SIFF Advane: ENORMOUS: THE GORGE STORY

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

This would have been more accurately called “The Gorge Amphitheatre Story,” as it focuses almost exclusively on the history and cultural impact of the famed music venue, which is situated with a memorably stunning view of the Columbia River Gorge. Director Nic Davis does include a minute or two at both the beginning and end of the film with a geologist from Central Washington University, who shares a few geological details about the Gorge that are, frankly, far more interesting than what singers or band played the Gorge at which times between 1988 and now.

For instance, he notes that in contrast to the Grand Canyon, which took millions of years to form as it was carved out by the Colorado River, the Columbia River Gorge was formed mostly by cataclysmic floods occurring at the end of the last ice age, between 15,000 and 13,000 years ago. What! That’s an infinitesimally smaller window of time, and cataclysms are fun! Tell me more!

Alas, Enormous: The Gorge Story tells virtually no more about the formation of the Gorge itself, and is instead the story of the amphitheater built there by a young couple also operating a winery in the area, at the time with a capacity of 3,000. It has been enlarged and improved over time, now has at least two side stages and hosts many music festivals year round, has a currently capacity of 27,500, and is managed by Live Nation.

Nic Davis interviews several people with either notable or unique histories with the venue: a longtime event photographer; a woman who spent twenty years as a regular there with her sister who passed away; a few musicians of varying levels of fame, including a guitarist from Pearl Jam and the guru (or godfather? whatever) of Northwest music festivals, Dave Matthews himself. This guy has been headlining a full weekend of music every Memorial Day Weekend for many years now.

All of this is interesting enough, to be fair. And the musicians all uniformly appreciate the incredibly scenic nature of the venue, now widely considered to be one of the most beautiful in the country. That said, considering the eclectic number of festivals directly connected to the venue that do get mentioned — Sasquatch, Paradiso, Watershed — a curious number of them do not.

I have my own personal, unique history with this venue myself, just as presumably many Washingtonians and Northwesterners do. The first concert I ever attended was The Cranberries in 1996, at The Gorge. The second one I ever attended was one year later, at Lileth Fair. Granted, Lileth Fair is not directly associated with The Gorge generally speaking, but that 1997 concert there was the first stop of the first tour that festival ever did.

Perhaps there were some rights clearance issues. There’s a hint that may be the case in a shot of a newspaper article, with much of the text blurred — including the name Tracy Chapman, beneath a photo of her not blurred. And she was one of the acts at that 1997 Lileth Fair concert. Then there are Lollapalooza, Ozzfest, countless Phish concerts, and more — again, not directly associated with the venue, but worth mentioning as having been hosted by it several times. None of these things are mentioned at all, which gives Enormous a bit of a feeling as though certain details are curiously omitted. The run time of this film is all of 64 minutes, so it’s not like they were pressed for time.

Before seeing this, I imagined Enormous: The Gorge Story might be one of the few documentaries I would say are worth going out of your way to see in a theatre, what with the grand vistas being so much the point. Shots of the Columbia River itself, and the Columbia River Gorge, are both used sparingly and often repeated. You’ll get just as much out of this movie watching it on your TV at home. Being such a very local production and with such a short run time, I’ll b surprised if this gets any kind of general release in theatres anyway.

To be clear, however, what does get included is still compelling. In terms of what narrative this film has, nothing included feels wasted, and it’s over too quickly for you to get bored. It will certainly appeal to fans who love to see concerts at this venue, of which there are a great many. If you have no more than a cursory interest in the Gorge Amphitheater, though, you won’t have cause for any more than a cursory interest in this movie.

The show is spectacular no matter where you look. Well, if you’re actually there, anyway.

The show is spectacular no matter where you look. Well, if you’re actually there, anyway.

Overall: B

SIFF Advance: TRIXIE MATTEL: MOVING PARTS

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

I seem to have a thing for seeing movies with a connection to a world I’m not a part of. Ironically, maybe, the world of fandom to which I belong is that of film itself, which becomes my one portal into other interests I have little to no time for. As in, I have literally seen exactly one episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race. It was at a viewing party in a gay bar in New Orleans during the week of Mardi Gras in 2014. The show was five years old at the time, and as many years have passed since then.

I have since gained only a cursory knowledge of who Trixie Mattel even is, let alone Brian Firkus, who created the Trixie persona. That cursory knowledge comes pretty much exclusively from gifs and clips shared by queer people I follow on Twitter. This documentary, though, Trixie Mattel: Moving Parts, has certainly piqued my interest. I might even buy her two folk albums, Two Bids and One Stone, many songs from which we see performed in the film.

The many existent fans of Trixie will already have knowledge of what is presented in the film, most notably her friendship, professional partnership, estrangement and ultimate reconciliation with fellow drag queen Katya Zamolodchikova. This is a very compelling part of Trixie’s story, and the reconciliation element could have used a little more fanfare in the film’s narrative. As presented here, it’s somewhat disappointingly anticlimactic, as though Katya being back in Trixie’s life is just an afterthought in the sequence of vignettes representing the past couple of years in Trixie’s life.

Aside from the Katya stuff, though, Trixie is perfectly compelling in her own right — Brian Firkus every bit as much so. In a noteworthy scene, Brian, not in drag, ponders the impact Trixie has had on her fans, many of whom tell her they relate to her as people who have battled depression. Brian notes that he jokes about being sad, but he’s neither depressed nor a sad person, per se. That, I could relate to. It made Brian very endearing to me.

There’s also something refreshingly average about Brian, when he’s out of drag. He’s far from ugly, but arguably just as far from the chiseled muscle boys gay culture fetishizes. It underscores the skill and talent that goes into the extraordinary transformation into Trixie Mattel, every single thing about her elevated and exaggerated.

I did find myself thinking about what might ultimately set Trixie Mattel apart from any other perfectly good drag queen. Surely, a documentary every bit as compelling could have been made about, say, any other contestant from RuPaul’s Drag Race. Details could be singled out about their backgrounds just as moving, or heartbreaking, as Trixie’s. For example, when Brian is doing a radio interview by phone, and confirms that the name “Trixie” comes from the malicious nickname given to Brian as a child by an abusive stepfather.

There is one pretty key thing, it turns out. Trixie Mattel isn’t just a personification of Dolly Parton on acid. She’s a bona fide, accomplished musician — something rare among drag queens, who traditionally lip sync to other people’s prerecorded music. Brian Firkus is actually a songwriter, and a pretty good one. He’s not half bad as a singer, either.

Trixie Mattel: Moving Parts tracks Trixie’s rise to midlevel fame, both as a losing contestant and then a winning contestant on RuPaul’s Drag Race, and then as a touring comedian-musician performing in venues all over the country. I found both Trixie and Brian so endearing, essentially being introduced to both through this film, that I might actually buy a ticket if Trixie ever comes back to Seattle.

The self-proclaimed “best folk singing drag queen” . . . is not wrong.

The self-proclaimed “best folk singing drag queen” . . . is not wrong.

Overall: B+

SIFF Advance: BANANA SPLIT

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

Here’s a fresh take: a recent high school graduate breaks up with her boyfriend, and when she meets his new girlfriend, instead of becoming rivals, they become friends. Banana Split, in fact, is in its own way a love story — a platonic one, about a budding friendship between two girls under unique circumstances.

Director Benjamin Kasulke, former cinematographer for local Seattle productions (Safety Not Guaranteed, Your Brother’s Sister), here works with a script co-written by Hannah Marks, who also plays April, one of the young women. Marks is 26 years old, and shows clear promise, even though the opening sequence in Banana Split, detailing the rise and fall of April’s romance with Nick (Dylan Sprouse), is a little bit clunky. It lacks a natural narrative flow, and I found myself worrying that this might be one of those movies with a nice concept but a bit lacking in execution.

But, then the title card comes up (in a lovely neon design of an actual banana split), and then the story settles in. We get to see April in a more straightforward way, not just in an introductory relationship montage, and see her interacting with her loving, single mom (Jessica Hecht) and her sassy 13-year-old sister (Addison Riecke, who is delightful). April is depressed, in a pretty typical 18-year-old girl way, and soon enough she’s running into Clara (Liana Liberato), Nick’s new squeeze, at a house party.

Why isn’t Nick at this party? Clara is asked this very question but her answer is not very memorable. In order to launch this plot, I guess. Clara and April have a few awkward exchanges, and then they hit it off, and before long they’re doing shots. These soon-to-be college kids drink a lot, as such kids are wont to do.

As their friendship develops, both Clara and April keep it from Nick, who is very much a secondary character in this story. Even though he is the guy between them, this story is never about him, which is really what elevates it. It’s always about Clara and April, a shining beacon of female friendship that has very little in the way of melodrama, bucking stereotypes at every turn.

It certainly helps that Hannah Marks and Liana Liberato have a natural chemistry together. Neither of them particularly do with Dylan Sprouse as Nick, or even with Nick’s best friend played by Luke Spencer Roberts, who also happens to be childhood friends with Clara, and develops his own connection with April, and thus gets somehow stuck between every other relationship around him. Roberts does have a quirky charm about him, though, and is fun to watch.

I found myself thinking about the “Bechdel test,” the flawed but useful idea that at least two women be in a work of fiction, and they talk to each other about something other than a man. Banana Split passes this test with flying colors, as Clara and April talk to each other about all manner of things — even though the thing hanging unsaid between them is a young man.

Nick is just what brings them together, though. And of course they make a mess of their lives in myriad definitively useful ways over the course of the summer, as the specter looms of colleges pulling them away from each other, to all corners of the country. Even with the angst, though, I quite liked how honest Clara and April are with each other, if not with, you know, Nick.

It’s also nice that really no character in this story is a horrible person. They’re all just regular kids who make mistakes and learn how to dig themselves out from misunderstandings that breed resentments. It’s a reflection of real life, just with a lighter touch. It’s nice to see a so-called “teen movie” come along that is both this relatable and just a bit of fun. Banana Split isn’t out to be profound, but if you look closely you might find some profundity in the details.

Unlikely friendships can be the most fun.

Unlikely friendships can be the most fun.

Overall: B+

JOHN WICK CHAPTER 3: PARABELLUM

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

“Guns. Lots of guns.” That’s what John Wick (Keanu Reeves) says he needs at one point in John Wick Chapter 3: Parabellum, a movie with a subtitle that is Latin for prepare for war. In other words, this movie makes it perfectly clear it is one long, 130-minute setup for Chapter 4 (already confirmed for 2021). The ridiculous obsession with guns notwithstanding, I just can’t help myself anymore: I’m looking forward to it.

And that, really, is perhaps the great surprise of Parabellum. I actually found Chapter 2, released two years ago, to be slightly more fun than this franchise’s first installment, released two and a half years before that. Every one of these movies is about elaborately staged, beautifully photographed gunfights and hand to hand combat, all in the name of revenge. It was only the first one, however, that wallowed in John Wick’s grief. That made it less fun, being weighed down by the grief of a super-assassin whose wife, and particularly whose dog, is dead.

Everybody worries about how John’s new dog will fare, never batting an eyelash at the massive human body count. I’m going to half-spoil something (gasp!) for Chapter 3: two new dogs are introduced, who get their own stunts that are pretty awesome in one action sequence in particular, and one of those dogs does get shot. But does it survive?? You’ll have to see the movie to find out!

Although they all average out to pretty solid B-grade movies, the John Wick franchise accomplishes the rare feat of getting slightly better with each installment. It’s the writing in particular that gets better; the action is consistently great. Granted, the dialogue only improves slightly. Even with great new actors added to the supporting cast — in this case, Halle Berry, Anjelica Huston and Asia Kate Dillon — the parts don’t offer any great acting challenge. At least Halle Berry gets to participate in some of the action. She’s the one with her own two dogs. They do a lot of chomping down on guys’ crotches.

I found myself thinking about Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill movies while watching Parabellum. These movies have a lot in common, right down to the revenge plots. The difference is that the John Wick scripts don’t have a fraction of the wit. Neither do they marinate themselves in self-love in the form of pop culture references. I’d say John Wick is a much more straightforward continuation of a particular action thriller tradition.

The whole revenge figures far less prominently this time. Rather, Parabellum is about, as gets stated more than once by more than one character, “Consequences.” It’s the butterfly effect of rogue super-assassin actions. Director Chad Stahelski (who directed both the other John Wick films and fittingly began his career as a stunt coordinator) drops us into the middle of action from the opening shot, as a $14 million bounty has been placed on John’s head. With every other assassin alive eager to collect, Parabellum opens with a thrilling sequence of John getting chased, fought, and escaping several close calls. In the first fifteen minutes or so alone, we see John running on foot, on a motorcycle across a bridge, and even riding through Manhattan on a horse. (While still in the stable he randomly finds himself inside, he uses a few horses ingeniously as kicking weapons.)

And so it goes, through pretty much this entire movie, with John Wick making deals, getting double crossed, collecting debts, incurring debts, and fighting all along the way — in often ingeniously designed sets. We see the return of Ian McShane as Winston, the manager of the Continental Hotel that serves as a haven for assassins, Lance Reddick as its concierge, and Laurence Fishburne as the “Bowery King,” whatever that is, I haven’t quite figured that out. It’s best not to question logic too much in these movies; that’s not what they’re here for.

How long will Keanu Reeves be here for these movies, I wonder? The guy was 50 years old the year this franchise started, five years ago. It could be said, I suppose, he’s the new Liam Nisson; John Wick is Keanu Reeves’s answer to the Taken movies: senior citizen as action movie star. Reeves is arguably a less talented actor, but he fits the part a lot better. Quiet stoicism might be this guy’s greatest talent. These movies get just-so slightly better each time, and the man at their center is a consistently useful avatar for their admittedly shallow themes. Their cleverness exists in the execution of their action choreography, and that’s what gives them a thrill all their own.

The writing is on the wall. In the form of guns.

The writing is on the wall. In the form of guns.

Overall: B

SIFF Advance: PACHAMAMA

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

Although its run time clocks in at an unusually brief 72 minutes, Pachamama is an animated feature the allows its story to settle and sink in, rather than presenting itself as though it is competing for the minuscule attention spans of eight-year-olds. The truth is that likely means it won’t get seen by a particularly wide audience, and that makes me sad. Its animation, “inspired by colorful indigenous art,” is reason enough to be seen on its own.

And herein likes a minor bit of catch-22: it’s wonderful that Netflix has picked up the rights to stream this film, which it reportedly will begin doing as soon as next month. Look for it on Netflix then, if nothing else; it’s better seen that way than not seen at all. But, that also will likely dissuade viewers from seeing it in movie theatres, where it truly is best seen. The artistry is truly unique and beautiful, and there just won’t be the same appreciation for detail on an iPad screen.

A joint production of France, Luxembourg, and Canada — and a 2019 César Award nominee for Best Animated Film — Pachamama is actually directed by Argentina-born Juan Antin, who bases this story largely on the Earth/Time Mother goddess revered by the indigenous people of the Andes. The story thus takes place in a small village just outside the city of Cuzco, once the capital of the Inca Empire, and is presently in modern-day Peru, about 47 miles from the ancient ruins of Machu Picchu.

No “ruins” figure in the story here, as Pachamama takes place during the reign of the Incas — although the two children, Tepulpai (Andrea Santamaria) and Naïra (India Coenen), take a journey by foot from the village to Cuzco. They are seeking the return of a golden totem they use in ceremonial offerings to the goddess Pachamama. In the process, the film Pachamama illustrates a bit of the hubris of both the Incan rulers as well as colonialist conquistadors, as Tepulpai and Naïra get caught in the crosshairs of those conflicts.

All the while, though, always steeped in indigenous Andean mythology, Tepulpai in particularly must learn the importance of both sacrifice and tradition. He’s defiant in the face of offering his “most prized possession” to Pachamama, and starts off pretty petty and selfish. In short, he’s a little asshole — behaving the way a whole lot of children in need of a lesson behave. The is thus the focus of a parable, and a very well rendered one at that.

The story, quite well polished considering there are five credited script writers, offers backdrops of both historical and mythological complexity, behind a veneer of pretty simple and straightforward plotting. Adult viewers will find a film of both visual and narrative depth. Young children are apt to be dazzled both by the story and the colors, provided they give the movie a chance to begin with. If they are desensitized by frenetic animation that relies on chaotic, rapid-fire editing, they might have little interest.

Longer attention spans, however, will very much be rewarded by this film, which is a genuine work of art.

Our young heroes soar above a truly unique template.

Our young heroes soar above a truly unique template.

Overall: B+

POKÉMON DETECTIVE PIKACHU

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

Fairt warning right up top: I literally know nothing about Pokémon, aside from its immense global popularity, the fact that it features an array of adorable and ugly creature characters, and it was very much part of a zeitgeist-defining mobile game about four years ago, which I never played. I’ve never watched any show or any other motion picture based on the property. I didn’t even know there had been more than twenty animated feature films released before the current live action one until checking the list on Wikipedia. I do know that Pokémon Detective Pikachu is the first of them to be a live-action release, with American characters speaking English and featuring bona fide movie stars, most notably Ryan Reynolds as the voice of Pikachu.

The point is, I am about as far from an authority on anything Pokémon as I could possibly be, so I have no means of appreciating how well (or how poorly) the film reflects the world of the multimedia franchise, which, until now, I have effectively ignored. But that’s not stopping me from reviewing the movie anyway!

I guess, if you are well versed in this fictional world, and you have any interest in a critical take on it, maybe find a review by someone else who also knows it well. You’ll likely find little to no satisfaction here. That said, as I have always said, any movie should always work on its own merits. So, does Detective Pikachu work on its own merits? Generally speaking, yes it does.

I have heard it said that it doesn’t reflect the true nature of Pikachu as a character to have him voiced with a snarky personality. Well, in the end Detective Pikachu actually has a fairly clever means of simultaneously sidestepping and correcting that problem, if you really want to call it a problem. Based on what little I have seen of Pikachu in his genuinely original self and form, personally I prefer him as voiced by Ryan Reynolds. It’s kind of as though a family-friendly Deadpool found himself trapped inside the body of this little furry creature.

As for how he fits into the overall story, which here presents a planned “Rhyme City” where humans and Pokémon live together harmoniously and are disallowed from any kinds of battles, it should come as no surprise that it offers little in the way of depth. Why would anyone expect depth in a movie based on a video game property, anyway? No fan of Pokémon is going to care. Nor is any casual fan of fantasy-adventure movies.

And to give Detective Pikachu credit, it is fairly imaginative in its world building, with Easter eggs of all sorts peppered throughout the film’s run time, without ever everdoing it or overwhelming those of us who don’t have any familiarity with all these creatures. By and large, they’re all fun, in myriad ways specific to individual ones. There is nothing cutting edge about the special effects, but they are serviceable and do work to further the story, so far as there is one. Director Rob Letterman keeps the spectacle at a manageable level when it could otherwise easily get out of hand in a movie like this.

The human characters are on average pretty bland, starting with our hero, young Tim (Justice Smith), who learns of his estranged father’s mysterious death and heads into Rhyme City to investigate. It continues with Lucy (Kathryn Newton), the aspiring reporter Tim runs into there. One could argue the blandness stops with Ken Watanabe as Tim’s dad’s detective partner, or Bill Nighy as the mogul mastermind behind the very existence of Rhyme City — except those two in particular are phoning it in, playing parts as pat as any ever put into another movie even remotely like this.

The story arc is patently by the numbers, but the joy is in the details, and often with the many cameos of different Pokémon creatures. You don’t have to have any familiarity with this universe to find them entertaining — and, in many cases, cute.

Which brings me to the most salient point about Detective Pikachu: the title character himself, and more specifically, his design. He’s adorable! So much so that when a passing lady on the street said exactly that about him, I thought, Yes. Yes, he is. You would be hard pressed to find another character cuter than Pikachu, and Ryan Reynolds’s fun-loving banter is a natural fit. If any one thing makes this movie worth seeing at all, it’s him. And he’s in most of the scenes, thankfully — because, without him, the movie gets comparatively dull. Reynolds may not be the true essence of this creature who otherwise only squeaks “Pika pika!”, but I could watch that version of him all day. As such, whatever other imperfections Detective Pikachu might have, it does offer a pretty solid 104 minutes of fun.

Tim and Pikachu get to the bottom of their bland missio— OMG HE’S SO CUTE

Tim and Pikachu get to the bottom of their bland missio— OMG HE’S SO CUTE

Overall: B

SIFF Advance: GOOD KISSER

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

Sometimes you go to a movie festival screening not knowing quite what to expect, you’re compelled by the premise, but it could really go either way — and then it turns out to be surprisingly delightful. Good Kisser is one such movie. It is well written, well acted, well shot, and a Seattle production to boot: last night was its world premiere screening, at the Seattle International Film Festival.

Given that it’s about a lesbian couple, Jenna and Kate (Kari Alison Hodge and Rachel Paulson, respectively — the latter being, incidentally, the younger sister of Sarah Paulson), engaging in a first-time hookup with a third woman, Mia (Julia Eringer), it makes all the difference that it was written and directed by a woman, Wendy Jo Carlton. Presumably there are some few men out there who could have made a decent movie about this, being open to enough input from female cast and crew, but none could pull it off with Carlton’s specific brand of delicate sensitivity.

To be sure, that premise alone doesn’t necessarily hold much promise: “three women with varying degrees of nervousness attempt to get it on.” It sounds like a clichéd porn premise intended for the straight male gaze. Good Kisser could not be further away from that, although it certainly works for all audiences open to the story it’s trying to tell. And it is a story, an absorbing one at that, hooking you into the specific motivations of each separate character.

Indeed, much of the story unfolds like a one-act play, once Jenna and Kate arrive at the home of Mia, all set for, as Jenna noted earlier to a ride share driver, “a date with another woman.” The dialogue is written so well that it would indeed work as a stage play without really having to change anything, at least not the majority of the film set inside the house, where the three woman cautiously make small talk, work their way through wine and tequila, play a couple of ice breaker games I actually thought would be fun to play myself, and yes, eventually wind up in bed.

There are, soon enough, minor twists and turns as we learn more about these characters, extrapolated from what is clear from the beginning: Mia is free spirited and down to go with the flow no matter what happens; it is clear almost immediately that Kate is more into Mia than a one-night fling might suggest and has ulterior motives; Jenna is by far the most tentative and prone to anxiety and panic attacks.

Maybe 80% of the run time, which runs at a brisk 80 minutes that feels totally appropriate for a straightforward story with such a small cast. Otherwise there are only two other cast members: the ride share driver (Courtney McCullough), and Clark, the writer who lives in the grandmother apartment out back (Carter Rodriquez). Both characters serve a specific purpose, although honestly Yuka the driver does so in a slightly more natural way. Carter keeps hanging out in the backyard with his dog, often chatting with Jenna when she goes out for fresh air, and although he makes it clear he knows exactly what’s going down, everyone is very chill about it. I liked the way Yuka fit into the story a lot better.

Still, it was no more than ten or fifteen minutes into Good Kisser that I found myself thinking about how impressively written the dialogue was, not to mention the production values, particularly how well shot and beautifully lit the three women consistently were. This production design is solid by any standard, but by independent, local production standards, it’s kind of off the charts. Nobody working on this film was an amateur. It’s rare that pretty much every aspect of a movie’s production has the same level of competence, no matter who is making it, considering what a collaborative effort filmmaking is. Still, that consistency is probably more credit to the director than anyone.

And yes, it does get to a point of some amount of sex scenes, which are also very well shot, sensual rather than titillating, although I can imagine plenty of lesbians in particular will find it very hot. The sex stuff in particular is shot, and edited, in a measured, almost half-dreamy manner, gentle clips of limbs caressing and removing articles of clothing, or close-ups of wet skin, a neck or a wrist, where ice has been swiped.

Virtually any story must have some kind of conflict that must be overcome or accepted, and Good Kisser takes so much of its time getting there, I began to wonder if it would even happen. It does, but it’s gentle and subtle in the telling of it. You’ll find no bona fide drama here, and it works. Good Kisser might be the most “chill” movie I see all year. It’s basically “Netflix and Chill” without any Netflix. The characters still express feeling and emotions; they just do it in more relaxed and controlled ways than typically found at the movies. Even Jenna’s occasional anxiety is presented with a dignified respect. I guess you could call this a meditation on open relationships, with an emphasis on the meditation part. I left the theatre both impressed and relaxed.

More games are being played here than just what’s at the surface.

More games are being played here than just what’s at the surface.

Overall: B+

AVENGERS: ENDGAME

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

The more I think about it, the more I find myself resenting this movie. Captain America: Endgame is on track to be the biggest global box office success of all time, and I would argue it’s the least deserving of that distinction of any film in history. The same could have been said of the previous record holder, Avatar (2009), but at least that movie had stunning, cutting edge special effects going for it.

Otherwise, when it comes to the record breakers, I guess this is just the new normal. At least Titanic (1997), corny as it was, had a certain gravitas thanks to the backdrop of genuine history. Who remembers anything about Avatar now except for its unprecedented effects? It didn’t even have any memorable lines, nothing worthy of enduring parody, no “I’ll never let go, Jack!” And what has Avengers: Endgame got? Just a bunch of people collecting paychecks. What will be remembered about this movie in another ten years? Literally nothing. (Side note: none of these “broken records” mean anything at all when adjusted for inflation, in which case Gone with the Wind still remains the most successful movie in history. And that, in context, actually makes sense.)

I would have had so much more respect for the Marvel Cinematic Universe if it had just ended with Infinity War, a bold, tragic end with half of life wiped out of the universe. But I knew even then, when I saw half of these heroes blow away into dust, there was no reason to think any of that was permanent, no reason for any true emotional investment in any of their fates. Superheroes were long established as all of them basically gods — not just Thor and Loki. Death doesn’t mean anything in this universe, even when it’s disintegration, and therefore neither does risk. Seriously what reason do we have to care?

That said, Endgame is not without its sacrifices, some of them with what at least appears to be permanence, and for that at least, I am glad. The whole plot revolves around the use of time travel to get everyone back, which is beyond predictable (and therefore hardly a spoiler), where characters point out the logical fallacies of time travel in several other movies famously based on time travel, while inventing logical fallacies all their own — not to mention self-contradictions. This might as well be a continuation of the Back to the Future franchise, which itself gets name checked.

Where I’ll give Endgame some credit, is in the sacrifices its characters actually make — none of them based on a plot device that can transparently be reversed with age-old storytelling tropes. This is where the movie actually managed to touch my emotions. Much has been said of how many times people have cried watching this movie, and I am not above admitting that I teared up myself at least twice. In fact it was exactly because of this expectation, the assertion that this film carries a surprising amount of emotional heft, that I opted to open my mind to it and actually go see it in the theatre — and I had not given Infinity War the same courtesy (hence my never having written a review of it). When I finally watched Infinity War on Netflix, I found it to be surprisingly entertaining, clever and funny, at least until that ending that was supposed to be shocking but kind of made me roll my eyes and say “Whatever!” By contrast, Endgame is comparatively overlong and disappointing.

I like a three-hour movie to earn its run time. This one clearly thinks it does just that, by asserting itself as the marker of the end of an era, the final chapter of twenty-two movies over twelve years. Endgame finds the time to callback something from probably every single one of them, some given more weight than others. Natalie Portman, with no lines, gets seen for about three seconds. Our heroes deposit themselves into the action of several of the previous movies, several of which had been terrible. The effect of retreading previous installments of the franchise very much has the effect of . . . you guessed it! Back to the Future Part II.

Sadly, that movie came out in 1989, which means a great many in Endgame’s audience is far too young to have any idea how unoriginal these Marvel movies really are. And I am not averse to superhero movies based on their very idea — I am averse to them based on recent history. I make exceptions for the exceptional: Black Panther, or even Captain Marvel. Those movies find new things to say, new ways of looking at this universe and new kinds of heroes to feature. They have a new take that is worthy of attention. Avengers: Endgame is the same shit, different movie — with an extra hour of it!

Speaking of Captain Marvel, she is criminally under-utilized, brought in intermittently as a secret weapon only to get outshone by other characters with longer histories even though she is more compelling. The same thing happened with Black Panther in the last Avengers movie. A successful ensemble piece is one thing; tokenism is another.

What about the special effects in this one, then? Maybe that is worth a look? Arguably, yes — I have never seen motion capture this nuanced, particularly on the faces of Mark Ruffalo as The Hulk and Josh Brolin as Thanos. But if you take your eyes away from the astonishing detail of their facial expressions and look at their entire bodies, you’ll see that they still just look like cartoons. As usual, this is technology very much still in development, and unlike practical effects rendered with truly skilled precision, this is all going to look dated before you know it. No movie top-heavy with CGI effects in the first couple decades of this century is going to have a very long visual shelf life.

If there is anything that sets Endgame apart, it is merely its position as a marker of the end of an era. if you have been deeply invested in all these movies since the first Iron Man in 2008, then I can see how affecting Endgame can be for you. I get that, I really do. But just imagine how much more affecting it could have been as something better! Because trust me, this could have been better. Instead, with all the callbacks and cameos, we get a movie franchise that basically sees its own life flash before its eyes. And that “Marvel Cinematic Universe” life, on the whole, was not a great one.

Marching off to a destiny of oblivion.

Marching off to a destiny of oblivion.

Overall: C+

HER SMELL

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

I left Her Smell with one lingering, burning question: What does Becky Something smell like? You never find out! No one discusses odor even once in this movie. Maybe you’re just supposed to assume something, I don’t know, pungent, because Becky is so fucked up? Unless this is a collective “her,” some kind of reference to women in general? I don’t know that we have the time to unpack that idea. Okay sure, maybe I have a problem with being too literal about things. But I do think a movie’s title should make sense.

Otherwise, it’s easy to imagie Her Smell being at least somewhat polarizing. There have been comparisons of this story, starring Elizabeth Moss as the frontwoman for an all-female rock band just over the crest of fame, to Courtney Love. I don’t particularly see it, myself. Writer-director Alex Ross Perry reportedly used Axl Rose as more of an inspiration. That makes more sense.

The plot structure is compelling. There aren’t very many scenes in this film, which runs rather long at 134 minutes. Each scene goes on much longer than usual, with each transition usually a pretty big jump forward in time. There was a moment when I actually found myself thinking I rather liked the editing, but that was before no less than three moments that could have worked perfectly well as an ending. One of these is an extended, almost jarringly quiet sequence with Becky in her house, bonding with the young daughter she has had very little time with. She sings her a song at the piano, the scene is beautifully lit, and I found it all very moving. After that moved into yet another scene, even later in time, it wasn’t even the last time I thought, Wait, there’s more?

There’s something weirdly off about the performances, even though Elizabeth Moss brings a crackling, vaguely sinister intensity. It feels, counter-intuitively, like rehearsed improvisation. It’s easy to assume these extended scenes of rambling dialogue are improvised, but according to Moss herself, every line was scripted. There’s something very impressive about that. There’s also something vaguely unnatural about it, though you can’t quite put your finger on it as you watch.

“Becky Something” is the stage name. Backing her up are guitarist Marielle Hell (Agyness Deyn) and drummer Ali van der Wolff (Gayle Rankin). When the film opens, the camera follows tracking shots of Becky backstage after a club performance, these other two women already exasperated from years of her manic behavior. Her ex-boyfriend Danny (Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens, here very familiar looking but hard to place with an American accent) brings their little daughter by, something I never quite understood. Why not leave the kid with his new girlfriend as long as Becky is messed up?

Becky alienates many people, most notably her mother (Virginia Madsen) and another trio of young women musicians who can’t help but fawn over her. But as unconventional as Her Smell seems in the moment, with nearly all of its scenes set in backstage halls and dressing rooms of theatres (except for that one lovely, quiet scene at Becky’s house), it has a long arc of redemption which, overall, is almost disappointingly conventional. There comes a point at the end where you half-expect the final shot to be a freeze frame of Becky and the band performing onstage.

As such, the writing is competent, but slightly under-cooked. It’s really the cinematography and the performances that make this movie, which command attention. It is a bit of a showcase for Elizabeth Moss’s versatility. It also, in the end, falls slightly short of the feast for the senses it clearly intends to be. Keegan DeWitt’s score is worth noting, with its semi-muted percussive tensions keeping you feeling nervous about what crazy thing Becky might do. Even that feels like approaching a boiling point without ever coming to a full boil.

She’ll keep you interested, even when the movie doesn’t.

She’ll keep you interested, even when the movie doesn’t.

Overall: B

LONG SHOT

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

Long Shot is the kind of movie that can easily be criticized on many merits, in ways that I could even probably agree with, but whatever, I enjoyed it!

The greatest defense I can give it, which is perhaps equal parts fair and lame: this movie delivers on its promise, which is simply that it’s a fun, laugh-out-loud romantic comedy. It certainly has a premise that sets it apart, with Charlize Theron as Secretary of State Charlotte Field, who falls for the speech writer she hires who she also happened to babysit as a kid, Fred Flarsky (Seth Rogen). Granted, it’s not new to set a romantic comedy in the upper echelons of Washington politics (see The American President (1995)), but I can’t recall any other that revolves around the most powerful woman in the world.

Now, okay, yes, it is a bit of a trope to see the stunningly beautiful woman falling for the shlubby man — hell, Seth Rogen himself already did it twelve years ago with Katherine Heigl in Knocked Up, which was about as good as this movie is. And truly, nothing in Long Shot is even remotely realistic.

But, after some introductory scenes that set all the pieces of the plot into position with pretty clumsy contrivances, Long Shot totally won me over. The movie and its audience both get its sea legs, and the charisma of its lead actors, as well as the surprising chemistry between them, conspire to sell the movie as a good time for a couple of hours.

I’ll still nitpick, of course. I like to assume that’s what you’re here for! I didn’t love the character of Maggie (June Diane Raphael), one of Charlotte Field’s key staffers, playing the part of the resentful bitch, going out of her way to sabotage the relationship. I don’t fault June Diane Raphael for taking the part — we’ve all got to pay the rent, and she does well with what bullshit she has to work with — but truly, what purpose does that serve?

And then there’s Fred Flarsky’s best friend, Lance (O’Shea Jackson Jr.), who seems little more than a pawn in an exercise in pandering “both sides-ism.” A black conservative Republican who exists to teach his white best friend about empathy and “seeing things from other people’s point of view”? Are you kidding? I’m not saying no such black people exist — but the idea that he would be best friends with a character like Fred, whose very purpose as a journalist exists to expose the seedy underbelly of Republican corruption and hypocrisy, is a bit more of a stretch.

Okay, so Long Shot is far from perfect. It works, and works well, when it focuses on the relationship between Charlotte and Fred, and how they handle the special political circumstances surrounding them. This includes Charlotte working for a president (Bob Odenkirk) who got the job with no political experience and used to be a TV star. Sound familiar? The clever twist here is that President Chambers, instead of being a reality show host, was previously the star of a TV drama on which he played . . . the president.

There are some elements of the story which, in a pre-Trump world, would have pushed the limits of believability. But, love it or hate it, we now live in a world in which a movie can show a hacked video leak involving semen on a beard does not ruin political career, and you can still think, Yeah, I can see it. (Side note: thankfully, that’s the only bit of gross-out humor involving bodily fluids in the movie.) Now, such a thing not ruining a woman’s political career? That might just still be a little too unrealistic.

But who watches these movies, particularly romantic comedies, for realism? Nobody! That these are fantasies is in their DNA, literally in the script. Long Shot does want to have things both ways in multiple contexts, from its only-occasional nods to rampant sexism in American politics while presenting an arguably sexist story arc, to its eagerness to be accessible to audiences of all political persuasions. These aren’t things that have to tear a movie down, however. I mean, why shouldn’t we all be able to enjoy this movie?

And really, that’s what makes Long Shot work — unchallenging in spite of being set in the world of American politics, it’s basically the very definition of escapism. Generally speaking, it’s escapism done well. I found my heartstrings getting tugged by it, anyway.

They’ll win you over if you let them.

They’ll win you over if you let them.

Overall: B