THE WANDERING EARTH

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

I don’t usually have much interest in Chinese films, and The Wandering Earth did nothing to remedy that. This is basically China’s answer to Geostorm, a special effects extravaganza offering occasionally compelling imagery, featuring an incomprehensible story. (More like The Wandering Script, amirite??)

Had bad the editing is in this film can’t really be overstated. Not one thing that happens — and far too many things are happening — is given any time whatsoever to breathe. This is basically a 125-minute music video, except instead of pop music, we’re subjected to an action-movie score pretty typical of western blockbuster disaster movies.

I guess I’ll give The Wandering Earth this much: it is better than Geostorm — barely. Its broad plot, involving an expanding sun necessitating the construction of worldwide propulsive engines to relocate the planet to a new solar system, might have been sort of compelling if it made any sense. Instead, the script is packed with incomprehensible techno-babble that’s rendered even more meaningless as it gets lost in the nonstop action.

The central conflict doesn’t even involve getting the Earth removed from orbit. Most of this story takes place well after that, after half the world has been annihilated by tsunamis caused by stopping the Earth’s rotation (how does one do that, exactly? — this movie fails to offer any real explanation) and the other half is forced to live in underground cities through the generations it will take before reaching this new location in another solar system more than four light years away. People go to the surface in “thermal suits” to work on maintaining this hundreds of giant engines that effectively turned the world into a planet-sized space ship.

The real problem is the gravitational pull of Jupiter as Earth passes by. Can humanity’s “United Earth Government” find a way to pull away and keep the planet on course? The suspense is killing me! I’m kidding about that suspense part; The Wandering Earth couldn’t manage suspense if its life depended on it. Which, really, it kind of does. Anyway I was thinking about how dreadfully bored I was before this movie was half over.

It’s all just so jaw-droppingly preposterous, there’s no reason to be emotionally invested in anything going on — not even the inter-generational conflicts of a middle-aged widower (Jing Wu) stationed on the Space Station serving as Earth’s navigation system and his family still on earth: his father (Man-tat Ng) and his young adult son (Chuxiao Qu) and teenage daughter (Jin Mai Jaho). And although these actors all appear competent generally speaking, this movie demands nothing more of them than to phone in their uniformly ridiculous lines. Many of the lines are distractingly obvious in their post-production over-dubbing. The line readings not syncing up with lip movements is obvious even to those of us who don’t speak Mandarin.

The special effects are all over the place. Many of the exterior shots in outer space, showing the Space Station or the planets, are actually pretty impressively rendered. But, those don’t require as much detail as exterior shots of the frozen surface of the planet, the sweeping camera movements making the images strangely jerky, as though someone did a half-assed job in their computer program. Very few of these surface shots are visually convincing in any way.

Not that it would matter much even if they were, the very concepts of this movie being as dumb as they are. And to make matters worse, our heroes make narrow escapes over and over again, constantly getting missed by, say, gigantic debris falling from cliffs in a huge earthquake as techtonic plates shift. It’s like watching the old G.I. Joe cartoons, except instead of villains with terminally terrible aim, it’s giant hunks of earth with terrible aim.

I do like the idea of giant cities like Beijing or Shanghai buried in ice, the tips of their skyscrapers poking out of the surface. That made for some kind of cool images. Such things get overshadowed by a complete disregard for basic physics, like when brother and sister are falling through the air and brother somehow catches up with her by falling faster. That is not how gravity works!

I mean, really, that’s not how anything works in this movie, which has the distinction of being easily the stupidest thing I have watched in at least two years.

Not even this picture makes any sense.

Not even this picture makes any sense.

Overall: C-

FIGHTING WITH MY FAMILY

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

Fighting with My Family opens by thrusting us into the local Norwich, England wrestling world of the Knight family, playing up how passionate this foursome is about the profession. It’s based on a true story, and the actual Knight family is from a town called Penzance in the southwest of England, but maybe the filmmakers thought that would remind too many people of Gilbert & Sullivan? Now I’m imagining the overlap in a Venn diagram of Gilbert & Sullivan fans and World Wrestling Entertainment fans. It’s probably at least a little wider among Brits.

Anyway, the family consists of middle-aged parents Ricky (Nick Frost) and Julia (Lena Headey, about as far from Game of Thrones’s Cersei as she could get), running a local business of small-time wrestling performances. With their eldest in prison, their star players are son Zak (Jack Lowden) and daughter Saraya (Florence Pugh). To a person, they are well cast, a playfully vulgar, tight-knit family with working-class charm to spare.

This movie does not shy away from the ins and outs of the wrestling industry, and early on Ricky finds himself explaining that “it’s not fake, it’s fixed,” and the job can result in serious injuries. Not since Darren Aronovsky’s gritty The Wrestler (2008) has anyone presented so honest a look at wrestling; the difference now is that writer-director Stephen Merchant moves away from self-destruction for a feel-good movie about triumph of will and moving beyond the limits of initial circumstances.

It’s a pretty standard Hollywood story arc, but you know what? Fighting with My Family works rather well on its own terms. I suspect at least one secret to its success is the British angle; Merchant himself is English, and thus offers a vital perspective. It seems less likely this movie’s sweet sincerity would play the same way in the hands of an American filmmaker.

And yet, it also stays true to the sensibilities of wrestling, and in particular wrestling fans. In spite of some subtle jabs here and there (“Our fans can’t read anyway”), this movie has no contempt or judgment of those who love and participate in wrestling. It gets a nice couple of scenes with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and a decent supporting performance by Vince Vaughn as an American wrestling coach.

The basic story focuses on young Zak and Saraya’s dream of becoming professional wrestlers — together, but difficulties must be overcome when only Saraya gets chosen to move on in the selection process. It’s relatively transparent how much of the story here is embellished for dramatic effect: Zak must deal with boiling resentment; Saraya must look past her own judgments of other, prettier women wrestlers and learn to make some friends.

Honestly, this is the kind of movie that I would not immediately expect to like, due to my own admittedly unfair biases. I was super into a movie like The Wrestler, but that was a movie about obsession and self-destruction in deeply nuanced ways, with wrestling as the backdrop. Fighting with My Family is a very different movie, the kind that is heartwarming by design, and is also clearly made by and for genuine fans of wrestling.

I’ve never been a fan of wrestling. I am, however, a fan of solid storytelling, and charismatic performers, both of which this movie has plenty of. It makes it the rare kind of movie that, for instance, both my more populist-leaning family members and I can enjoy. You could say this is a movie for everyone, a great choice for mixed company with people who can rarely agree on what to watch. At least, as conventional as its storytelling is, it has a subversive streak to it. I wouldn’t quite call it wholesome, but I would call it great entertainment for the whole family.

The family that body slams together stays together.

The family that body slams together stays together.

Overall: B+

ARCTIC

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

Here is a movie so sparse, it can be difficult to gauge at a critical level — for me, at least. “Survival” movies can be tricky, and I spent a lot of time thinking as I watched Arctic whether I would like it better or worse if it truly ended on the bleak note it seemed to be headed toward.

It’s a little easier to imagine the response of the general movie-going public. This is no blockbuster. There are no hordes of people eager to see a film with all of two characters, one of them with no more than one or two lines beyond injury-inducing moans; the other himself spending most of the film with little to no dialogue. Whether the final shot of the film qualifies as pandering — after the film studiously avoids it up to that point — is up for debate.

I suppose you could call this Cast Away in the North, except that Tom Hanks was (and is) a bona fide movie star; Mads Mikkelsen is decidedly not. He is, on the other hand, a deservedly well-respected character actor, who spends the duration of Arctic with a grim determination. And, unlike a movie like Cast Away, Arctic neither has its character talking to keep himself company, nor includes any harrowing crash scenes to maximize the excitement factor.

That’s not to say nothing exciting happens in Arctic — a movie, which, curiously, first-time feature director Joe Penna (who also wrote the script) originally conceived of as set on Mars. But instead of forcing a lot of expositional context into the script, the story was stripped to its barest bones by switching it to a character stranded by a small plane crash in the Arctic. We are introduced to Overgard, in fact, in the middle of a daily routine that has clearly gotten mind numbingly repetitive for him. Catching a live fish from beneath the ice qualifies as a bit of excitement.

This is where patience is rewarded, though, because it’s this entry into the story that strengthens what exciting things do happen: an attempted rescue helicopter crashes nearby, leaving Overgard to find new purpose in nursing an injured woman back to health. Or at least, he’s trying. Days go on even after this, until he feels left with no choice but to walk the woman through the Arctic mountains to a seasonal outpost station.

Meanwhile, as he pulls this injured woman along on a sled, Overgard endures incredibly harsh weather, to the point of frostbite on many extremities; unfamiliar landscape that can be surprisingly dangerous; and a wandering polar bear that, in one scene, scared the living shit out of me. He sees that bear in the distance early on, and I was reminded of “Chekhov’s gun,” the idea that if you see a gun early on in the story, it best be part of the story later. I knew that bear would come back, and it was an effective tool for heightening tension.

And to be sure, Arctic is tense. It’s not especially exceptional as far as survivalist movies go, even if the shoot was apparently the most difficult of Mikkelsen’s career. It’s well constructed and stands up against most other films like it, but setting it in the Arctic still doesn’t make it special. This is simply a really good movie for people who enjoy movies of this sort.

I did wonder a lot about the production, which was shot on location in Iceland. What was it like working with that polar bear? How difficult was the whole shoot for the actors? Surely this was a physical challenge for everyone. The acting itself certainly commands attention — especially on the part of Mikkelsen, who is in every frame — but the characters here don’t exactly have wide emotional range. Mekkelsen does get a couple of chances to emote, at least.

I do keep thinking about the film’s parting shot — I can’t quite decide how I feel about it. It feels intended to allow the audience to decide whether or not it’s a happy ending. It’s ambiguous in a way more frustrating than compelling, a single second that perhaps changes everything. Or does it? If nothing else, a film this quiet holding interest from start to finish is an impressive feat.

Well at least I won’t go thirsty!

Well at least I won’t go thirsty!

Overall: B+

2019 OSCAR NOMINATED SHORTS: DOCUMENTARY

Black Sheep: B
End Game: B+
A Night at the Garden: B+
Life Boat: A-
Period. End of Sentence: A-

black sheep Black Sheep, the single nominated documentary short not from the U.S., is a 27-minute film from the UK with a sensibility all its own. This one examines racism and its effects one one young black man in a rural British context. Cornelius Walker, fantastically lit with his face against a backdrop as he speaks directly into the camera, relates his mother and father moving him to the country after another immigrant child was stabbed to death in their London neighborhood. Cornelius was immediately met with racist abuse in his new small town, until he goes out of his way to emulate and fit in with the very kids who initially tormented him -- right down to bleaching his skin to make it lighter, and purchasing blue contact lenses. Much of this is recreated with very well executed flashbacks, but what is most compelling is present-day Cornelius wrestling with the evolution of his identity. This is a truly unique perspective, albeit with a strangely abrupt ending.

end game End Game, as you might imagine is rather sad: it's a 40-minute Netflix documentary about palliative care for terminally ill patients at a fairly posh medical facility in San Francisco. The cameras focus on about five different patients and the imminent challenges they face, although particular focus is put on two of them. In its way, even as it slightly evades clearly important questions of class and access to care (even with a fairly diverse group of subjects, one Iranian and another Asian American), it's the most emotionally affecting of these five short films.

a night at the garden A Night at the Garden, at a mere 7 minutes, is by far the shortest, and arguably the most haunting, of this year's documentary short nominees. It's simply seven minutes of footage of a 1930 "pro-American rally" that occurred at New York City's Madison Square Garden. With 20,000 people cheering as police beat a man who attempts to protest, and a huge number of them engage in Nazi salutes, this might as well be called 1930 Trump Rally. It's hard to watch, but creepily illuminating -- a reminder of a dark history for our nation, which is clearly not relegated only to the distant past, and of the need to endless vigilance.

The 34-minute Life Boat both the longest and pehaps the best of this bunch: a look at rescue missions in the Mediterranean by Sea Watch, a European nonprofit that rescues as many refugees as they can as they flee persecution, war, and worse from their native African and Middle Eastern countries. I really waffled between whether I thought this or Period. End of Sentence was the best of these five films, and somewhat reluctantly settled on this one, which is very effective at putting human, individual faces on people far too easily generalized, stereotyped or outright ignored by the media and the rest of the world. These people appear to be doing incredible, heartbreaking work.

period. end of sentence And that leaves the cleverly titled Period. End of Sentence, the likely winner of the Academy Award in this category -- and it would not be undeserved. With the help of students in a school who helped fund the project, a group of women in a village outside Delhi, India utilize one man's invention to mass produce sanitary pads at low cost. They then sell them at local markets, to a rural population for whom menstruation is such a taboo (the "biggest tabboo in India," says one man) that they know very little about it. This is the seed of a quietly feminist revolution and it is undeniably exciting to witness.

lifeboat

Overall: B+

2019 OSCAR NOMINATED SHORTS: LIVE ACTION

Mother: B-
Fauve: B
Marguerite: A-
Detainment: B+
Skin: B

mother Mother is a 19-minute film from Spain that consists solely of a series of phone calls between a young mother, and the six-year-old son on the other line, whose dad has mysteriously left him alone on a beach in France. As it happens, this woman's own mother is in the apartment, so the two women are the only characters ever seen onscreen. (The boy is the only other voice heard.) The "story," such as it is, is simply this young woman becoming more and more hysterical as it becomes clear her son may have been abandoned and she cannot figure out exactly where he is. It ends with no resolution to speak of, leaving me to wonder what the point was -- to illustrate a typical mother's nightmare? Skilled performances notwithstanding, a short like this makes me wonder how slim the pickings are when film shorts are put up for Oscar consideration to begin with.

fauve Fauve is the second of two Canadian live action shorts up for contention this year, this one, at 16 minutes, the shortest of the bunch. A couple French-Canadian kids are just hanging out on abandoned railroad tracks, and, eventually, a surface mine. And basically, their youthful ignorance of nature and physics gets the best of them. I won't spoil what that means exactly, except to say that this one turns surprisingly dark. With again only three characters, though, this short does also illustrate how a little can go along way.

And then there's Marguerite, a 19-minute film, also French-Canadian, that gets my vote as the best of these nominees. Here we have only two characters: the title character, an elderly woman in need of daily in-home assistance, and her much younger woman caretaker. We see plenty of their routine before a phone call from her partner reveals the caretaker to be gay. The way Marguerite's face changes at this revelation made me slightly nervous, but it turned out to be something much more bittersweet than negative. Eventually, we learn what decades-old memories this triggers in Marguerite, and as she tentatively opens up to her caretaker, it becomes something quite moving -- and, in its way, a sad reminder of how different things were for people half a century ago.

detainment If you're looking for something truly disturbing, look no further than Detainment, a 30-minute film from Ireland about the youngest convicted murderers of the 21st century. Based on actual interrogation transcripts, two 10-year-old boys are interviewed separately about what they did with a random toddler they spontaneously decided to abduct from a shopping center and do heinous things to. Thankfully, none of the specific horrors are depicted onscreen; the story that unfolds here is how the two boys start off with total denials and conflicting accounts, until bit by bit, increasingly horrible truths come out. If nothing else, this one serves as a cautionary tale: never let your young child out of your sight for a second, no matter how harmless it may appear to be to do so.

skin Live-action shorts often have a "clever twist" at the end of them, especially American ones, and the 20-minute Skin is no exception. (To be fair, the real difference year is that only one of the shorts ends with such a twist.) When this one ended, foremost in my mind was to wonder whether the director was white or black: Guy Nattiv is a white guy. And, okay, it does seem difficult to imagine a black director creating a film this pointedly about a racist being taught a lesson. Skin has "white guilt" built into its DNA, albeit with more subtlety than usual. This film is generally competently made, although the final moment is about as predictable as it gets.

MARGUERITE

Overall: B

2019 OSCAR NOMINATED SHORTS: ANIMATION

Bao: B+
Late Afternoon: A-
Weekends: B
Animal Behaviour: B-
One Small Step: B+

[“Highly Commended]
The Wishing Box: B
Tweet Tweet: B

bao This year's set of animated shorts, better than average but falling short of particular greatness as always, starts with the one short many of us already saw, as it was presented last year prior to screenings of Pixar's Incredibles 2. It's an 8-minute short called Bao, American and about an Asian mother's evolving relationship with her son -- as represented by a dumpling. I think. Honestly this one went, at least in part, kind of over my head, although the animation is up to typical standards of Pixar excellence and still has charm to spare. Who knew a dumpling could be so adorable?

Late Afternoon, a 10-minute short from Ireland, proved to be my favorite of the bunch, alternately wistful an melancholy though it was. This one will hit particularly close to home for anyone who's had a family member suffering from dementia. Here, an elderly woman's mind washes back and forth between current reality and other eras of her life, as her grown daughter packs up the stuff in her home. The relatively rudamentary animation here is well suited to the subject, and is well rendered particularly as the old woman struggles to hold onto her memories, moving from joy to sorrow and back at regular intervals. The end result is something quite moving.

weekends The longest of this year's animated crop is the 15-minute Weekends, an American short detailing a young boy as he grows accustomed to visiting his father on weekends shortly after his parents' separation. Eventually each parent finds a new romantic partner, with varying results of which the child has limited understanding. The water color animation is very pretty, but the length of the story exceeds necessity.

animal behaviour I really wanted to love Animal Behaviour, the 14-minute short from Canada about several different animals in a group therapy session, as it's the kind of thing that's right up my alley. What's not to love about a group of characters so diverse it includes not only a dog, a cat and pig, but also a bird, a gorilla, a praying mantis and a leech? And they all have their own mental issues -- I just wish those issues had been explored with a little more cleverness. This one seems to coast a bit on its concept alone, although I will admit it still got a few good chuckles out of me.

one small step One Small Step is the one animated short nominee with two countries of origin: USA & China. This 8-minute short details the astronautical ambitions of a girl as she grows up struggling through school, at the expense of noticing the attentions and assistance of her cobbler father. He regularly mends her shoes, she regularly fails to notice until she has finally reached her goals and then it is too late. This one also has excellent animation, which is somewhat ironic given how little of the story calls for it as a necessity (as opposed to shooting it as live action). Honestly, the most deeply affecting moment is the clip during the end credits, with one of the directors so excited to hear his short was nominated he starts crying. Three of the nominated shorts feature clips of this sort at their end, it's always a nice thing to see.

photo Often these presentations feature five nominees of such short average length that several "Highly Commended" extras get tacked onto the end. This year there are only two, the first being Wishing Box, a 6-minute American short with impressively crisp animation and slightly lacking in substance. I pirate discovers his monkey can pull anything it wishes for out of an otherwise empty box, much of it fruit it wants to eat. Once the pirate's greediness gets the monkey on board (so to speak) with wishing for riches, a fairly predictable lesson is learned.

tweet tweet Tweet Tweet, a short from Russia, is arguably among the most intriguing of all the shorts here, and I would submit that it was more deserving of a nomination than, say, Animal Behaviour. Being intriguing does not mean it necessarily makes sense, however: the entirety of its run time features human feet on a tightrope that runs across the screen, along with a bird. There are clearly profound metaphors intended here, though I couldn't tell you what they are. The animation is excellent, though, and a lot of thoughts about both Russian history and of life and aging is packed into its twelve minutes.

late afternoon

Overall: B

ISN'T IT ROMANTIC

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

Isn’t it Romantic wants you to think it’s a meta-send-up of typical romantic comedies, when really it’s a straight-up typical romantic comedy itself. In a way, it’s to its credit that it’s basically unapologetic about it; that’s kind of the point. This is a movie that has it both ways, has its comic cake and eats it romantically too, and basically gets away with it.

There’s also a strange aspect of Isn’t It Romantic, where it has some delightfully irreverent quips that made me laugh surprisingly hard, mixed fairly evenly with an almost slavish devotion to the very romantic-comedy tropes it’s ostensibly poking fun at. It all comes out to an average of general blandness in the end: the gut-busting quips barely falling short of being memorable; the tropes not quite overused enough to bog down the story completely.

To be sure, it’s fun to see an actor like Rebel Wilson as a leading lady, and kind of a kick to see the likes of her learning her lesson about shallowness when she initially pursues a relationship with the gorgeous Liam Hemsworth as opposed to everyman Adam Devine.

Wilson’s character, Natalie, gets mugged on the New York City subway and knocks herself in her attempt to run away. When she wakes up, after having spent most of the work day complaining to her assistant (Betty Gilpin) about how much she hates romantic comedies, she now finds herself in the middle of one. She figures out along the way that she must play the part of a romantic comedy leading lady, right down to her apartment suddenly becoming posh and huge, and being romantically pursued by a beautiful billionaire.

Before Isn’t It Romantic plunges Natalie into this fantasy universe, we are introduced to her living in her crappy Manhattan apartment, with a borderline mangy dog that won’t obey commands, and working in a dingy office as an architect with disrespectful colleagues. Natalie’s “real world” is just as much a part of the fantasy as the movie we’re watching, full of background and back story details that are all just as contrived as any romantic comedy.

The slight bummer of Isn’t It Romantic is its lost potential, and how, when it comes down to it, several of the very romantic comedies referenced by this three-writer script come to mind as definitively superior films to this one. Great romantic comedies are hard to come by, but this one doesn’t try all that hard to be one of them. It thumbs its nose at them with a wink, while riding on their coattails.

The players are all pleasant enough, at least, even if a lot of the scenes come across as a tad under-rehearsed. One thing this movie very much has in its favor is how brief it is — historically, a movie that clocks in at under ninety minutes is a bad sign, and this one is 88. For a movie like this, though, that turns out to be perfect, as far too many romantic comedies drag the story on for two hours and then some, with the humor spread thin as a result.

Isn’t It Romantic has its fun right out of the gate, with an opening scene featuring Jennifer Saunders as Natalie’s mom, who gets one of the funniest lines in the movie. It was apparently inevitable, though, with this movie following a by-the-numbers story arc, for it to sag a bit in the middle. The quips and gags start to dry up; there’s a slight bit of a slog; and then there’s a delightful song and dance number in a karaoke bar.

This movie isn’t quite revolutionary, but it works on its own terms. I just wish its terms aimed a little bit higher.

It’s not as hard to figure out as Natalie thinks it is.

It’s not as hard to figure out as Natalie thinks it is.

Overall: B

CAPERNAUM

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

You might call Capernaum the “feel-bad movie of the year,” which is perhaps not the best way to sell people on it. It’s absolutely worth seeing, though, even if it’s by virtue of its subtle defiance. Director and co-writer Nadine Labaki seems to be insisting we face the truth of what we’re doing to ourselves.

And it’s not in the manner you might expect. The story revolves around young Zain (Zain Al Rafeea, excellent in his resigned stoicism), who is so scrawny and small he appears much younger than his apparent twelve years of age. He doesn’t even know for sure how old he is; his parents don’t either. No one has any official papers to prove it, and his parents (played by Kawsar Al Haddad and Fadi Yousef) never bothered to care.

And therein lies the point: Zain is suing his parents. His reason? Because he was born.

When it comes to kids who are brought up in crime and squalor, this is honestly an impressively clever idea. Zain didn’t ask for this life, and he has no choice in having had it foist upon him. He’s currently serving five years in a juvenile jail for stabbing a man — or, as he says in court, “a son of a bitch.” This elicits giggles from people in the courtroom, and even from the movie’s audience. Then it slowly dawns on you what the true reason behind the attack may have been.

Zain has too many siblings. He still cares about them, especially Sahar (Haita “Cedra” Izzam), who he helps, in vain, try hiding the fact that, at 11 years old, her menstrual cycle has begun. Before long there is talk of marrying her off to the young man who lets them all live on his property rent free. Zain, understandably, doesn’t trust him. His and Sahar’s parents characterize it as a survival move, that they are doing Sahar a favor.

A rather long stretch of Capernaum — which, in the title credits, is translated as “chaos,” a colloquial use of the word that also doubles as the name of a doomed Biblical village — follows Zain after he gets fed up with his family and runs away, surviving on his on on the streets of Beirut. He is taken in by an Ethiopian woman, Rahil (Yardanos Shiferaw), working in Lebanon illegally and with her own infant in tow. Capernaum really takes its time with Zain’s day to day life, particularly the one he settles into with Rahil, and the infant he winds up having to take care of on his own.

Zain is just trying to make the best of his situation, with an even mix of resignation and determination. Once he moves from life with his family to life with Rahil, it becomes less certain who it was he stabbed. This is one of several details that don’t become quite clear until the end, with some creative editing that slightly plays with the story’s timeline and is also borderline contrived. The majority of the story is told in flashback, from relatively odd scenes in the courtroom in which Zain insists his parents should not be allowed to have more children. And we’re left to think about how right he is, whether it’s his Lebanese parents or parents in the world beyond.

Capernaum ends on a hopeful note, albeit one that is as bittersweet as it is emotionally affecting. The last image of Zain’s face will haunt you.

Nothing cute to see here.

Nothing cute to see here.

Overall: B+

THE LEGO MOVIE 2: THE SECOND PART

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

I would argue that calling this sequel The Second Part is at least partly misleading: after The Lego Movie (2014) and before The Lego Movie 2, we already got The Lego Batman Movie (2017) and The Lego Ninjago Movie (also 2017). I suppose since The Lego Movie 2 is the only one of these actually to be a direct sequel, but these movies clearly all inhabit the same universe, maybe it would be more accurate to call this one The Lego Movie 2: The Fourth Part.

Four movies and five years in, is no one experiencing “Lego Movie Fatigue”? It would seem in fact they are, what with this movie’s opening day box office pulling in 46% less the original film did in 2014.

It’s kind of too bad, honestly — while The Second Part is hardly a masterpiece, and there are periods that are strangely dull for a movie overstuffed with action, I actually did like this one at least slightly more than I did the original. It has something a little more interesting to say about how children breathe life into their toys, at least. In The Lego Movie, that idea felt swiped wholesale from the Pixar Toy Story movies. This time, Director Mike Mitchell expands that to consider how kids’ imaginations change as they get older.

More specifically in this case, the whole conflict between who we are supposed to regard as “the good guys” (voiced by Chris Pratt, Elizabeth Banks, Will Arnett, Alison Brie, Nick Offerman and Charlie Day) and “the bad guys” (voiced fantastically by Tiffany Haddish, and Stephanie Beatriz), arises as the result of a growing boy’s younger sister wanting to play LEGOS with him, and their competing imaginary ideas. Much like the far superior Toy Story 3, it gets into how toys are affected by their child owners starting to grow up. The Lego Movie 2 does offer a take all its own, exploring how adversarial ways of thinking can be made to work together.

As is typical with these movies, though, I just wish it had a bit more wit about it. This movie is all of an hour and 46 minutes long, but a good fifteen minutes could have been shaved off of that, saving a whole lot of unnecessary animation work and really tightening up the gags — many of which are pretty good. Movies like this, which clearly aim to pummel the viewer with both humor and action, start to fall flat when the wit dries up.

That said, within this particular series, I can’t help but say one thing I’ve said about all three that I saw: kids will love it. No young child who loves animated feature films and LEGO toys will feel like watching this was a waste of time. They may not re-watch it quite as much as they did previous “Lego Movies,” I suppose. And when it comes to holding the attention of the adults accompanying said children, it does a sufficient job, with plenty of funny pop culture references. It’s always nice, though, when a movie can do better than just be sufficient.

—But wait! One thing I will give this movie that’s way better than sufficient: its soundtrack. The Lego Movie 2, in fact, could be considered at least partly a musical, which at least one character refers to as “the universal language.” This movie has several super catchy songs, the best of which is literally called “Catchy Song.” And if there is any one thing that does indeed make this one worth seeing, it’s the songs.

Okay everybody get in formation . . . for more of this.

Okay everybody get in formation . . . for more of this.

Overall: B

WHAT MEN WANT

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

Well, Mel Gibson is nowhere to be found in it, so What Men Want certainly has that going for it. Honestly, that being a point in its favor should not be underestimated.

Now, to be fair to everyone else who made that movie released in 2000, What Women Want was made far before anyone had any idea what a douche Mel Gibson would reveal himself to be. It was also slightly more realistic about how people think — although there should be an emphasis on slightly. In a male-dominated world, there’s arguably more to be learned by a man gaining the ability to learn what women are thinking, rather than the other way around.

In What Men Want, sports agent Ali Davis (Taraji P. Henson, gleefully making the best of the role) is presented as a woman with her own lessons to learn about “connecting with men.” She’s self-involved and often selfish, although to this movie’s credit, she’s still presented as “likable.” That said, by and large, the men she comes across after bashing her head and then gaining the ability to hear everything they’re thinking, are themselves presented as innocent and pure of heart by default. In other words, this movie is pure utopian fantasy from every angle.

Sure, there’s a couple of men who are villainous. But these men exist only for that purpose: to be specific adversaries to Ali, as plot devices. If this script made any attempt to be at all realistic, probably half the men whose thoughts Ali heard thinking would be aggressively disgusting, somewhere on the spectrum of misogynistic to racist, and often both in equal measure. But then, that wouldn’t make for the fun, light-hearted movie director Adam Shankman (a white guy, incidentally) was going for here.

Now, some of these utopian elements are maybe not so bad — “be the change you want to see,” and all that. There is a couple of hints of real-world struggles we all know a woman like Ali Davis would face; in one scene, she challenges her boss to fire her, after he references “me too” and she suggests he’s only afraid to fire her because she’s a black woman. The fact that virtually none of her coworkers, <i>all</i> of them men in a male-dominated field, have any overtly bigoted thoughts about her, still places this story squarely in fantasy land.

I even have mixed feelings about Ali’s gay assistant, Brandon (Josh Brener — who is straight, though he’s fine in the part), who seems pointedly presented as a gay person who happens to be extremely knowledgeable about sports and is therefore qualified to be a sports agent. I like that the character is still relatively effeminate even within that otherwise “bro culture” context, although it does feel a little like the filmmakers are patting themselves on the back for how “progressive” they’re being. But as long as we’re talking about tokenism, I did like that among Ali’s core group of close friends, instead of there being one token black lady, there’s a token white lady (Wendi McLendon-Covey), although the running gag about her being a foul-mouthed Jesus freak is a little odd.

Ultimately, that is the biggest problem in What Men Want: none of its supporting characters particularly ring true, with the possible exception of Ali’s dad (Richard Roundtree). Ali herself comes closest of everyone in the film, but she otherwise lives in a universe of two-dimensional characters. This movie gave me a fair number of semi-consistent chuckles, but that’s not exactly the ringing endorsement a “fun comedy” would want. Ultimately this is just another throw-away, moderate amusement that no one is going to remember by next week.

And it’s too bad, because it does have some winning performances, and certainly a great lading lady in Taraji P. Henson. It gets bogged down in its script-by-committee: aside from the three writers of the 2000 film receiving credit on this one, this updated script was itself written by another four people (two white guys, two women of color). And although the diversity is necessary and to be commended, it’s not enough on its own to make this movie particularly great.

It’s not exactly awful either, though — What Men Want is palatable for as long as it’s in front of you, in spite of its tendency toward over-the-top diversions. It does seem to represent a transitional time in Hollywood that reflects some turns in the right direction, broadly speaking. That just means there will be more near-misses that get an E for effort. (Or, I guess in this case, a B-.)

what men want.jpg

Overall: B-