SICARIO: DAY OF THE SOLDADO

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Overall: B

THE SEAGULL

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Overall: C+

JURASSIC WORLD: FALLEN KINGDOM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A few things go bump in the night.

A few things go bump in the night.

Overall: B

TAG

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The  Tag  team.

The Tag team.

Overall: B

AMERICAN ANIMALS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

These guys aren't as mature as they present.

These guys aren't as mature as they present.

Overall: B+

INCREDIBLES 2

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

It's been a long time since we last saw The Incredibles -- fourteen years, a record gap for Pixar films, breaking the 13-year record between Finding Nemo and Finding Dory. When The Incredibles was released in 2004, in fact, that was the year I first starting these reviews -- but I missed that film by one month, with my first reviews posted in December 2004, after The Incredibles was released in November.

Although the voice actors have all aged the same fourteen years, their voices for the most part sound the same: once again we get Holly Hunter as Elastigirl; Craig T. Nelson as Mr. Incredible; Sarah Vowell as their daughter; Samuel L. Jackson as their super-best friend Frozone. The one notable change is the voice of young Dash, now Huck Milner because Spencer Fox from the original is too old to play a young boy anymore. I just watched both films in one day though, and their voices sound remarkably similar.

Notable additions this time around include Bob Odenkirk and Catherine Keener as siblings Winston and Evelyn Deavor, who together run a tech company they want to use for advocating renewed acceptance for superheroes. If you think there may be some suspicious motives in there, you'd be right; that's all I'll say about that. Well, except that Catherine Keener is a great choice for any kind of animation voice work, and Winston's likeness is remarkably suggestive of Bob Odenkirk's.

Anyway, fourteen years have passed for us, but for the Incredible family, the story picks up at literally the moment The Incredibles ended. This narrative choice is somewhat of a mixed bag, honestly, and the first fifteen minutes or so of Incredibles 2 sag a bit under the weight of tedious exposition.

But, then things pick up, and the wit and cleverly complex plotting that made the first film so great return. The scene stealer is, once again, superhero suit designer Edna Mode (voiced this time, same as last time, amazingly, by director Brad Bird). The star of this movie, surprisingly, is baby Jack Jack -- who never even has any lines beyond the incoherent babbling of an infant. This underscores the talent on hand over at Pixar Animation Studios, because it's how Jack Jack is animated that makes him so delightful and adorable, from the way he shows off his many superpowers to the way he first puts on his little black superhero mask. These two characters, Edna Mode and Jack Jack, are alone worth the price of admission.

And, although The Incredibles still has the edge for its originality, Incredibles 2 has a much better villain. Syndrome, from the first film, was an annoying pipsqueak you just wanted to slap. Now we get "The Screenslaver," who is at first mysterious and then given a reveal of identity that gives this story a commendable complexity. This villain hypnotizes people via ubiquitous screens everyone is looking at, from TVs to mobile devices, offering a sly commentary on contemporary tech culture. (There's also more than a little irony in showing the trailer for Wreck-It Ralph 2 before this movie, as it apparently moves into the Internet and is clearly packed with endless product placement of the very brands we all look at every day.)

It's also great fun, of course, to see Mr. Incredible and Elastigirl switch roles for a while: Helen is asked to be the face of a campaign to make "supers" favorable to the public again, and in the meantime Bob becomes a stay-at-home dad. It's Mr. Mom for the Pixar Age, and it plays well, illustrating the constraints of gendered expectations without ever getting preachy about it. It's always just fun or funny, especially when Bob struggles to deal with Jack Jack's newly discovered powers. (You may recall they manifested themselves at the very end of The Incredibles, but neither Bob nor Helen were witness to them, so at the beginning of this movie, the family still thinks he's just a normal baby.)

The CG animation is top-notch, as is typically expected of Pixar Films; I particularly enjoyed the many sequences in which the heroes are weaving through and around dense cityscapes. This being Pixar's 20th animated feature, we've long since past the point of being in awe of their technical achievements, but they still remain impressive. Overall, The Incredibles 2 can't exceed the quality of its predecessor, but it comes close enough that nothing about it disappoints. It's every bit the great time you want it to be.

The family that works together stays together: The Incredibles continue living up to their name.

The family that works together stays together: The Incredibles continue living up to their name.

Overall: B+

OCEAN'S EIGHT

Directing: B
Acting: B+

Writing: B-
Cinematography: B
Editing: B-

Ocean's Eight is fun. There's no question about that. ...But. I have a lot of "buts" about this.

This movie suffers from two key things. The first is what I'm going to call "Ghostbusters Reboot Syndrome." Why is it so hard for studios just to make an original movie, that is great, starring a bunch of female movie stars? When was there a rule written that an ensemble cast of awesome women has to be riding on the coattails of an existing franchise?

And that leads right into the second thing, which is that Ocean's Eight also suffers from, basically, sequel-itis. It may not feature any of the major players of the George Clooney / Brad Pitt Ocean's Eleven franchise, and the "Eight" might make it sound like more of a prequel, but this movie is, technically, just the fourth in the Ocean's Eleven series.

Sandra Bullock is the ringleader this time around, and she has a pretty direct connection to Danny Ocean: she plays his sister. Debbie Ocean. Also a felon. She's just getting out of five years in jail, and she's ready to pull off another job immediately, one she has spent all of those five years meticulously planning. It's been eleven years since the release of Ocean's Thirteen, and somewhere along the way, it seems, Danny has died. Ocean's Eight doesn't give us what the story is there; only Debbie visiting his grave early on and saying to it, "You better really be in there." Cue George Clooney's "surprise" role in Ocean's Nine or Ocean's Ten, I presume.

There is a shot of Danny in a framed picture, so Clooney gets a check of some sort for this movie. Bullock has much of Clooney's confidence and swagger, but a fraction of his charm. Still it's relatively easy to imagine them as siblings.

Debbie has many criminal friends to convince of getting in on this new heist of hers. Key among them is Cate Blanchett as Lou, with whom Bullock has hints of homoerotic chemistry that I rather wish this movie had explored even a little more, had some fun with it instead of just hints. Five more key players include Mindy Kaling as the jewelry store owner; Sarah Paulson as a subtly skilled kleptomaniac; Rihanna as a hacker; Awkwafina as an expert pickpocket; and Helena Bonham Carter as a fashion designer.

Rounding out the so-called "Eight" is Anne Hathaway, giving one of the best performances in the film as the deceptively vapid starlet who is hosting the Met Gala, and to be wearing the necklace made of $150 million worth of diamonds Debbie and her crew are plotting to steal. Hathaway also gets saddled with a supposed plot twist which, honestly, I saw coming a million miles away -- and I don't even actively look for predictable twists.

To say that Ocean's Eight stretches the bounds of plausibility would be quite the understatement. This movie makes the previous Ocean's movies look like docudrama. Part of the issue there is, again, being saddled with the trappings of a franchise now nearly two decades old. This could have been a movie that had nothing to do with Danny Ocean, just a clever original heist movie that had a better script writer and starred the very same eight talented women. Why deny us that just so this movie could be unfavorably compared to the 2001 Ocean's Eleven?

Because this movie has none of the crackling dialogue that the original in this series had. Neither Twelve nor Thirteen did either, so ultimately this is just diminishing returns, with the hope of riding on the novelty of eight female leads.

But! Again with the buts. The setup is a little plodding, but once the heist gets underway, Ocean's Eight picks up considerably, and gets to be much more fun, just watching all these characters get away with this preposterously brazen crime. I did kind of like the meta irony of Rhianna playing a hacker, when she's so well known for stealing the show at many real-life Met Galas. Also: the difference all these particular actors make cannot be overstated. On paper, this story is mediocre. Onscreen, these women elevate the material -- both because of their ample collective talents and because they are clearly having a good time.

So it comes back to this: Ocean's Eight is fun. It could have been more than just that, though; I wanted more and audiences deserved more, with this much talent at work. It still deserves to succeed, if for no other reason than to prove a movie like this can, and maybe at some point we'll get another movie like this that's great as opposed to fine.

Debbie Ocean's crew strikes a pose.

Debbie Ocean's crew strikes a pose.

Overall: B

SIFF Advance: SADIE

Directing: B-
Acting: B-

Writing: B-
Cinematography: B
Editing: B

It's typically fun to watch girls and women kick ass, regardless of the context in which the ass kicking is happening. I went into Sadie thinking that might be what I was in for -- the synopsis refers to her "war tactics" in response to her mother dating a new man while her father stays enlisted in the military.

It's a bit more sinister than that. Thirteen-year-old Sadie, played with passable competence by Sophia Mitri Schloss, doesn't "kick ass" so much as get progressively creepier as she steps up the questionable actions she takes to get her mother's new boyfriend out of the picture. Perhaps "creepy" is too strong a word. If Sadie has anything really going for it, it's the line it straddles between "creepy" and "troubled youth." She's certainly vaguely unsettling, as she grows into apparent sociopathy.

Sadie's mother, Rae, is played by Melany Linskey; Rae's boyfriend Cyrus by John Gallagher Jr.; her neighbor and best friend Carla by Orange Is the New Black's Danielle Brooks. They all do okay as actors in a low-budget, local production by Seattle writer-director Megan Griffiths -- you can barely tell it's set locally, with its semi-dumpy trailer park locations that could be anywhere. In the screenshot photo below, you can see a sticker for Rat City Roller Girls behind Sadie on the wall.

The thing is, very little of what Griffiths gives her characters to say make them seem all that interesting. Sadie herself is the only truly fascinating character, and it's just because she's fucked up, obsessed with her absent father to the point of dreaming up and image of him as an ultra-violent hero. But Rae and Cyrus's courtship is one of the least compelling relationships I have ever seen on film. They have no chemistry, and it's a mystery what they see in each other as well as why we should be interested. Their interest in each other can best be described as "it's what's within reach."

Even the scenes with Carla bar tending at the tavern she works at struggle to ring true, "friendly banter" between her and her customers feeling both banal and strained. There finally comes a scene between Sadie and Cyrus that's got some genuine tension, and it's kind of a relief when there's finally some story propulsion.

Sadie does have the makings of a compelling story. It's not dull, exactly. It just struggles to succeed when digging into details. It's a complete story, with characters not quite fleshed out. Linskey in particular gives Rae some nuance and dimension, but that doesn't quite help the dialogue she's saddled with. Veep's Tony Hale has a small-ish supporting part as Sadie's school counselor who pines a little after Rae, and his part is one of the few that works both on paper and in execution.

It's not long into Sadie when you realize it's headed somewhere dark. Griffiths leaves a lot of things unresolved and messy in a way I can respect, which is unusual. It just happens in a fictionalized world that feels too small, in a way incomplete, barely constructed. I'd have cared a lot more about the people Sadie apparently can't help but damage in some way, if they had much in the way of personality to begin with. Sadie is an odd movie in that it's an interesting story that is ultimately about boring people.

You might want to keep your drinks covered around this girl.

You might want to keep your drinks covered around this girl.

Overall: B-

FIRST REFORMED

Directing: C+
Acting: B

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

First Reformed is an unsettling movie. I'm not sure it's unsettling in any particularly useful way.

On a technical level, it's distracting from the start. I could not stop noticing the cinematography, by Alexander Dynan, who apparently has a penchant for keeping the camera in a stationery position, often with the visual subject off center. Why do we need to watch the characters simply sit down on the couch through a doorway from the other room?

It doesn't help that the aspect ration is 1.37 : 1 -- upon the opening scene, I thought for a moment the picture was actually square. Instead of the horizontal black bars you see on the top and bottom of your TV screen when you see a movie in letterbox format, this time a vertical black bar is seen on both sides of the screen in the theatre.

Okay, so maybe I'm one of few people likely to pay attention to such things. So let's move on to the story. It has potential, but First Reformed, written and directed by Taxi Driver writer Paul Schrader, is convinced it's "Great Cinema." It's okay cinema at best, straining under the weight of ego.

Ethan Hawke, at least, offers an impressively nuanced performance as the troubled pastor of a small church about to celebrate its 250th anniversary. The reverend lives a largely solitary life, his marriage having broken down after their son died serving in Iraq. A huge celebration for this anniversary brings the assistance of a nearby church with a huge congregation, headed by a pastor played with understatement and subtlety by Cedric the Entertainer. Much of what the megachurch accomplishes is due to the underwriting of a right-wing douche with a short temper, who owns environment-destroying Balq Industries (Michael Gaston).

Too much of First Reformed is ridiculously on the nose. Even the name "Edward Balq" is a tad obvious. In one scene, in which Reverend Toller sits in on a group therapy session at the megachurch, a young man present goes off on a tangent that ends in a dig at Muslims. In another, Balq accuses Toller of doing "a political act" by scattering ashes at the site of a bunch of garbage and pollution -- at the deceased's request.

First Reformed is not overly concerned with these incidents in general, but when they happen, the instinctive response is to think, Okay, I get it. There's something a bit heavy-handed about the environmental elements of this story. Toller councils a young man who wants his wife to abort their unborn child, because the man is too full of despair to imagine justifying raising a child in this world. This movie doesn't do much to convince us he's wrong. If you want something uplifting, this is not the place to look.

There's an interlude in the middle of the movie that suddenly takes things in a dreamlike direction, a celestial journey -- maybe five minutes far away from the grim groundedness of the rest of the story. A couple of scenes are borderline graphic in their goriness. Reverend Toller has a crisis of faith which, while countless other critics are hailing it as a superb presentation of it, I did not find especially believable. How many people seeing this movie, mostly liberals who are presumably the film's broad target audience, have actually had a genuine crisis of faith?

The ending is abrupt and a little bonkers, another example of high-minded cinema that is ironically unaware of its marked pretensions. Annihilation essentially had this same problem with its final sequence -- ironically, in an evolutionary context as opposed to the religious one here -- but at least it had a hypnotic beauty going for it. In the end, First Reformed cheapens the philosophical breakdown of what it means to question deeply held faith. I'm an aetheist -- albeit one who was once religious -- and not even I have much respect for that.

You know I don't think he's the first.

You know I don't think he's the first.

Overall: C+

SIFF Advance: CATWALK: TALES FROM THE CAT SHOW CIRCUIT

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

"It's human nature to want to be on top," says one of the two women most focused on in the Canadian documentary Catwalk: Tales From the Cat Show Circuit. The thing is, she's talking about her cat. The cat -- as in, not human -- is pretty certain, I imagine, it doesn't give a shit.

Co-directors Aaron Hancox and Michael McNamara are clearly going for a bit of a tongue-in-cheek tone for this movie. The opening shots are of a photographer snapping shots of a cat giving stereotypical orders for poses like he's a fashion photographer talking to a model. This tone is sort of fun, but doesn't quite stay consistent.

Catwalk is sort of "Best In Show Lite," and, not to put down Canada here, but I suspect a movie like this would have succeeded a lot better in that endeavor had it been filmed in the U.S. We just have a lot more eccentrics to choose from, is all -- and, presumably, a lot more cat shows. To be fair, the only noticeable cultural difference in this film is strong Canadian accents coming through whenever someone says a word like "about."

Still, Catwalk is pleasant enough, and deliberately silly, in ways both subtle and corny. The narrative pits two middle-aged women against each other, both competing for their purebred cats to have the most cat show "points" in the nation. "We like each other," though, one of them says. Then she adds with a laugh, "We just wish ill of each other's cats!"

Their story goes on, with other rivals who show up along the way as they travel from city to city for cat shows across Canada, and just a few stumbling blocks, such as when Bobby the Turkish Angora hacks up a big hairball in the middle of being examined by a judge. Bobby's rival, Oh La La the Red Persian, is impeccably groomed and widely regarded as beautiful (why anyone thinks that of smash-faced Persians, I'll never know), and having no such slip-ups proves to be in her favor. Or in the favor of her owner, I guess. It's the ladies -- nearly all of them are (surprise!) middle-aged ladies -- who have any emotional investment here.

I suppose I could be wrong about this with Canadian audiences, but otherwise I'm not sure this movie has transcendent mainstream appeal on par with Best In Show. But, it will certainly keep cat lovers entertained. I'm not even sure calling this a "SIFF Advance" screening is quite accurate in this case -- will this get a wide release in U.S. theatres? I have no idea. Evidently Canadians can already watch it on CBC.

I suppose, if nothing else, if you liked Kedi, about the cats of Istanbul, then you're bound to like this doc about show cats in Canada -- although the former is presented in a comparative culture context, and the latter is more of a lighthearted journey through a season of shows with the Canadian Cat Association. It's not quite as funny as it clearly wishes to be, but it's fun all the same. That said, where is my documentary about American cats, damn it? Make American Cats Again! #MACA

What do you mean I'm "second best"? I demand a recount!

What do you mean I'm "second best"? I demand a recount!

Overall: B