CHRISTOPHER ROBIN

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

I wonder what the crossover audience is between one movie and the other that clearly inspired it, from 27 years before? How many people watching Christopher Robin had the experience I had, where it consistently reminded me of Spielberg's 1991 blockbuster Hook? In that movie, the question was, "What if Peter Pan grew up?" In this one, it was "What happened when Christopher Robin grew up?"

What happens is arguably a mixed bag, but I opened up to it, and allowed myself to be charmed. Christopher Robin is getting very mixed reviews, and if you look at it with even a moderately critical eye, it's easy to see why. But here is a movie in which paying attention to such things misses the point. Audience scores are far higher than critical reviews, and if we're being totally honest, that's a far better barometer of what the likelihood is that you'll enjoy it.

Do you love Winnie the Pooh? The old books, the old Disney cartoons? Christopher Robin won't equal them, and I don't think any Pooh fan will say that it does. But pretty much any Pooh fan will still be endeared by it.

I certainly was. Granted, I am also a Ewan McGregor fan, and he plays the grown up Christopher Robin. Directed by Mike Forster, who also gave us 2004's Finding Neverland -- another Peter Pan connection -- Christopher Robin has an odd through line of wistfulness, bordering on melancholy, even as it has a clear message of appreciating the simple pleasures of childhood.

The broad beats of the story are very familiar. Christopher Robin works for a luggage company in post-World War II London and is so consumed by his workaholism that he neglects his wife Evelyn (Hayley Atwell) and his daughter Madeline (Bronte Carmichael). It's slightly anachronistic that this child of the forties should be a young girl, being groomed by her father to emphasize the value of career. The choice not to make her a little boy feels less organic than focused grouped to appeal to 21st century audiences. Christopher's workplace is also surprisingly racially integrated, but, I suppose, so what? This is clearly a fantasy, after all.

And: it works. It did for me, anyway, in spite of the fact that in this stage of Christopher Robin's life, he's not the only person who can see and hear his walking and talking stuffed animals. Wherever Pooh and his friends go, which includes two different trips into the hustle and bustle of London, their personalities are not just a product of Christopher's imagination. Everyone can see and hear them, and they are at one point taught to "play nap time" just to keep people from freaking out.

In any case, a lot of Christopher Robin is . . . odd. What truly rises above it all is the cuddly, pure of heart personality of Winnie the Pooh (voiced by Jim Cummings, who also voices Tigger, in both cases having also done so for the cartoons since the late eighties). Pooh gets occasionally confused, but never hurt or angry. He takes nothing personally. He goes with the flow, and is thus a font of simple wisdom. He finds joy in a red balloon.

He reappears in Christopher Robin's life after thirty years, literally out of thin air outside his London flat, evidently just to snap him out of the distracted state of being a grown-up. When he converses with Christopher, even in this complex adult world, he is only capable of processing it in the simplest terms, often to hilarious effect. I laughed pretty hard several times. The same can be said of Tigger and Piglet (Nick Mohammed) and especially Eeyore (Brad Garrett, fantastic), and the rest of the gang. But Pooh is the heart of this movie, as is to be expected.

There is something slightly jarring about this being a live action film rather than animation, the stuffed animals all CGI effects as opposed to drawings. They look very much like real stuffed animals, in ways the cartoons and drawings we're all used to never quite did. But still they move and talk, and have unique personalities with which we've long been familiar.

The lesson, as always, is the importance of play, and how gloomy life becomes when deprived of it. None of this is new. But I was taken by the fish-out-of-water story of Pooh and his stuffed buddies navigating the big city with a little girl eager to please her father. The script remains the weakest link in Christopher Robin, which is unfortunate given that's the most important part, but here the performances make up for a lot. The charms offered by these stuffed animal characters are plentiful enough to render the wildly overdone plot inessential. Spending a couple of hours just hanging out with these guys is enough.

  Hey Pooh, I think I'm tripping.

Hey Pooh, I think I'm tripping.

Overall: B

DON'T WORRY, HE WON'T GET FAR ON FOOT

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

How is it I have never heard of cartoonist John Callahan? Thanks to director Gus Van Sant, and Joaquin Phoenix, who plays Callahan in Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot, I now must seek out his published works.

Incidentally, he was a wheelchair user. He was also a massive alcoholic. These two things are very related. Don't Worry is quasi-narrated by Callahan, as the editing shifts between him telling the story at both an AA group meeting and as a guest speaker in a lecture hall. Van Sant takes a bit of time with this, to build up to the accident, which itself is actually never seen onscreen. Instead, there's a fleeting glimpse of its aftermath at one point in the story; a brief description at another.

Both insanely drunk, Callahan and his friend Dexter (Jack Black, always underrated) ran their car into a light post at 90 mph. Dexter, who was driving, walked away with a few scratches. Callahan didn't walk away at all, but rather found himself to be quadriplegic. This happened to him at the age of 21, although Van Sant never makes much effort to make that clear. No one visibly ages in this movie, not that it matters so much.

There's a lot that sets Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot apart from other movies. We could start with the title itself. It's a little cumbersome. It's also the caption for one of his best known cartoons. It is thus also appropriate as the title to his story, with its irreverence toward his own disability. Callahan's work drew many complaints from newspaper readers, but many disabled people related to his contempt for being condescended to or pitied.

Much of the story takes place in the early eighties, and Gus Van Sant doesn't just give this film a look and feel appropriate to the era. He adds a tone for good measure, even filmmaking techniques, which make it feel like a movie that was actually made at the time. Don't Worry thus exists slightly outside of time, with a perfectly cast group of supporting actors who don't look like anything out of Hollywood at all, but like real, regular people, in a variety of sizes and colors, even sexualities. A gay black man in Callahan's AA group fancies himself an "American poet" and shares one of his many pieces appreciating the penis.

Jonah Hill plays Donnie, AA sponsor to Callahan as well as all the others in the aforementioned group -- he calls them his "piglets" -- and it might be Hill's most impressive performance I've ever seen. The character being a gay man with HIV is almost incidental. Hill has lost some weight, here sports a beard and long blond hair, and Donnie is about as laid back as they come -- in virtually every expect, the opposite of what you tend to expect from Jonah Hill. And yet it feels totally natural, and Hill disappears in the part.

Evidently a lot of people like working with Gus Van Sant, who also wrote this screenplay, based on Callahan's memoir of the same name. Rooney Mara plays Annu, the volunteer who helps Callahan with his rehabilitation and eventually has a relationship of sorts with him. Amongst the AA group we find both Kim Gordon of the band Sonic Youth and Udo Kier, who some might recognize as the wedding planner from Lars von Trier's Melancholia. Portlandia's Carrie Brownstein shows up as Callahan's contact with the company that provides him disability benefits.

Most of the story in Don't Worry is simply that of an alcoholic struggling and quite often failing to stay sober, going through the 12 steps in the process. This honestly gets a little heavy handed at times, and there was at least one moment where a character breaking down in tears, I thought, strained credibility. That's no reflection on the performances, however, which are excellent all around, but especially those of Joaquin Phoenix and Jonah Hill.

This movie is most definitely a drama, not a comedy, but once Callahan starts getting interested in drawing cartoons, it provided a couple moments of big laughs. Gus Van Sant has an ability to create a tone that's difficult to pinpoint in some movies, and is comparatively straightforward in others. This movie falls into the former group, but on the whole, it works well.

  John Callahan takes a break from zooming down sidewalks like a bat out of hell.

John Callahan takes a break from zooming down sidewalks like a bat out of hell.

Overall: B+

BLINDSPOTTING

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

Every once in a while, when I feel like it's taking me a minute to decide how I feel about a movie, I work backward from a default of perfection: what things are wrong with it? Even if it didn't necessarily change the world, or exactly rock my world, does that count as a flaw? What reason might I have to tear it down from the best appraisal I can give it?

Blindspotting is one of those rare movies where the answer to that question is: none. There is nothing wrong with this movie.

At least, not from my perspective as a white guy watching it -- and yes, that context is relevant. It could easily be said that this movie, directed by first-time feature director Carlos López Estrada, is for white people. Black audiences might like it fine, but they're not going to find anything illuminating about it. A more cynical person might say it could be called White Privilege: The Movie.

It's also fair to say many white people would be less likely to watch it when the movie is explained in that context, given how quick to defensiveness white people tend to get when tasked with talking about race. Or, for all sorts of reasons, fearful: when I first saw the trailer with a friend, a white woman, she said, "That looks stressful." It's about a black man nearing the end of probation, with a white best friend who behaves recklessly with little mind to how he endangers those around him, and who witnesses the Oakland PD shooting of an unarmed black man. Of course it looks stressful.

Except . . . most of the time, it isn't. The marketing hints at this, but doesn't fully reveal how much fun there is in much of Blindspotting. Not that it's a ride through a fun house all the way through, mind you. The flawlessly crafted script, co-written by Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal (who both also star, respectively as Collin, the aforementioned felon; and Miles, his best friend), takes care to bring us casually into their world, these close best friends who are both working class guys watching the systematic gentrification of their city before their eyes. This yields a lot of great detail, such as the city's symbol of the oak tree, which now exists there only in that form, in images on city flags and signs -- except for the hipster who uses a giant oak tree stump as a coffee table in his living room.

Blindspotting is beautifully specific, in both its sense of a place in transition, and of a culture in crisis. Rafael Casal is excellent as Miles, the best friend who is slow to realize what he really gets away with compared to most of the people in the local culture he both emulates and is a product of. He's just as much to blame for the crime that landed Collin in custody, but guess which one of them had to serve any time?

It seems on the surface like a contrivance when Miles gets mistaken for the gentrifying hipster he professes to despise, but it's really a bit of stealth brilliance in writing. The scene that follows, which makes sense for Miles's character but follows Blindspotting's general rule of never quite going in the direction you might expect, works on multiple levels. And the rapport between Mikes and Collin establishes a foundation that, when it begins to crack, underscores both the significance of their situation and the key difference in their individual places in it.

Collin and Miles are also casual rappers, thankfully this time not with any particular aspirations of making it as professional; rather, they just rap as a way of shooting the breeze, helping each other with their rhymes. This is a key element of Blindspotting's musical character, with a skillfully integrated soundtrack that also includes a truly tense climactic performance by Diggs. Collin confronts the cop who killed that other young black man, and he does it in rhymes.

All of which is to say that Blindspotting is hardly the "lesson movie" to be endured like a homework assignment, that some are wont to fear. It's a tightly constructed film that stands on the strength of its own storytelling. It's subtly provocative in ways of more use to some than others, but worthy of equal appreciation by all. It's easily one of the year's best films.

  A couple of moving company employees are here to move you with their singular vision.

A couple of moving company employees are here to move you with their singular vision.

Overall: A

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE -- FALLOUT

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

As I sat watching Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible -- Fallout, a thought occurred to me that never had before. Sure, everyone knows this guy is an enduring movie star. But it could also be argued that he is not only the 21st-century equivalent of Sean Connery, but that no other actor working today comes close. This is a guy who, like Connery, could very well keep offering us these delightful action thrillers well into what for anyone else would be retirement years.

No disrespect to Daniel Craig, who has very well held his own as James Bond the past decade plus, but the mantle that Sean Connery had has really been passed on to Tom Cruise. In the <i>Mission: Impossible</i> universe (the <i>Impossiverse</i>?), Cruise has been going strong though six films, each of them well-oiled adventures more exciting than the last. Connery played Bond in seven films over 21 years from 1962 to 1983, when he was aged 32 through 53; Cruise has played Ethan hunt in six films over 22 years from 1996 to 2018, aged 34 through 56. And whatever camera tricks or cosmetic procedures may have been employed in either case, both actors remained remarkably handsome and fit through all those years. It's too bad Cruise in particular has spent so many years trying to convince us he's a lunatic but whatever. Onscreen, his charisma and appeal never wanes.

What's more, Mission: Impossible knows just how ridiculous it is, revels in it, and yet is presented with increasing sophistication each go-round. I'm not so naive as to say "sophistication" applies to the script: Fallout is as preposterous as ever, although at the very least we have something we can understand as the thing everyone is after: as opposed to, say, a "rabbit's foot," it's three little spheres of plutonium, intended for rogue use of nuclear weapons.

I've got to hand it to the marketing team for this movie. Much of what you see in the trailer is not what it seems. Instead of it giving away the entire movie as many trailers do, I found myself identifying scenes in which I knew a clip I had seen was coming. Instead of it feeling like a rerun, once that bit I had already seen was presented in its full context, it felt like payoff. This is the kind of movie it pays to see in a theatre.

What's more, the editing is competent enough that this time, writer-director Christopher McQuarrie (the first repeat director in the franchise, having written and directed 2015's Rogue Nation) avoids what some might call a minor pitfall of many of the earlier films: starting off not just with a bang, but with a bit too much of a bang. The rest of the film shouldn't feel like a competition with the opening sequence -- and Fallout starts comparatively quiet. It settles into the spy-movie tone of the earlier days, until the inciting twist in the plot -- such as is it -- sets off the fuse that begins the title sequence.

Fallout just gets more and more thrilling from there. And although one has no need to have seen any of the other films to enjoy this one -- in spite of it being the first direct-continuation of the story in the previous film -- there are rewards in having seen the others. Michelle Monaghan returns as Julia from Mission: Impossible III (1996) -- I found her to have similar features to Rebecca Ferguson, who returns from Rogue Nation, but I got them straight eventually.

And then there are the stunts -- really, at this point, the only reason to watch any of these movies. They sure do like motorcycle chases: this is the third Mission: Impossible movie in a row to have one. Ditto helicopter chases -- another throwback to Mission: Impossible III, although this time it also includes helicopters rolling down snowy mountainsides, and hanging off cliffs. Oh, did I mention Ethan Hunt climbing a rock face? A throwback to the opening sequence of Mission: Impossible II!

I guess there are only so many modes of transportation you can chase someone in. That includes running, another standby of countless Tom Cruise films -- let alone Mission: Impossible -- and in one sequence, he runs for so long he almost seems to be trying to prove a point about it.

So does this movie offer anything new then? Arguably, not really. Unless you count the fact that everything you've seen in other movies, this movie does better. Much like Rogue Nation and Ghost Protocol (2011) before it, the chases and action sequences as shot with unique panache, in this instance by Rob Hardy, who deserves acknowledgment. Even blink-and-you-miss them scenes, involving no more than two characters talking, make a visual impact with their framing and staging. This blends well with excellent special effects now a hallmark of the franchise -- a far cry from the janky effects of the original film in 1996 -- in so doing never calling attention to themselves, but moving the story forward and keeping the viewer absorbed.

The acting, though, is . . . not great. It's wonderful to see Angela Basset as the head of the CIA; not so much to hear her phoning in her lines. Another character's death scene had me wondering if they'd even bothered rehearsing -- or doing multiple takes. Even Cruise himself seems less concerned with being convincing than with showing off the stunts he can do on his own. Ving Rhames and Simon Pegg are reliably amusing in their usual parts. Henry Cavil, in a part whose twist is identifiable a mile away, gives perhaps the best performance, but that's not saying much.

But that's what we've come for, isn't it? If you have no interest in this movie, then it isn't for you. If you even got this far in the review . . . why? Move along! The rest of us are here for death-defying skydive into lightning-riddled thunderclouds (itself a subtle visual nod to the dust storm in Ghost Protocol, perhaps). It's a truly spectacular sequence, a long, unbroken shot straight out of a plane and plunging through the air toward Paris (or was it London? whatever) below.

And there is so much more movie after that, all of it fun as hell and a thrill to experience. At 147 minutes this is by far the longest film in the franchise, but all of those minutes just fly by. What more can you ask for?

  This man is 56 years old.

This man is 56 years old.

Overall: B+

THE CAKEMAKER

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

Here is a truly rare film that refuses to put a person's sexuality into a clearly defined category, places no judgment on it, and makes some room for the joy in it. Being a bit removed from typical American puritanism, as a joint Israeli-German production, probably has something to do with that. The Cakemaker, as the title might suggest, also features so many luscious shots of pastries that my mouth is still watering as I write this.

Far more sensual than erotic, this movie really takes its time, but in a way that lets you settle gradually into it, this world of characters who all have a somewhat deadpan delivery, at least until a key moment when one of them breaks down sobbing. These sorts of performances can be difficult to gauge, and are often typical of independent or foreign films. Do none of these people just act like normal, chill people? They're all sort of waiting quietly, perhaps for their moment, when they do something deceptively minor but specifically consequential.

The Cakemaker of the title, named Thomas (Tim Kalkhof, a curiously attractive bit of beefcake), is certainly the most calculated in this endeavor. He runs a cafe in Berlin, where he embarks on an affair with a married Israeli man, Oren (Roy Miller), who comes to Berlin from Jerusalem once a month or so for work. But when Oren dies in a car crash in Jerusalem, Thomas takes off for Jerusalem and, without them knowing who he is, gradually befriends Oren's widow Anat (Sarah Adler, also in this year's excellent Foxtrot) and their son, Itai.

There is obvious historical tension in a relationship between an Israeli and a German, which writer-director Ofir Raul Graizer cultivates with effective subtlety. Perhaps my favorite thing about his layered script is how incidental the sexuality of the characters are. This story would play no differently if the affair were between a man and a woman. It just happens to be between a man and a man. Not one person in this movie ever even draws attention to that fact.

Instead, the prejudice on display is by Anat's brother Moti (Zohar Strauss), who bristles at a German working in the kitchen of Anat's certified-kosher cafe. Still, he gives Thomas a chance, offering him an apartment in the building he manages, and over a lengthy period of time, Thomas takes small steps toward relationship territory with Anat herself.

Now, I do have some questions. Who the hell is running Thomas's cafe back in Berlin? He tells us his parents are gone but not why, and that he was raised by his grandmother. is he independently wealthy? What small business owner can just go live in another country for an indeterminate period of time to pursue a bit of borderline skeevy stalking?

Maybe there's a sort of obsession going on, although The Cakemaker never makes that overtly clear. Does he simply want to become the man he was in love with and lost? Graizer refuses to spoon feed his audience, and okay, I can respect that. There's a couple of great scenes with Oren's mother that strongly suggest she knows what's up ("You knew my son?" she asks, innocently), but again, this is never made explicit.

As this story unfolded, I found myself deciding I would like it best if in the end, Thomas just lived the rest of his days as part of this new family with none of them being the wiser. The way it ends isn't exactly an inevitable alternative, but then, The Cakemaker ends without the satisfaction of a hard resolution.

There's that refusal to spoon feed us again. Graizer -- and Thomas -- are too busy with rolling pins in hand instead, letting tension build gradually and steadily, until a love triangle involving a dead man reveals itself to the living. It's fascinating -- and satisfying -- to see such sociopolitical elements explored in a movie that makes absolutely nothing of its inclusion of a same-sex relationship. I'm not even sure if there is any deliberate metaphorical strain to Thomas unwittingly using the oven in Anat's cafe at the wrong time, thereby threatening her kosher certification.

A fair focus is put on Anat and her family's Jewishness, and Anat's being comparatively non-religious, not eating kosher at home, only applying that to her cafe because it makes business sense. None is put on Thomas's religion, if he even has one; only his being German. Nothing even makes direct reference to Nazi history; Graizer lets the obvious speak for itself. His script, in fact, reveals itself to be more impressive upon further reflection -- a few burning questions notwithstanding. I'd have liked the performances to feel a little more natural, but, as with everything, I suppose that's a matter of taste.

  Thomas lays it all out in Tim Kalkhof's flat performance.

Thomas lays it all out in Tim Kalkhof's flat performance.

Overall: B+

EIGHTH GRADE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Overall: A

SORRY TO BOTHER YOU

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Overall: B-

SKYSCRAPER

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

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

I didn't get drunk enough.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  Strike the pose: Dwayne Johnson flies over Hong Kong.

Strike the pose: Dwayne Johnson flies over Hong Kong.

Overall: C+

THE LAST SUIT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  Still waiting for all this to come together satisfyingly .

Still waiting for all this to come together satisfyingly.

Overall: B-

WHITNEY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  How Will I Know? By watching this documentary.

How Will I Know? By watching this documentary.

Overall: B+