island of the title. The first of these dogs is one named Spots, his master being the mayor's distant nephew, Atari (Koyu Rankin), whose parents died in a terrible bullet train accident. Months after all the dogs have been exiled, Atari flies a small plane to the island in search of Spots, and a group of dirty alpha dogs helps him search for him.

To be honest, fun as it looked, the trailer for Isle of Dogs gave me slight pause. The voice cast features a couple dozen famous talents, most of them American. How was Wes Anderson going to handle this, having the story set in Japan? This seemed potentially problematic. In the end, he comes up with some clever devices, while retaining several Japanese actors actually delivering lines in their own native language -- in fact, Atari has many lines, and Koyu Rankin delivers nearly all of them in Japanese.

Many of the Japanese lines are delivered neither with subtitles or translations; no such efforts are made when it makes no difference to understanding the story. That said, very occasionally, subtitles are used. Most of the many television news reports featured are handled by a character who is herself an interpreter, played by Frances McDormand. So what of audiences who actually speak Japanese, then? This film is clearly made for American audiences first and foremost, which alone makes the use of Japan as basically a complex prop itself problematic, but as someone fluent only in English, I cannot speak for such people. You might do well to read this Vulture piece featuring the perspectives of several Japanese speakers, a fascinating read indeed, on the whole pretty positive in response to the movie but also offering many totally fair criticisms.

Really, Isle of Dogs could just have easily been set in any American city in the future, without using Japanese language and styles as a gimmick -- or perhaps it even still could, if set largely in a given city's International District, using, say, the bilingual child of Japanese immigrants. I mean, I quite enjoyed it all, to be honest. But it must be acknowledged that I speak from the perspective of a white guy with limited understanding of Japanese culture.

Now, dogs -- that's a different story, even though -- confession time! -- I am much more of a cat person, and would be delighted by a film of this sort featuring cats as the main characters. As it happens, cats do feature in this story, just none of them being given any lines. They don't talk. They are just grumpy looking props for all the villainous city leaders attempting to eradicate all dogs. To be fair, even as props the cats are put to good use and are nearly always amusing in their own right.

But the essence of Isle of Dogs gets down to my favorite exchange of dialogue in the movie: Nutmeg (Scarlett Johansson) asks Chief (Bryan Cranston), "Will you help him then, the little pilot?" When Chief responds, "Why should I?", Nutmeg replies, "Because he's a twelve-year-old boy. Dogs love those." All the dogs speak English, by the way; the opening titles offer the explanation that "all barks" are translated. In any case, it's this kind of sentiment that informs the story, and makes it likely that any dog-loving twelve-year-old would likely love this movie. Ironically, the film is rated PG-13 due mostly to some surprisingly graphic elements, such as the somewhat striking scene depicting a complete human liver transplant. (It makes sense when you watch the movie.)

Honestly, if there's any element of Isle of Dogs not deserving of praise, it's the persistently stoic delivery of the voice acting, typical of all Wes Anderson movies. Actor performances are never his strong suit, even with such an incredible roster of voice talent, here including Edward Norton, Bob Balaban, Bill Murray and Jeff Goldblum as the rest of the alpha dogs; Liev Schreiber as Spots; Harvey Keitel as Gondo, the leader of dogs from the island's pre-existing animal testing facility knocked out by natural disasters; F. Murray Abraham as Jupiter, the island's most-respected elder statesman dog; Tilda Swinton as Oracle, Jupiter's prophetic sidekick (the subject of a great running gag); Yoko Ono as one of the city's assistant scientists; Ken Watanabe as the Head Surgeon; and Greta Gerwig as the arguably unnecessary foreign exchange student who is American and therefore provides a lot of context via her lines delivered in English. It's fun to recognize all these people's voices, for sure (and especially the "Y" and the "O" tied around the assistant scientist's braids), but to a person, the delivery is the same: nearly always soft-spoken; almost monotone; just short of wooden. Possibly the one exception is Jeff Goldblum, who is incapable of speaking in anything but his specific Goldblum voice.

It's the animation that gives them all personality, and this movie's incredible animation must be acknowledged. This part is indeed on the same level as Fantastic Mr. Fox, with an attention to detail that is truly a sight to behold, itself reason alone to see the film, particularly on the big screen. Combined with cinematography made all the more impressive when it's stop-motion, production design on the level of excellence all Wes Anderson films are known for, and the nearly universal relatability of kids who love their dogs unconditionally, Ilse of Dogs (say that out loud) transcends all the reasons it gives to nitpick. Most people watching aren't going to bother with the nitpicking, and will easily surrender to its ample charms.

Atari and the alpha dogs in search of Spots.

Atari and the alpha dogs in search of Spots.

Overall: B+

READY PLAYER ONE

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

In the long run, trafficking in nostalgia is a fool's errand. That is, if you want your product -- your work, your art, whatever -- to be remembered beyond its initial run. Then again, a strong case could be made that it's naive to make such a statement: if the product makes a ton of money as soon as it's unleashed on the public, does it matter? With Ready Player One, Steven Spielberg is clearly just cashing a check.

Spielberg is objectively one of the greatest directors of the twentieth century. In the 21st century, his record is a little spottier: one would be hard pressed to come up with a great movie he's made in twenty years; it's been a decade since his output was excellent (Munich); about the same time since he offered something both of a genre and tapped into the zeitgeist of its time (War of the Worlds). Those were both films which, for varying reasons, people are likely still to be talking about ten or twenty years from now.

Ready Player One is undeniably entertaining, but unfortunately -- especially given it's directed by Spielberg -- easily forgotten. It's one pop culture reference after another, a constant parade of reminders of other, superior works. Also, no less then three times during this movie, I was taken out of it to think to myself, Okay, that was dumb.

The plot is beyond preposterous, and lacks the absorbing world-building of, say, Minority Report (2002), Spielberg's last memorable science fiction film -- some elements of which are now a bit dated, but it holds up surprisingly well after sixteen years. In 2034, no one is going to be saying the same of Ready Player One. The visual effects look dated even now -- clearly a deliberate decision, to make us feel like we are watching the interior design of a VR video game. The problem there is that it looks like virtual reality in 2018. Surely in the year 2045 -- only nine years before the setting of Minority Report, incidentally -- virtual reality will be hardly distinguishable from the sight of reality.

Sometimes, in Ready Player One, it actually is, such as when our young hero, Wade (Tye Sheridan) visits the recorded memories/messenger of the designer of the "Oasis" (Mark Rylance), or as in what is possibly the movie's most thrilling sequence, and the players find themselves in the Overlook Hotel from The Shining. This is one of the few moments when Ready Player One transcends the pitfalls of trafficking in nostalgia, even without any sight of Jack Nicholson or Shelley Duvall. (There are other delights, and I won't spoil them.)

If all of Ready Player One were like that sequence, when it suddenly becomes smarter than it has any right to be, it could have come within spitting distance of a classic, even as it still relies on a cascade of pop culture references, mostly from the eighties. The game designer, you see, was obsessed with eighties pop culture; he packs the "Oasis" with such references, which makes his obsessive players obsess over those same details as they attempt to find the "easter eggs" needed to obtain three keys that will give them full control of the Oasis universe in the wake of his passing.

Occasionally we get non-eighties references, such as The Iron Giant (released in 1999) or even King Kong, who shows up in an admittedly very cool car race sequence near the beginning of the film. That's a lot of fun to watch.

The time spent inside the Oasis quickly gets tedious, though, and not nearly enough is shown of the real-world environment of 2045 -- "The Stacks," stacked trailer homes in booming Columbus, Ohio, of all places. There are some well-timed sight gags as the visuals switch between the interior of the Oasis and the players in the real world with their gear on, but that's about as far as it goes.

Instead, what we get is a sensory-overload movie-turned-video game, which we as the audience aren't even actually playing; we just watch the characters play it. True, countless people do exactly that on YouTube, and maybe I'm just becoming a geezer who doesn't understand contemporary youth. This doesn't change the fact that Ready Player One is even less nutritious than popcorn entertainment -- it's cotton candy for the eyeballs. When, in another decade or two, movie buffs are still talking about the lasting impact of Jaws or Raiders of the Lost Ark (ironically, Spielberg references are peppered in the novel of the same name, which Spielberg scrubbed from his own movie adaptation), they will not be talking about Ready Player One.

This movie will surely make plenty of money. But we're talking about a guy who has not once, not twice, but three times made the highest-grossing movie of all time, in 1975, 1982 and 1993. Ready Player One is far from the same league, and its director is better than this. It offers a lot of fun in the moment -- sure, okay, whatever. It doesn't have to be Schindler's List. But it still could have stood some substance to call its own, instead of borrowing it from countless other properties and weakening it to nothing of consequence in the process.

Tye Sheridan reaches out and touches no one.

Tye Sheridan reaches out and touches no one.

Overall: C+

THOROUGHBREDS

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

I love a good one-word title. And then the conceit of Chekhov's Gun: If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Plenty of educated people might find it hacky for me to bring this up at the very beginning of a review, but I guarantee you plenty of my readers have never heard of Chekhov's Gun, so work with me here.

Thoroughbreds gets right to this concept, and as a result I thought of it in a way I'm not sure I ever have while watching another film. The opening shot is of a horse -- this movie is not about horses, but they feature prominently in the story -- with a teenage girl we later learn to be Amanda (Me and Earl and the Dying Girl's Olivia Cooke) staring it down. This goes on several seconds too long for it to be comfortable, until she reaches out to touch it. Fade to black, and there is a brief shot of a knife being set down. That would be, of course, Chekhov's Knife.

Rather than acts, Thoroughbreds is presented in "chapters," and indeed we learn what the deal was with that knife soon enough. It's pretty gruesome, and never shown onscreen -- Amanda and her friend Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy, all steely looks and piercing eyes) simply talk about it. There's a sort of foreshadowing to this technique by debut feature writer-director Cory Finley, which may or may not have been a means of saving on production budget, but it's memorably effective either way. By the end, the climactic incident is just as gruesome and also occurs offscreen, the camera lingering an unnaturally long time on Amanda passed out on a living room couch.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Suffice it to say that Thoroughbreds is a unique vision with DNA derived of that in movies like American Pyscho -- it's also been compared to Heathers, although that strikes me as a stretch. The latter is much more about how women back stab each other, in that case literally and fatally; Amanda and Lily never betray each other. It's a little more like they're Patrick Bateman's psychotic granddaughters.

The script here really should be commended. This movie is mostly tense and measured dialogue between two characters, always falling just short of feeling natural but featuring a delivery that gives it a mesmerizing quality, perfect for the darkly comic tone it's going for. Amanda, at first coming for tutoring lessons for which her mother is paying Lily, admits early on that she feels no emotions: "I'm a skilled imitator," she stresses, more than once. There is a false sense at first that she is the dangerous one and Lily is the one who will be drawn into her vortex of blithe immorality. On the contrary, Amanda's skills come from keen observation, and it's an astute one when she says to Lily, "Empathy isn't exactly your strong suit."

These young women come from affluent families, Lily's particularly so, and she has deep hatred for her stepfather (Paul Sparks, perfectly cast). This guy never really treats Lily that badly, and when Amanda overhears some of his criticisms she even notes that he's not far off base. Lily being such a spoiled rich girl is perhaps part of the point; nevertheless, Amanda, ever the rational one, poses the question: if they could get away with killing him, why not? When she's got a point she's got a point!

They blackmail a local loser drug dealer into doing the job for them, so they could both be out of town and thereby have "airtight alibis." This guy comes in the form of the late Anton Yelchin, in one of the very last performances before his death. I didn't even realize it was him until the end credits began with a memorial dedication to him. Is it a great and powerful final performance? I'd love to say it is. It's fine.

It's Olivia Cooke and Anya Taylor-Joy, really, who make this movie. In ways specific to each of them, they both become increasingly unsettling as the story unfolds. It's kind of The Bad Seeds for the 21st Cenutry, but with girls a few years older, and a targeted adult who has no idea what kind of danger he's in. Stepdad is just a moderate douche, thoroughly clueless.

It's us, as the audience, who either fear or know what's coming, and that's what makes Thoroughbreds work like a truly well-oiled machine -- almost too oiled, at times, with its obvious precision. Every gesture is a clearly made decision, as though every frame were a meticulous diorama. The perfectly framed cinematography is at times hypnotic, especially when paired with Erik Friedlander's strange but effectively percussive score.

There's something about Thoroughbreds that makes it feel within a stone's throw of perfection -- like something very subtle and unidentifiable is missing, but in the end that doesn't matter nearly as much as how well its over-polish actually makes it work. It features a glossy veneer that belies its gritty insides. None of these characters are particularly relatable, but they command undivided attention anyway. Cory Finley has taken some very wrong things and done something very right with them.

Just wait until you find out what happens upstairs.

Just wait until you find out what happens upstairs.

Overall: B+

LOVELESS

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

Russia, Russia, Russia! Anyone sick of hearing about Russia might hesitate to see Loveless, the new movie by Leviathan (2015) director Andrey Zvyagintsev. And, like Leviathan, I don't seem to be quite as in love with Loveless as many other critics.

Somewhat ironically, although the critical consensus is barely lower on Loveless, I actually liked Loveless better than Leviathan, which had rather bored me -- but, although Loveless lives up to its title and is about miserable people who lack empathy, it was at least compelling, in its way. It's also very well shot, full of indelible images that find beauty in what otherwise might be drab landscapes and cityscapes.

The premise is simple. Married couple Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) and Boris (Aleksey Rozin) are going through a bitter divorce, both of them distracted by separate lovers as they contend with trying to sell their apartment. Lost in the mix is their twelve-year-old son, Alexey (Matvey Novikov), neglected and willfully ignored, until he overhears his parents bitterly trying to pawn him off on each other, like an unwanted pet. Although he is the very first character seen onscreen, very little is seen of Alexey, because he disappears.

Did he run away? Was he kidnapped? Was there an accident? It takes two days for Zhenya or Boris even to be faced with these questions, because they've both gone to their respective new flings' homes. Zhenya returns late and assumes Alexey is home asleep; wakes up late assuming he's gone to school. She only finds out he's missing when the school calls to ask why he's been gone for two days in a row.

It gradually becomes clear that this story is less about Alexey specifically, than it is about Zhenya and Boris and their patterns of unsympathetic and narcissistic behaviors. Soon enough they are traveling to the home of Zhenya's bitch of a mother, and we get a sense of how Zhenya became the detached mother and wife she is. Boris, for his part, is with a new young girlfriend who is herself pregnant, and he is clearly repeating the very same cycle all over again.

Zvyagintsev pointedly peppers the narrative with radio and TV news reports of conflict in the Ukraine, as well as speculation about irrational public expectation of the Mayan "end of the world" in 2012, when most of the story is set. This is clearly a commentary on the state of modern Russian society, although it's never particularly straightforward. Granted, a shot of Zhenya jogging on a treadmill in a tracksuit with RUSSIA written across her chest is a little on the nose.

Still, when it comes to these people who are more concerned with taking selfies than they are with nurturing relationships, this is a story that could just as easily take place anywhere else -- such as, say, the U.S. There is a universality to this story, bleak as it is. People like this exist everywhere, although there may be something to be said for specific cultural trends that discourage empathy.

Loveless is fairly well done, but it isn't exactly a good time. It feels more like commentary than entertainment. Taken just as the story of a miserable couple who basically misplace their young boy, it doesn't have much to recommend. It's often very pretty to look at, and that's the most pleasant thing about it. None of the people here are all that fun to hang out with. If you're looking to have a good time, I'd steer clear of this one -- but if you want something to contemplate on, you could do worse.

Mother Russia in all its maternal glory.

Mother Russia in all its maternal glory.

Overall: B

OH LUCY!

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

If you happened to see the trailer for Oh Lucy!, the surprisingly dark Japanese/American dramedy expanded from a 2014 short with the title by Japanese writer-director Atsuko Hirayanagi, you might expect something a little more sweet and charming than it really is. It's unclear what they were going for with the promotion of this film, but then, it's understandable to think maybe they just didn't quite know where to go with it.

It's a unique story, unlike anything else you'll see at the movies, that's for sure. Roughly half takes place in Tokyo and half in Southern California, with the majority of the dialogue spoken in Japanese: the one American part among the leads, and thus the one major American actor, is the source of most of the English spoken. If Hirayanagi was looking for a pretty average yet handsome American guy, Josh Hartnett was a good choice. He's sort of the poor-man's Ashton Kutcher (why have these two never played brothers?), and Kutcher himself isn't exactly the richest choice either.

Here Hartnett plays an American teaching English in Tokyo, but we don't meet him until the title character, Setsuko (Shinobu Terajima, fantastic) is persuaded by her niece, Mika (Shioli Kutsuna) to take her place in the class. Setsuko has a much better relationship with Mika than Mike's mother Ayako (Kaho Minami) does, and things between the sisters are rather strained as well.

Lest you think this movie is too lighthearted, suicide figures somewhat prominently: the beautifully shot opening scene has a stranger whispering "Goodbye" into Setsuko's ear before hurling himself in front of an oncoming commuter train. Just a barrel of laughs from the very beginning, this movie! I get the feeling there is some thematic threads here connected to Japanese culture -- Japan is known for its relatively high suicide rate -- about which I don't know near enough to make any useful observations.

John, the English teacher, focuses on American English and specifically how casual Americans are, immediately hugging each student practically as soon as they enter. Does John's class in any way resemble typical real-life English-as-a-second-language classes in Japan, I wonder? I have my doubts. His attire, glasses, the way he parts his hair -- they all come across a bit more like someone outside the U.S. might imagine such a teacher.

Still, John has his deceptive charms. Setsuko only gets to take one of his classes; by the time she returns, she discovers he has disappeared and is to be replaced by a new teacher. A little too conveniently to be plausible, she catches John and Mika leaving in a taxi cab as soon as she leaves the building. Before long, Setsuka and her sister Ayako are flying themselves to Los Angeles in search of the return address on a postcard Mika has sent.

Once Setsuko and Ayako find John at his apartment, John feels a little more authentic. It's not as certain the same could be said of Setsuko, who gradually reveals herself to be a little unhinged, at the same time John is gradually revealed to be a bit of a deadbeat. Before long, Mika is being pursued in San Diego, relations get muddled, and there is a spectacularly awkward sex scene in the front seat of a car.

Fear not, though: even as dark as Oh Lucy! gets, it still veers in the end toward a redemption of sorts. At many turns, this movie challenges suspension of disbelief, but it's never egregious enough to give up on it. It's well shot and well edited, which alone keeps things moving and prevents the story from ever being dull or overly indulging in its contrivances. If nothing else, it's a story that unfolds in a plethora of unexpected, if sometimes mystifying, ways.

Japanese-American linguistics: doing oral across the Pacific.

Japanese-American linguistics: doing oral across the Pacific.

Overall: B

LOVE, SIMON

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

The first line heard in Love, Simon is "I'm just like you," and, I would argue, that is a misstep. Granted, I'm a middle-aged gay man living in a world contextualized in a far different way than can safely be assumed of any of the young-adult audience this movie is clearly aimed at -- kids who, in all likelihood, don't even realize how radically different the world really is for them. Part of that extraordinary difference is the fact that, although this is a story about a gay teenager struggling with the coming-out process, that target audience includes young adults both gay and straight.

Should I say that my review is aimed more at people at minimum in their thirties, then? It may be a little unorthodox to refer to someone else's review in my own, but Vanity Fair's Richard Lawson wrote a great one, which I related to significantly -- much more so, as it happens, than I did to the movie itself. And yet, I also did not feel quite as disconnected from the film as that review left me expecting I would. Either way, I do find myself wondering how different a review might be from, say, a teen critic writing for their high school newspaper.

The cynic in me, a part of myself I have spent years trying to loosen up, wants to dismiss Love, Simon as a simple, gay fantasy. My own experiences prompt me to ask: In what world would a gay teenager have such an understanding family and such an accepting close circle of friends? Well, here's a novel idea: maybe the real world? Nowhere in Love, Simon is it suggested that all gay kids in 2018 America have the same kind of experience -- only that we do finally live in a world where some of them do, and that does not make their stories any less worth telling. Also: it's not for nothing that the world see even clearly privileged kids with wonderful parents struggle with the uncertainty of coming out.

I don't really subscribe to the criticism that Simon is problematically presented as "straight acting" -- director Greg Berlanti gives no indication that we're to assume all gay kids are like Simon; only that they do exist. This movie still shows us the slightly more stereotypical sort in the one other openly gay kid at Simon's school (Clark Moore, surprisingly subtle, all things considered), who is more effeminate and always at the ready with one-liner retorts. He is also far more self-assured than Simon is. In any case, here we see both ends of the spectrum.

Still, my opening statement still stands: Simon immediately telling us "I'm just like you" serves only to muddle all these points. The set-up is by far the most contrive part of Love, Simon, and comparisons of his family's home to the upper-middle-class home sets of Nancy Meyers movies are apt. I heard that phrase "I'm just like you" and immediately thought, Uh, no you're not. And here my response is quite realistically similar even to that of many kids a third my age -- plenty of kids grow up in families poor enough that their economic problems far overshadow social anxieties, or in families that closer resemble that of the TV show Roseanne (or, to update that to the 21st century, One Day at a Time) than that of Simon.

Simon's little sister (Talitha Bateman, just as adorable as this movie asks for) is an aspiring chef, regularly cooking elaborate meals for the entire family. This is just the most obvious of several things about Simon's family which, if not entirely ringing false, comes across as at least slightly off from realistic. 

And a lot of this set-up in the beginning is presented through countless awkward interactions. I don't do awkward very well: for about the first half-hour, I was squirming in my seat and averting my eyes from the screen more than I do at horror movies.

And then: somehow, Love, Simon coalesces, and proves surprisingly affecting. Suffice it to say that I was touched by it enough to cry several times, and if you're someone who would be interested in this movie to begin with, it would be wise to bring tissues. I may have wept at Simon's parents saying all the right things to him, but it was because I was so happy any gay kid could be so lucky -- it did not have the twinge of bittersweet wistfulness (something I feel regularly about the gay kids who have it better than I did) that I really expected.

Even better, Nick Robinson is well cast as the handsome semi-schlub who is the title character. The casting of his circle of friends barely falls short of feeling self-consciously diverse, but the performances all around make them feel authentic. I have been saying for decades that kids are smarter than adults tend to give them credit for, but I only just discovered they are also more sophisticated than I gave them credit for. The activist kids today working for gun control prove that much, if nothing else. None of that stuff comes into play in Love, Simon, but the real world currently shows us that, like the kids in this movie, kids are on average a lot more worldly than they used to be.

Nick Robinson is 22 years old, by the way -- and here he's playing 17. Funny, back in 2013's lovely The Kings of Summer he was eighteen, playing 15. I guess he's had a young face for a while. This kind of casting is often complained about, but it's only a problem if the actors' age is obvious. Robinson very much looks the part of a high schooler, and he plays one with true depth of understanding.

We are treated with Jennifer Garner and Josh Duhamel as Simon's doting parents devoid of judgment, and even if they are not likely "just like yours," they certainly fit the parts perfectly in Simon's world. The great thing about Love, Simon is how little noteworthy is its very existence -- another gay story devoid of what used to be obligatory tragedy. Boring is better than tragic, and although Simon's life is not all that exciting, his story is neither tragic or boring. Any story can be compelling if told the right way, and once both Simon and Love, Simon get past their awkward missteps, this story is as compelling as any -- perhaps for different reasons, but for audiences older and younger alike.

love, simon.jpg

Overall: B+