AMERICAN ANIMALS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  These guys aren't as mature as they present.

These guys aren't as mature as they present.

Overall: B+

INCREDIBLES 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Overall: B+

OCEAN'S EIGHT

Directing: B
Acting: B+

Writing: B-
Cinematography: B
Editing: B-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  Debbie Ocean's crew strikes a pose.

Debbie Ocean's crew strikes a pose.

Overall: B

SIFF Advance: SADIE

Directing: B-
Acting: B-

Writing: B-
Cinematography: B
Editing: B

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Overall: B-

FIRST REFORMED

Directing: C+
Acting: B

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Overall: C+

SIFF Advance: CATWALK: TALES FROM THE CAT SHOW CIRCUIT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Overall: B

SIFF Advance: LEAVE NO TRACE

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

More often than not, movies about people living "off the grid" sensationalize the lifestyle, in one way or another. Leave No Trace, named after the code of ethics for existing in nature, has something a bit different to say about it. It says it in a way that is quiet, meditative, and touching.

Will (Ben Foster) is a vet so affected by PTSD he can't handle living a "normal" life. He's been living with his young teenage daughter, Tom (17-year-old New Zealand actor Thomasin McKenzie, here proving her chops instantly), in a large public park just outside Portland, Oregon. It's never revealed just how long they've been living there, but it's been long enough for them to run regular "drills" to hide away from any authorities who might come for them.

And that's exactly what happens, when Tom makes a mistake and gets spotted, bringing the police out later with dogs to track them down, after several scenes establishing their well-worn daily lives in the woods, a system of self-sufficiency in full swing. They have shelter, they share a tent, they sautée gathered mushrooms, they collect rain water. But, it's illegal to live on public land.

Did Tom ever experience a more mainstream life, I wonder? She asks what her mother's favorite color was, and that's all we hear about her. Did her mother die? Run off and leave Tom with her mentally unstable father, for some reason? Leave No Trace does leave some seemingly pressing questions unanswered.

Still, writer-director Debra Granik, who previously introduced us to Jennifer Lawrence in 2010's superb Winter's Bone, fully realizes this father and daughter's life together as it exists now. The authorities do some psychological evaluations, determine that Will is not a danger to Tom, and a local man offers them a place to stay on his relatively secluded tree farm.

Leave No Trace is really the story of a father and daughter growing in different directions. Will can't abide what he sees as unearned charity for too long, but with increased exposure to other people and other ways of living, she wants to inch a bit closer to civilization. Will won't accept a telephone. The longer he keeps Tom off the grid, in very subtle and minor increments, the more reckless he becomes as the man who is supposed to be protecting her. He has trouble seeing how unsustainable this way of living is for the two of them.

I'd call that ironic, except "sustainability" is never a concern of theirs. Will just wants to be on his own -- preferably with his daughter. It's pretty heartbreaking when she has to assert that "What's wrong with you isn't wrong with me." As it turns out, this is not the life she wants.

Movies like this often fly under the radar, precisely because there is nothing flashy about them. There's no exciting action whatsoever, no melodramatic conflicts. It's almost misleading to call it a drama. It's more of a character study -- but a very well executed one, full of lush shots of forests in Northwest Oregon and Southwest Washington. Leave No Trace is not likely to make a star of Thomasin McKenzie the way Winter's Bone did Jennifer Lawrence, but hopefully another movie will soon. McKenzie deserves it, her performance utterly believable and every bit a match to Ben Foster, who is also great.

It's difficult to characterize the tone of Leave No Trace. It feels like a contradiction in terms to call it a comforting sadness, but I can think of no other way to put it. It has a specific melancholy, a kind that is sort of inviting. It's pensive, in all the right ways.

  Thomasin McKenzie   is a breakout in  Leave No Trace.

Thomasin McKenzie is a breakout in Leave No Trace.

Overall: B+

SIFF Advance: PROSPECT

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

Prospect is a prime example of the joy in discovery that can come with attending film festivals. You know very little about these movies going in, and you find yourself delighted by the surprise of something you might not have had any idea you'd have any interest in.

And this film holds particular interest to Western Washingtonians: it was shot entirely locally, most of it in or around Seattle; interiors built in a warehouse in the Fremont neighborhood. Some of the exteriors were shot in a park in Shoreline. And for the purposes of the story, it works: a father and daughter are visiting a forest moon to do some prospecting (hence the title) for a certain type of valuable gem, which must be carefully harvested out of something that looks like a cross between a white radish and a stomach organ, which lives in the ground.

We really learn nothing about the time period otherwise -- the setting is either in rickety spaceships or, in the vast majority of the story, in these forests -- and that's okay. The script, co-written by Chris Caldwell and Zeek Earl, who both also co-directed, is by easily the best thing about this movie, and reveals its strengths with every turn of the plot.

The only predictable thing about it is that things go wrong: this father-daughter team finds themselves pressed for time in getting what they need and getting their ship back off this moon, but they encounter a couple of other people who have similar aims. From there on out, in their increasingly desperate endeavor not to get stranded, the story is both tense and unexpected.

They key players are Transparent's Jay Duplass as the father (he and his brother Mark have longstanding relationships with filmmakers in the Pacific Northwest, and have starred in several movies set here); Pedro Pascal (perhaps most recognizable as Oberyn Martell on Game of Thrones) as his would-be nemesis; and most notably, a fantastic newcomer Sophie Thatcher as Cee, the no-nonsense teenage daughter. There are a few other parts in the film, but probably three quarters of it is focused only on these three.

Now, the production design in Prospect can be a little . . . janky. I have mixed feelings about the look and feel of their small ship that takes them to the moon's surface, with its vague shades of Nostromo working-class griminess. That sort of design could fly a lot more easily in films from the seventies, but this decidedly analog means of both transport and communication, clearly a product of budget constraints, has more the feeling of an alternate dimension than a future we can actually expect.

But, the performances, and especially the story itself, make such things quite easily overlooked. Even the special effects, also clearly rendered under budget constraints, have that effect, as those are impressive given the limitations. The sight of a huge planet in the sky beyond the tops of Washington's forests makes for some memorable imagery. The air in these moon forests are also supposed to be toxic, so they are shot with bright lens filters and given an otherworldly look with white specks always slowly swishing through the air. It's only this toxicity that necessitates the suits the characters wear while they are outside, which make for several pertinent plot points.

Between the writing, the editing, and the setting, Prospect makes for a deceptively simple and eminently satisfying story. It's science fiction without the usual trappings of unnecessarily convoluted technological details. They basic story -- a young girl faced with odds stacked increasingly against her as she faces a need for escape -- could easily be taken out of this context and plopped into a present-day setting, but it wouldn't be as interesting.

This movie isn't at all concerned with real-life science, which potentially will annoy viewers with any such knowledge. The best science fiction tends to use real-world knowledge as a jumping-off point, and Prospect doesn't necessarily do that. It simply establishes its own world with its own rules. But it is also a well-constructed story that unfolds with a finesse all its own -- to such an extent that I have been very careful not to give to much away. Once you get a chance, just see this movie. You won't be disappointed.

  We're not going in the direction you think we are.

We're not going in the direction you think we are.

Overall: B+

SIFF Advance: THE MOST DANGEROUS YEAR

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

It can be difficult to be objective with a film like The Most Dangerous Year -- honestly, regardless of what side of the political or social spectrum you're on. To the people making this film, it's about the fight to protect their beloved children. To the people who would benefit the most from watching but mostly would refuse to, it's about exposing their beloved children to sexual predators.

If you're on the right side of history, it's the former group that matters most, and the latter group that is ridiculous. If you're blind to facts and willfully ignorant of actual scientific data, then the reverse appears to be true. Even making that statement betrays a level of sanctimony on my own part -- a lack of objectivity -- that loses sight of the ways minds actually can be changed. Very few minds, but just a few more, over time, bit by bit.

The Most Dangerous Year is quite understandably a passion project by its writer and director, Vlada Knowlton, who, with her husband Chadd (who also serves as Supervising Sound Editor and Composer), has a young, transgender daughter named Annabelle. She took out her cameras to record their own progress, as well as that of several other families with trans children, fighting anti-trans bathroom bills moving through the Washington State legislature in 2016. Many similar measures were moving through other state legislatures in the country at the time, but Knowlton focuses locally, on her home state.

So how do you judge this then, not only on the importance of its message -- which is paramount and clear -- but as a film? This would be a relevant question for me, even if I didn't have a close friend who also has a trans child, who was heavily involved in this local fight, and even can be spotted a couple of times in the background of crowded scenes, like a movie extra. Hell, even if I weren't gay, and didn't have a long history of association with the queer community.

I'm fairly gender non-conforming myself; these preposterous questions of policing which bathrooms can be used by members of which gender are directly relevant to me as well. I have a long history of seeing double-takes when I walk into a men's room. Just last year at the airport a security agent actually said to me, "I'm sorry, I have to ask. Which button am I pushing? Pink or blue?" Why don't you push the purple one?

The experiences I've had of this nature are patently innocuous compared to those who have lived long lives, in different eras -- and, frankly, even in liberal areas at the current time -- as actual transgender individuals. The Most Dangerous Year, named after a study that declared that of the year 2016 for trans people, doesn't get into those specifics, but rather the passionate need and desire of parents to protect their trans children from senseless indignities.

Vlada Knowlton does an admirable job of demonstrating empathy for her opponents -- something particularly stressed by local trans activist Aidan Key, who hosts workshops and presentations on these issues, and has been an indispensable resource for many, including a good number of the parents and families featured in this film. She wisely makes it a point to give a good amount of air time to State Senator Joe Fain, who represents South King County as a Republican. He is one of few Republicans in the state legislature who opposed these so-called "bathroom bills" rather than supporting them, and he is seen facing his constituency, allowing them to voice their concerns and voice their frustrations, and then offers them both understanding and an insistence that civil rights are not to be put up for polling.

The Most Dangerous Year has many such moments, both striking and inspiring: open dialogue is the door to progress, rather than mutual hostility. Still, one wonders to what degree this film will simply preach to the choir. In a world increasingly characterized by insistence that facts don't matter, how much can doctors and experts featured here matter? Probably a lot, at least in educational and activist spheres. Other states going through similar battles could learn something from this film, as can other school districts around the country looking at updating their policies to include trans students -- another focus of this film.

That does, to a degree, make The Most Dangerous Year feel like far more of an educational tool than a film. Viewing it could easily feel to some like an obligation, more than elucidation through art. This is Knowlton's first feature length film, and a local production, both of which are easily evident onscreen. Judging it on the basis of its message (which is vital) versus on its merits as a film (which is decent) can be different things. Would I be insisting this should be seen if it were of the same quality but on a different subject? From my position, that's impossible to answer. But this is the subject at hand, and it does command attention.

  Vlada and Chadd Knowlton, with daughter Annabelle.

Vlada and Chadd Knowlton, with daughter Annabelle.

Overall: B+

DISOBEDIENCE

Directing: B+
Acting: A-

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

Disobedience is the kind of movie that moves relatively slowly, but the entire time, you can't take your eyes off of it. The opening scene is fairly memorable: an Orthodox rabbi gives a sermon touching on free will among both angels and beasts, right before he drops dead of a heart attack.

Rachel Weisz plays Ronit, the woman we soon learn was this rabbi's daughter. She's working as a photographer in New York when she gets the call; she heads home to her Jewish community in London immediately. It turns out, she hasn't been back in many years. When she reaches the house where a memorial is taking place, an old friend, Dovid (an effectively restrained Alessandro Nivola) answers the door and says to her, "We weren't expecting you."

What follows is a series of awkward encounters, person after person surprised to see Ronit there -- including Esti (an excellent Rachel McAdams), someone it takes Ronit a minute to realize is now married to Dovid. It seems they were all best friends, once upon a time.

Dovid, fully aware of a more complicated history that unfolds in due time, offers to let Ronit stay with him and Esti. Ronit's estrangement from her rabbi father is merely half the story, but certainly always relevant.

Disobedience thus reveals itself to be a love story unlike any other heretofore told. Surely we have seen plenty of same-sex love stories, and we have seen a few movies about strictly conservative Jewish families. We don't see a lot of movies combining the two, particularly with this particular brand of orthodoxy.

Today I learned that orthodox Jewish women often wear wigs, to conform to the religious requirement of covering their hair. Orthodox Jewish men cover their heads with a yarmulke; the women, evidently, have a sheitel. When Ronit arrives back at her Jewish community in London, all the other women around are clearly wearing these wigs, and if you know little about the faith, it's oddly distracting at first, until the film makes it a point of drawing attention to them.

Weisz, for her part, has a fantastic head of hair all her own, so it's nice she mostly keeps it uncovered. It's probably halfway through the film before her romantic past with Esti becomes explicitly clear, and before long they have a fairly explicit sex scene. At lest one thing happens between the two of them that baffled me, but then, I'm a gay man; the lesbian friend I saw it with had no particular insight either. Otherwise, though, even the sex scenes are integral to the story, a shift in the characters' journey rather than any means of simply titillating the audience.

In fact, Disobedience is impressive in its practice of giving the female characters both self-assurance and agency. Even in an ultraconservative context, once Esti is faced with the life choices she has made and where she is now, rather than shutting down and rolling over for her husband, her immediate instinct is to assert herself. It's a beautiful thing to see, especially given that the man, while struggling to come to terms with his own circumstances, respects her choices.

As such, this isn't a movie about shame, as you might expect, so much as it is about coming face to face with the consequences of your own choices early in life, and choosing how to deal with them now. Life is complicated, even more so when not exactly existing in the mainstream of society, and there is no manner of offering any neatly wrapped happy ending for these characters. Satisfying conclusions, though -- that's another matter.

The script, based on the novel of the same name by Naomi Alderman, more than once elicits the expectation of a pretty clichéd movie scene: running through an airport; catching up to a loved one in a taxi cab. In ever case, however, the story subtly turns in an unexpected direction, which is the basic nature of the entire story in Disobedience, a deeply affecting love story whose depth slowly sneaks up on you.

  An un-Orthodox love triangle.

An un-Orthodox love triangle.

Overall: B+