BEN IS BACK

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

What is it about movie ideas that seem to come in twos? From Dante’s Peak and Volcano in the nineties to Friends with Benefits and No Strings Attached less than a decade ago, with countless other examples in between and since, this tendency to greenlight remarkably similar movies at around the same time seems to never end. Well, this year it’s heartwrenching family dramas about drug addict sons.

It’s too bad Beautiful Boy is getting all of the attention, because as it happens, Ben Is Back is the better of the two.

Ben Is Back is not without its own flaws, what with so much going on, crammed into a bit too little time to tell it all, an entire family history revealed over the course of one Christmas Eve. That said, writer-director Peter Hedges (who happens to be father of star Lucas Hedges) has some skill within that framework, revealing background details through the action currently unfolding, and never once resorting to flashback. In this film, the narrative is propelled forward from the start, with the Ben of the title (that being Lucas Hedges) suddenly showing up unexpected at his upper-middle-class home when he’s scheduled to be at his recovery facility over the holiday.

Things sort of spiral from there, albeit at a tolerable pace and in a fairly organic fashion. Ben is doing the best he can, and Hedges makes it easy to root for him in spite of his clear and many gargantuan failings. That doesn’t stop it all from being . . . a little much. In the end, Ben Is Back is not easy to watch, especially if someone you care about or are close to is also an addict. You’ll want to keep tissues handy. And the emotional hits, while deceptively minor at first, ultimately come hard and heavy. A sudden burst of hope can come imbued with heartbreaking skepticism.

I don’t usually like to do this, but with the two movies coming out so close to each other, comparisons are inescapable. Beautiful Boy frustratingly left the causes of its protagonist’s addiction untold; Ben Is Back provides that background, and does it by showing rather than telling. Beautiful Boy hardly seems aware of its characters’ quite obvious white privilege, much less mentions it; in Ben Is Back, Ben’s stepfather (Courtney B. Vance) is black, has produced two half-siblings for Ben, and he even utters the line, “If he were black, he’d be in jail by now.” I wonder how many people might roll their eyes at what seems like a line shoehorned in, but the fact remains: we can’t be reminded of that truth often enough. It also remains true that empathetic portrayals of addicts are not nearly often enough about people of color, but at least this movie acknowledges the disparity.

Ben does have another sister from his mother’s previous marriage, Ivy (Big Little Lies’s Kathryn Newton), who is immediately and understandably skeptical and resentful upon his return. The crux of the story, though, is between Ben and his mother, Holly (Julia Roberts, who has never been better). So yes, once again, it’s a story about how one kid’s chaos-inducing addictions have torn a family apart, but more specifically, affected his relationship with his closest parent.

Ben is trying to be honest and do by right by those he loves (and those who love him), but increasingly dire consequences of past mistakes catch up with him quickly. Maybe a little too quickly, what with how closely this story flirts with becoming overwrought. Whether it quite crosses that line, or the degree to which it does, could be up for debate. Either way, if you’re looking for a good cry, Ben Is Back will do the trick, with impressively constructed if sometimes subtly contrived storytelling. If nothing else, the performances are good enough that you won’t be able to look away, much as you’ll often want to.

Julia Roberts tries to negotiate with someone who tells her he can’t be trusted.

Julia Roberts tries to negotiate with someone who tells her he can’t be trusted.

Overall: B

MARY, QUEEN OF SCOTS

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

Hey, fundamentalist Christians! You know that King James whose Bible you love so much? The one who also presided over the unification of the Scottish, Irish and English Crowns? A pretty consequential individual, yes? And a quite deliberate existence, the result of Mary, Queen of Scots uniting with Henry Stuart to produce an heir to the throne.

As you might imagine, Mary, Queen of Scots is not about him, although he clearly plays a key role in the history on display here. Instead, it is about the disputed claim to the throne between Mary (a great Saoirse Ronan) and Queen Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie, fantastic).

Director Josie Rourke, working from a script by Beau Willimon based on a biographical book by John Guy, moves the narrative back and forth between Mary and Elizabeth, who were cousins, and their respective counsels either advising or outright manipulating — or, in some instances, worse — their queens, fearful of the other posing a threat to their own monarch’s position. There are occasional messages sent back and forth, by the two women share all of one scene together, a rather consequential one near the end of the film. Aside from the choice to have them walking through hanging linens as though in a maze, it’s a tense exchange that’s worth the wait.

It comes perhaps as little surprise that the trailers to Mary, Queen of Scots would suggest it is only about these two women vying for power. In a different era, they may well have gotten along better, but for the men surrounding them with their superiority complexes. The way the story is told here, it would seem Queen Elizabeth’s choice never to marry was a shrewd one, as it kept those conspiring to usurp her at bay. Mary of Scotland, widowed twice over, was not so lucky.

Still, this movie presents both these women as having natural assumptions of their own superiority, a very specific kind of hubris borne of bloodlines and perceived birthrights. They both have faith in their own rightful claim to the English throne. And Mary, having been raised a Catholic, returned from France after being widowed at nineteen to a country largely wary of how she would approach bloody rivalries between Catholics and Protestants that have gone on for centuries.

It is this backdrop that is slightly oversimplified in Mary, Queen of Scots, one zealot constantly cut to as the movie goes on, showing him half-screaming sermons in a church to a rapt audience, systematically convinced that Mary is a harlot undeserving of their respect.

And Mary does not have the greatest luck with relationships, Henry Stuart evidently having more interest in the men in her court (and one in particular) than in her. Both women are playing the same game, but with a different set of rules. Elizabeth keeps the romance, and even the close relationships, at an arm’s length, and it proves to be a choice to her advantage. Mary is just as convinced of her own savvy as well as her own righteousness, and her quickness to produce an heir was itself a smart move.

As to which of these formidable women ultimately came out on top, that is perhaps up to debate — and food for thought as this story plays out. Given both history and the fact that the film’s opening scene depicts the lead-up to it, it’s hardly a spoiler to say Mary was ultimately beheaded. But with one single child she changed the course of history. Did she lose?

There’s no denying the feminist bent to Mary, Queen of Scots, and how appropriate it is to the time might better be determined by historians with more intimate knowledge than I possess. There is no question that it’s appropriate to the present day, though it does make one wonder about the extent of poetic license, embellishment or anachronism. Either way, it makes for a compelling story.

Mary and her not-so-merry men.

Mary and her not-so-merry men.

Overall: B

SHOPLIFTERS

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

I left Shoplifters kind of wondering what all the fuss was about, but that’s on me, really. I mean, what “fuss”? Have you ever heard of this movie? It’s Japanese, and about a multigenerational family living together and getting by on petty thievery. And I fell into the embarrassingly simple trap of getting too easily impressed by the forty critics aggregated at MetaCritic.com, averaging to a “MetaScore” of a whopping 93. This must be one hell of a movie!

And maybe it is, and I just can’t see it for some reason? I’m not obliged to doubt myself just because of incredibly high critical praise, though. I don’t have to agree with everyone, damn it!

Besides, Shoplifters is still . . . fine. Would I insist that you see it? I’m not prepared to do that. Far too many other movies in theatres right now have actually wowed me in one way or another. Shoplifters kept me engaged, but it didn’t wow me. In fact, the plot turn that seems to be impressing so many others, where this family turns out to be harboring secrets that vary in levels of shame — I didn’t find it that impressive. I would have liked this movie more if it were just this unusual portrait of a family with a specific socioeconomic status in another country, how they lived their day to day lives, and that was it. Why the need for left-field reveals?

I also found it kind of hard to follow how everyone was related. There’s a sort of matriarch, “Grandma,” a sweet old lady living off her late husband’s pension; her son, injured on the job as a day laborer; his wife who has a precarious position at a laundry fallen on hard times; a young lady presented as her sister; a preteen boy presented as their son, although he is not yet ready to call them “Mom” or “Dad.” Early on in the film, young Shota (the boy) is aiding the man on their little shoplifting excursions at grocery stores, and on their way home, they find an apparently lost little girl, scratched and hungry, who they decide to take home with them and call her Lin.

They do nearly return her to her parents the next day, but when they overhear them yelling and Lin’s dad abusing her mom, they opt to keep her. Miyu Sasaki, the little girl who plays Lin, is adorable as hell. She starts learning quickly about how to work together to distract store owners in order to steal groceries. It’s not long before it turns out at least one store clerk is not as distractable as they thought.

Most of Shoplifters is rather meditative in tone, just a pleasant look at a downtrodden family that seems to be proving surprisingly functional. They clearly love and care for each other. They offer Lin a kind of love she’s never known. On the other hand, the local news has caught wind of this missing neighborhood girl. This scenario is clearly not sustainable. Their living situation even before finding her was ultimately untenable.

Writer and co-director Hirokazu Koreeda works in subtle moves, and until the plot takes that hard turn, small hints are dropped here and there about how this semi-makeshift family came to be. A reference to a sister “with a different mother.” A quick mention of the car in which they “found” Shota when he was much younger. Who is exactly whose parent, or in some cases where certain parents even are, is not always clear.

Shoplifters is not predictable, I’ll give it that — and there’s a certain satisfaction in a story that’s neither predictable nor particularly shocking. I was always interested in where these characters were coming from, if somewhat frustrated at times with a lack of clarity. You won’t be amazed by a movie this quiet, but then, not all movies have to amaze. I must admit, the more I think about this movie, I put it in higher regard. It’s very well constructed, but its incredibly thoughtful, measured pace and tone also renders it not for everyone. Even I am not likely to remember it very vividly much more than maybe a week from now.

I suppose if you have some direct connection to Japan or Japanese culture, Shoplifters would be for you. In that case, you’re likely to get a fresh angle on something already familiar. It’s a fresh angle either way, but when it comes to lasting impact, results may vary.

Let’s spend some time figuring out exactly how all these people are related.

Let’s spend some time figuring out exactly how all these people are related.

Overall: B

VICE

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

Vice is packed with super-famous faces and personalities stepping in to play famous — or, depending on your perspective, eminently infamous — real-life faces and people, and the results can be distracting. There’s not one bad actor here, and in fact the acting is far and away the best thing about this movie, but there’s also the issue of, say, Steve Carell playing Donald Rumsfeld, at varying stages of his life. It’s impossible to forget you’re actually looking at Steve Carell. The same goes for Tyler Perry as Colin Powell.

On the other hand, Christian Bale is astonishing as Dick Cheney, the unremorseful, power-hungry Vice President we came to know and hate during the Bush Junior Era. He gained 45 lbs for the part, shaved his head, bleached his eyebrows, and adopts an almost creepily accurate half-sneer, half lip-curl, even in the scenes from Cheney’s earlier years. No one else in this movie packed with famous actors is more famous than Bale, and yet Bale makes the most impressive achievement: he makes you believe you’re actually looking at Dick Cheney.

The same goes for the incredible Sam Rockwell as George W. Bush himself, who plays a smaller part in this story than you might expect, but still an obviously vital one, given, you know, history. There are moments in Vice where Rockwell’s performance moves into the realm of uncanny. A couple of times his look and manner are so spot on that I actually thought to myself, Holy shit.

Amy Adams is equally as impressive as Dick’s wife, Lynne Cheney, even though she isn’t quite as readily known as a personality on the national stage. Regardless, Adams plays her as a woman so deeply committed to he ideas of the righteousness of conservative values, it’s subtly unsettling.

But does a pack of amazing acting performances alone make a worth movie seeing? In the case of Vice, I’d say . . . maybe?

Because the thing is, this movie is fucking depressing. Surely it’s a story that should be told, but is 2018 the right time to tell it? I am not quite convinced. A movie like this would probably play better — do Democrats like myself, anyway — during any era besides the Trump Era, as it would leave audiences with at least a vague sense of relief: the idea that things aren’t this bad anymore. But instead, they are worse, and the current state of our country can be directly traced to Dick Cheney’s time in the white house, and his work on consolidating and expanding Executive power and overreach.

In other words, Vice demonstrates to us how and why things are so fucked up right now. Does that sound like fun to you? Admittedly, I would never say that “fun” is an absolute prerequisite for all film. We need to know all this stuff; the country is far too easily distracted from it by the catatonic effect of popular culture in general; this is clearly what writer-director Adam McKay (The Big Short) is telling us. But this kind of messaging is a little cheapened by the parlor trick nature of the performances in this movie, however impressive they may be.

Vice also has an air of “cool” in its stylized editing and cinematic in-jokes, from the psych-out “end credits” in the middle of the film, to Dick Cheney ultimately breaking the fourth wall to acknowledge our judgment and then pointedly refuse to apologize for anything. The dialogue is occasionally a little oversimplified (somehow I doubt Lynne Cheney ever literally said “That’s just how it is for us girls” to her daughters), but this is one of several moments weighted in hard truths.

One can only assume McKay is playing to liberal audiences by characterizing the Cheneys as callous and heartless, with the one curious exception of their acceptance of one daughter being gay — a complication that only gets more darkly complicated as familial relationships evolve from there. I could also easily see hardline conservatives watching this movie and rooting for Dick the entire way. Vice feels like a movie made just to give people permission to be cynical. It certainly got me thinking about how much shame there is in American legacy, the hypocrisy behind so-called national pride.

So what Adam McKay has given us is an expertly acted, moderately well-written, and ultimately deeply depressing movie I can’t imagine recommending to anyone specific at all. The question has been posed of Vice: Who is this movie for? As impressive as it is on multiple levels, that’s just a question for which I have no answer.

“ Half the people in this room wants to be us, and the other half fears us,'“ she says.

Half the people in this room wants to be us, and the other half fears us,'“ she says.

Overall: B

Cinema 2018: Best & Worst

Below are the ten most satisfying and memorable films I saw in 2018:

phantom thread 11. Phantom Thread A-

Okay, okay, this year I'm doing something new and actually listing the eleven most satisfying and memorable films I saw in 2018. I include Phantom Thread here because it should have been included in my 2017 top 10 but, frustratingly, was not released until January. So, to compromise when it comes to listing strictly 2018 movies, I sort of include this one as "honorable mention." Because this treatise on the relationship between a devoted young woman (Vicky Krieps), her self-absorbed fashion designer lover (Daniel Day-Lewis), and his longtime business partner/sister (Lesley Manville) was so esquisite, I went to see it twice.

What I said then: This movie takes its time at it, but it goes in unexpected directions that are subtly disturbing. And if a movie must be disturbing, subtle is perhaps the best way to go. It makes a movie richer with repeat viewings, and I will certainly be watching this one again.

we the animals 10. We the Animals A-

Presented with the dreamlike haze and fractured structure of memory, We the Animals is a portrait of three young brothers with parents more concerned about their own problems than the welfare of their children -- and it builds up to a rather unexpected reveal regrding one of the boys. It's that turn that elevats this film to greatness, but every shot has a succinct contribution to the whole, the story arc finely threaded with what only seemed to be unrelated vingettes. It's difficult to describe a unique theatrical experience when it is truly unlike any other, but suffice it to say that anyone with a sensitivity to the awakenings of puberty is likely to be moved.

What I said then: This is fiction -- and increasingly stylized as the story unfolds. This is not a straightforward depiction of reality. This is art. And it is by turns charming, sad, and beautiful. Sometimes shocking. I

a star is born 9. A Star Is Born A-

It's not often that a movie comes along that exceeds expectations at every level: Bradley Cooper's achievement as a director; his revelatory performance as an alcholic fading rock star; his ability as a singer; Lady Gaga's ability as a serious actor; even this movie's knowing acknowledgment of its previous iterations' legacy as vehicles for gay icons. A Star Is Born is a story now decades old, nearly a century in fact, and still this version of it updated its sensibilities so effectively that, even though at its heart it's a simple love story just like countles others, it made me feel seen and understood. I felt a personal connection to this movie that I did not expect, with so much empathy and understanding at its heart.

What I said then: The things that are great about A Star Is Born are just so great — it makes for a genuine crowd pleaser which, beat for beat, hits all the right notes. You could even call this film subtly subversive. What’s not to love about a flawed man who makes terrible mistakes but through it all has eyes only for this one wide-eyed woman, who in turn progressively overcomes a lack of confidence and ambition to showcase awesome talent? A story almost pointedly lacking in sexism, and featuring a seamlessly organic sensibility of inclusion? Which even treats alcoholism and addiction realistically as a disease to be treated without judgment?

science fair 8. Science Fair A-

If you want to see a movie packed wall to wall with unbridled joy, keep a look out for this one. A documentary about a worldwide science fair? Indeed! Seeing these kids from all over the globe giddy at the chance to showcase how they will change the world is both inspiring and inectious, and provides a truly welcome beacon of hope in an otherwise dark world. This movie is overflowing with charm, a delightfully ironic wave of movie magic that happens to be about science.

What I said then: I found Science Fair to be deeply, deeply affecting — in a profoundly positive way. How often does a documentary make you cry tears of joy?

a fantastic woman 7. A Fantastic Woman A-

Attention to all those who lament the dearth of trans actors playing the trans roles that tell their stories: look no further than A Fantastic Woman, a delicately executed Chilean film about a young trans woman facing the vicious prejudices of the older man she's in a relationship with after he dies unexpectedly, as well as the broader prejduices of her culture. It's a sad story, true, but nowhere near as sad as it could have been, and the performance of the lead actor, Daniela Vega, is indeed fantastic.

What I said then: While Marina endures emotional traumas one after another ... she moves through this story as a paragon of resilience and strength -- and without contrivance. She occasionally makes ill-advised choices, but never fatal ones, and stays a course that runs between resolve and defiance. Even in the midst of a life turned upside down by a random, tragic event, of all the people in this movie, Marina emerges as the hero.

foxtrot 6. Foxtrot A-

A beautiful Israeli meditation on grief in three acts, the first and third focused on one of two grieving parents, the second on the son killed senselessly while stationed at a Palestinian checkpoint. When dancing the foxtrot, you always end up right where you started: so it goes with these characters, in a uniquely stylized, provocative and contemplative film.

What I said then: There's a sort of elusive perfection to this movie, a clear precision, a unique finesse, without spelling out exactly what [director] Samuel Maoz is trying to say. Certainly plenty of Israelis feel they understand it, as this movie has proved controversial in its country of origin. That's hardly surprising. For the rest of us, further removed from those cultural biases, it's easier to take Foxtrot as a beautifully artistic portrait of familial grief, and how perception can radically alter meaning.

can you ever forgive me? 5. Can You Ever Forgive Me? A-

Melissa McCarthy gives the best performance in the best movie of her career, starring opposite the wonderful Richard E. Grant as two embittered and aging gay best friends who conspire to make money by forging letters by literary giants. Oh and did I mention this is based on the true story of Lee Israel, who did exactlty that? Can You Ever Forgive Me? is dramedy at its finest, the kind of untold story one loves to discover, told with both gravitas and deliciously dark humor.

What I said then: Can You Ever Forgive Me? presents its audience with characters who range from abrasive to literally criminal, yet are unavoidably compelling, even fun. It shows them doing terrible things and refuses to pass judgment — it leaves that up to the viewer. The script has wit to match that of Lee Israel herself, and is given depth by on-location shoots in places such as the real-life Manhattan bar Israel actually spent a lot of time at in the early nineties, or the many New York book stores she visits.

black panther6. Black Panther A-

I would hesitate to call Black Panther the best superhero over made, but it comes close -- and I would not begrudge anyone else making such a claim. This is the one movie this year that I saw three times in the theatre, after all, and I have not done that with a superhero movie since the 1992 release of the only truly perfect superhero movie ever made, Batman Returns. One could even make the case that Batman Returns was similarly progressive, at least in how it treats and presents its female characters. It's 26 years later now, though; one cannot argue the fact that Batman Returns is exceedingly white; and in spite of a male protagonist and male villain, Black Panther's many surprises and delights include its unparalleled feminist sensibilties. This is not just another Marvel Comics movie aimed at little more than cashing in; this is a film with real depth, a heft to the historical context of its proceedings, both onscreen and in the real world. The cultural impact, and specifically the positive cultural impact, of this movie cannot be overstated.

What I said then: This is perhaps what impresses me most about Black Panther: even in a movie packed with action, a movie still recognizable as a comic book adaptation, none of it is contrived -- that being the key difference from nearly every other superhero movie of the past decade. It characters of royal blood and themes of family rivalry are almost Shakespearean. It deals with succession to the throne and ritual battles, all with production and costume design with fantastically authentic African influences. The hero just happens to be a man who suits up in an alien technology-enhanced panther costume.

roma 3. Roma A-

Here is an "art movie" that is truly a work of art: a stunning visual feast in every frame, every scene based on actual memories of director Alfonso Cuarón growing up with a maid in the Mexico City neighborhood after which this film is named. Cuarón is well known for stunning technical cinematic achievements, and even though they are far more subtle here, Roma is still no exception. This movie is short on action and perhaps not for those with particularly short attention spans. But there are rich rewards for losing yourself in this movie, and giving attention to its depth of detail.

What I said then: All this is to say Roma can catch you off guard, provided you have the patience for the time it takes. It seeps into you slowly, its roots slowly digging into your soul. It somehow justifies itself after the fact, well after the credits have rolled, as it slowly dawns on you how much better it is than it seemed in the midst of it.

blindspotting 2. Blindspotting A

This story about best friends Collin and Miles, a black guy struggling to make good and a white guy who gets away with far more than his friend ever could, is a lot more entertaining than it sounds. For some viewers, it's even a bit much -- I found it to be nearly perfect. The story, after Collin witnesses the police shooting of an unarmed black man, is propulsive. It even provides a fair amount of humor, perhaps to catch the viewer off guart with some cultural unpleasantness we should all be forced to face. There's no way to do this movie justice without simply insisting it must be seen.

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

eighth grade 1. Eighth Grade A

I have been singing this movie's praises for months -- since its release in July, in fact -- and I won't stop now! I knew then it was the best movie I had seen thus far this year, but given its "small indie movie" status and sensibility, it did not occur to me until later that perhaps it would indeed be the best film of 2018 in the end. Well, it is! Its many moments of painful awkwardness are a big part of what make it so great: movies never get made about this specific period in a person's life, and yet movies are never this universally relatable. Elsie Fisher gives a superb, knowing performance in the lead role as a middle school girl with a single dad, just trying to manifest some kind of self-actualization in the fact of crushing self-doubt. And it's her performance, as well as every one else's in this movie, that makes the story so tender, funny and moving. We don't know if she will be okay as she moves on in life, but we are reassured that she just might be, and that is exactly what we need.

What I said then: Even though Eighth Grade is relentlessly awkward, it pulls off a rare magic trick in that every scene is also either a delight, a tightrope of tension, or an emotional gut punch. For the great many people poised to relate to this movie in a way they perhaps never have to any other, rooting for Kayla feels like rooting for one's former self.

Five Worst -- or the worst of those I saw

ready player one 5. Ready Player One C+

This movie admittedly has its moments, but to call it gimmicky might be the understatement of the year. It's a transparent money grab trafficking in a kind of nostalgia that will itself be dated far sooner than it's presented to be in this supposedly futuristic dystopian world. Ready Player One does have some great action sequences, but that alone does not a great movie make.

What I said then: It still could have stood some substance to call its own, instead of borrowing it from countless other properties and weakening it to nothing of consequence in the process.

a wrinkle in time 4. A Wrinkle In Time C+

This one might win the 2018 Award for Biggest Failure at Living Up to the Hype. In the midst of all the mesmerizing special effects, substance itself proves persistently elusive. I never read the book, so maybe that makes a difference? Based on the movie alone, I struggle to come up with any real reason for its existence.

What I said then: I'd say that A Wrinkle in Time had great potential that it failed to realize, except I can't even figure out what its potential was. I left the movie just wondering what was the point.

final portrait 3. Final Portrait C+

If I didn't quite find this movie boring, it could still be called . . . tedious. This is a rare film with a decent critical response that I could just not muster a lot of enthusiasm for -- and neither could I imagine any single person I know having any genuine interest in it. It's about an eccentric painter dragging out the process of painting a portrait for an admiring friend, and in doing so the movie drags as well.

What I said then: Are you fond of Armie Hammer? Geoffrey Rush? Swiss Italian artist Alberto Giacometti? Still portraits? Well, then Final Portrait might still not be the movie for you! It might be if you enjoy watching people stare off into space though.

the seagull 2. The Seagull C+

If re-reading my original review of a movie still doesn't quite ring a bell, maybe that makes it by definition completely forgettable?

What I said then: Tepid may be the best word for it. Not exactly a ringing endorsement.

SUSPIRIA 1. Suspirira C+

This movie could have been . . . something. Anything! I would have settled on coherent. I'm not sure on what level a horror movie that is never especially frightening quite works. There is at least one scene that is effectively horriying, but it sits in the middle of this incomprehensible and overlong movie about witches running a ballet school, without much in the way of other horror strands tethered to it. Then it ends with a ritualistic bloodbath that is excesive by every measure, to the point of bewildering desensitization. In the plus column, it does have one pretty great dance sequence.

What I said then: Some say this movie exists in a theoretical region where any viewer can ascribe any label they like to it, and perhaps that is true. So I’ll take my own stab at it: this is a movie with literally nothing to say.

Complete 2018 film log:


1. 1/4 The Greatest Showman C+
2. 1/6 I, Tonya A- (2nd viewing)
3. 1/7 The Post B+
4. 1/11 Phantom Thread A-
5. 1/19 Hostiles B+
6. 1/28 Phantom Thread A- (2nd viewing)
7. 2/1 The Commuter B
8. 2/10 Oscar Nominated Shorts: Live Action B+
9. 2/12 Oscar Nominated Shorts: Animated B+
10. 2/16 Black Panther A-
11. 2/17 Shadow of a Doubt *
12. 2/18 Black Panther A- (2nd viewing)
13. 2/20 Early Man B-
14. 2/24 Game Night B+
15. 2/25 A Fantastic Woman A-
16. 2/27 Faces Places B+
17. 3/2 The Party B
18. 3/5 Annihilation B
19. 3/11 A Wrinkle in Time C+
20. 3/15 The Death of Stalin B
21. 3/18 Love, Simon B+
22. 3/19 Oh Lucy! B
23. 3/21 Loveless B
24. 3/24 Black Panther A- (3rd viewing)
25. 3/25 Thoroughbreds B+
26. 3/30 Ready Player One C+
27. 4/4 Goldstone B
28. 4/7 🐓 Blockers B+
29. 4/9 Outside In B+
30. 4/10 Foxtrot A-
31. 4/16 Lean on Pete B+
32. 4/23 You Were Never Really Here B+
33. 4/24 Final Portrait C+
34. 5/7 Tully B
35. 5/9 The Endless B
36. 5/12 RBG B
37. 5/15 I Feel Pretty B
38. 5/17 Book Club B
34. 5/19 Tully B (2nd viewing)
35. 5/22 Three Identical Strangers A- ***
36. 5/24 Solo: A Star Wars Story B
37. 5/26 Live, Gilda B ***
38. 5/27 Won't You Be My Neighbor? A- ***
39. 5/28 Disobedience B+
40. 5/29 The Most Dangerous Year B+ ***
41. 5/30 Prospect B+ ***
42. 6/1 Leave No Trace B+ ***
43. 6/2 Catwalk: Tales From the Cat Show Circuit B ***
44. 6/4 First Reformed C+
45. 6/6 Sadie B- ***
46. 6/8 Ocean's Eight B
47. 6/17 Incredibles 2 B+
48. 6/19 American Animals B+
49. 6/20 Tag B
50. 6/25 Jurrasic World: Fallen Kingdom B
51. 6/27 The Seagull C+
52. 7/1 Sicario: Day of the Soldado B
53. 7/7 Whitney B+
54. 7/10 The Last Suit B-
55. 7/13 Skyscraper C+
56. 7/16 Sorry to Bother You B-
57. 7/20 Eighth Grade A
58. 7/23 The Cakemaker B+
59. 7/28 Mission: Impossible - Fallout B+
60. 7/30 Blingdspotting A
61. 8/2 Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot B+
62. 8/7 Christopher Robin B
63. 8/9 BlacKkKlansman B+
64. 8/13 The Miseducation of Cameron Post B+
65. 8/15 Crazy Rich Asians B
66. 8/21 Puzzle B
67. 8/24 BlacKkKlansman B+ (2nd viewing)
68. 8/29 Operation Finale B
69. 9/2 The Happytime Murders C+
70. 9/5 The Little Stranger B
71. 9/7 The Wife B
72. 9/8 We the Animals A-
73. 9/14 Pick of the Litter B+
74. 9/18 A Simple Favor B
75. 9/20 Fahrenheit 11/9 B+
76. 9/23 The House with a Clock in Its Walls B-
77. 9/24 Assassination Nation B+
78. 9/25 Lizzie B
79. 10/1 Science Fair A-
80. 10/3 A Star Is Born A-
81. 10/5 Colette B+
82. 10/8 The Sisters Brothers B+
83. 10/10 A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night B (2nd viewing)
84. 10/12 A Star Is Born A- (2nd viewing)
85. 10/13 First Man B+
86. 10/15 Bad Times at the El Royale B
87. 10/16 The Hate U Give B+
88. 10/22 Beautiful Boy B-
89. 10/24 The Old Man & the Gun B
90. 10/28 Free Solo B
91. 11/2 Suspiria C+
92. 11/4 Bohemian Rhapsody C+
93. 11/6 Wildlife B
94. 11/9 Can You Ever Forgive Me? A-
95. 11/12 Boy, Erased B-
96. 11/18 Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald B
97. 11/19 Instant Family C+
98. 11/21 The Front Runner B-
99. 11/25 Widows B+
100. 11/27 Ralph Breaks the Internet B+
101. 12/2 Maria by Callas B-
102. 12/5 The Favourite B+
103. 12/6 Roma A-
104. 12/8 Schindler's List A- *
105. 12/11 Anna and the Apocalypse B-
106. 12/17 Mary Poppins Returns B
107. 12/20 On the Basis of Sex B+
108. 12/21 Spider-Man Into the Spider-Verse A-
109. 12/27 If Beale Street Could Talk B+
110. 12/30 Vice B


*Re-issue (no review)
**Advance screening
***SIFF festival screening

[posted 9:49 am]

IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK

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

If Beale Street Could Talk is a movie full of beautiful people, perfectly framed and gorgeously lit, navigating increasingly sobering lives, an earnest romance at their center. Based on the book by James Baldwin, whose work I have never read, it’s still unsurprising that Baldwin should present a story so frank about both the emotional nuances of everyday lives, and the stark realities of black lives, here presented in early 1970s Harlem.

Director Barry Jenkins, who adapted the screenplay himself, here presents his follow-up to Moonlight, the best movie of 2016, so this has a lot to stack up against. Moonlight remains Jenkins’s definitive achievement, but If Beale Street Could Talk has plenty of its own to offer. Much of the cinematography is similar (James Laxton shot both films), so virtually every frame is stunning to look at — even when the characters are gazing directly into the camera, which happens a lot.

There is something about the trailer, however, that seems to have been slightly misleading. We’re led to believe this story is primarily about young Tish and Fonny’s respective families reacting to Tish being pregnant. The opening scenes are all focused on Tish breaking the news: first to Fonny through visitation glass at the prison where he’s serving time for a crime he did not commit; then to her mother; then to her father and sister; then to Fonny’s parents and sister.

This family visitation sequence goes on for some time, intercut with flashbacks of Tish and Fonny’s budding romance, after years of friendship since childhood. Fonny’s mother in particular is hardcore religious, all judgment in the name of Jesus. It seems curious that there should be such focus on this woman, played excellently by Aunjanue Ellis, only to have her never appear in the story again. Even Fonny’s father (Michael Beach) appears a couple of times after this, however briefly.

So, at first, If Beale Street Could Talk seems to be about families with clashing viewpoints on the single thing that promises to keep them linked forever — Tish and Fonny’s baby. But then we learn why Fonny is in prison, and although there is complexity in the details, the reason is broadly simple: the racist scapegoating of black people. It’s an interesting time to be seeing a movie whose plot hinges on a false accusation of rape, but we might do well to remember that this happening to black men, thereby absolving white men of responsibility, is not exactly without precedent.

It would be easy to pick apart If Beale Street Could Talk on grounds of supposed political correctness — a moment of domestic between the older parents is basically gleaned over by everyone present; Fonny jokingly refers to the baby as a “midget” that kicked Tish from inside the belly. But it’s important to keep the proceedings in historical context. American culture was in a very different place in a lot of these aspects in the early seventies — except, of course, for systemic racism, which far too many people are happy to ignore while nitpicking at these other issues. One wonders if Barry Jenkins might be making a subtle point about this.

Because If Beale Street is by and large made of subtleties, executed with great finesse. This movie certainly stands apart in terms of the story it’s telling, how it’s being told, and the people it’s about — all things it also has in common with Moonlight. This is a romance of unique sensitivity, and in the context of its setting, it’s striking to see a young woman met with such tenderness by her entire family when faced with the prospect of her being pregnant at nineteen. This tenderness includes both her own father (Colman Domingo) as well as Fonny’s father; Tish gets great emotional support as well from her mother (Regina King) and sister (Teyonah Parris).

Jenkins fills his films with indelible imagery, often deeply affecting, whether it be the one love scene depicted between Tish and Fonny, or a wonderful shot of baby, mother and grandmother moments after a home birth. And without exception, Kiki Layne and Stephan James are lovingly shot as their great performances serve as emotional anchor to the arc of their story. From beginning to end, If Beale Street Could Talk has a tone and effect that could only be described as hypnotic.

This movie is no fantasy, though, and it ends with a sense of resignation rather than anything particularly joyful. Upon deeper reflection, it remains a testament to the power of love and devotion, which comes with it at least some sense of uplift. Here is a powerful story which pointedly demonstrates that even when it comes so naturally, love isn’t easy.

Looking into a bottomless well of romantic notions across a narrow divide.

Looking into a bottomless well of romantic notions across a narrow divide.

Overall: B+

SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE

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

Now, here comes something truly unexpected: the second superhero movie within the space of a year to qualify as truly exceptional and worth seeing — more than once, even. It’s no secret that as a general rule I avoid going to theatres to see superhero movies. This “Marvel Cinematic Universe” crap overstayed its welcome and over-saturated the market ages ago, ten years and twenty movies in having long since adopted the same story arc over and over, and over and over. Maybe their blockbuster special effects extravaganza aesthetic still wows the kids, but for bona fide grownups, it’s frankly boring as hell.

How many times do we need to sit through the same plot where the entire world — or hell, the entire universe — is threatened by less and less memorable villains, then “saved” by increasingly bland heroes in which we have no emotional investment because we know they are generally immortal? Okay, I hear — spoiler alert! — half the heroes in the latest Avengers movie perish, so one might argue that raises the stakes. I would continue arguing the opposite, in a cinematic world now characterized by remakes, reboots, and sequels that find creative ways to resurrect characters. I stopped caring because these stories stopped giving me reason to.

—Except! As with anything, I still make exceptions for the exceptional. And when one of these movies comes along that branches out from the primary goal of turning every multiplex into mere housing for superhero movies made to break box office records, and has something vital to say or represent, I will give it a look. I did for last year’s Wonder Woman, a solid-B movie with its heart in the right place but still marred by a forgettable villain who, as usual, just destroys everything in his wake in a battle meant to be climactic but in its roteness was rendered anything but. I did for this year’s Black Panther, a film so nearly perfect that it is rightfully expected to become the first superhero movie nominated for Best Picture.

And now, I do it for Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, a film that surprises at nearly every level: storytelling, themes, truly gorgeous animation, special effects, cinematography. How could a movie be this good coming after not one, but two franchise reboots in the past decade alone, or after the character has appeared in eight films in the past sixteen years? Well, it does it by changing the rules.

Here’s a novel approach: what if a comic book movie literally felt like you were inside the pages of a comic book? Characters read comic books about Spider-Man; the screen splits into panels; occasionally comic-book style text boxes appear in the midst of the beautifully rendered action. Mind you, this occurs relatively sparingly, which keeps the technique fresh.

3-D is another thing I generally avoid as a rule, finding it to be a racket to raise ticket prices for visuals not at all enhanced by the process. Again, there are exceptions, usually thanks to visionary directors deliberately doing something new with the medium. Actually being shot in 3D instead of having the effect grafted on retroactively is by and large a prerequisite. I wasn’t particularly interested in seeing Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse in 3D but found it to be my only option at the showtime I needed to see it. With an AMC Stubbs “A-List” monthly membership it comes at no extra cost, so I thought, what the hell. Now this is one of the rare films I would recommend be seen in 3-D. There is little doubt it works fine in standard 2-D, but the 3-D enhances the effect of being inside comic book panels, and does it quite well.

And then of course, does anyone remember the racist uproar over the idea of Marvel Comics introducing a black Spider-Man several years ago? As it happens, that was specifically about the character we are introduced to in film here, Miles Morales (charmingly voiced by Shameik Moore). He’s got a Black dad (Brian Tyree Henry) and a Puerto Rican mom (Luna Lauren Velez) and they live in Brooklyn. This is a story about a young Black/Latino Spider-Man and it’s wonderful.

It’s also effectively self-aware, with narration saying things like “Okay, let’s go through this one more time,” and quickly recapping how our hero was bitten by a radioactive spider. There being such a thing in the underground New York tunnels where Miles is doing spray art with his Uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali) doesn’t make much sense, but who cares? The spider logo eventually seen on the “Black Spider-Man” suit being rendered as though spray painted is an especially nice touch.

And I haven’t even gotten into the whole multiverse idea, have I? Here is where Spider-Man Into the Spider-Verse mercifully ignores the typical MCU idea that all Marvel superheroes exist in the same world (thereby overwhelming virtually all stories about them) — here, there is only Spider-Man. Well, in this dimension, anyway. This film’s primary villain, The Kingpin (Liev Schreiber), has built a particle accelerator meant to retrieve his dead wife and son from another dimension, but when this world’s current Spider-Man (voiced by Chris Pine) is fatally mixed up in its use, it brings several versions of Spider-Man from other dimensions into this one: “Peter B. Parker” (Jake Johnson); Gwen Stacey’s Spider-Woman (Hailee Steinfeld); the anime-style Japanese girl from the future, Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn), with a robot friend powered by her radioactive spider from fourth-millennium New York; the black and white “Spider-Man Noir” (Nicholas Cage) from 1930s New York; and even the cartoon “Peter Porker / Spider-Ham” (John Mulaney).

This is a whole lot of detail to cram into a two-hour movie, what with its opportunities for humor as well as endless references to characters and stories that all previously existed in actual comic books (most of which I probably missed; this movie will be a comic book nerd’s dream). Amazingly, even with two writers (Phil Lord and Rodney Rothman) and three directors (Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey and Rodney Rothman), all these references and comic touches are seamlessly woven into a tightly packed and tightly polished narrative. From beginning to end, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is a swiftly paced, gorgeously rendered animated film authentically honoring comic book storytelling in a way other films about superheroes never do.

This is a film with nothing cynical at its heart, even as it recognizes how overplayed some of its tropes are. This is one movie that builds on those tropes rather than rehashing them, and it’s a consistent delight throughout.

Diversity in action: the Spider-Verse gang.

Diversity in action: the Spider-Verse gang.

Overall: A-

ON THE BASIS OF SEX

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

One could say the presentation of legendary justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in On the Basis of Sex is a tad too tidy. It’s very much a Hollywood-movie version of her story, and the closest to showing any “warts” is when she’s trying too hard for her noble cause. Surely this is too sanitized a version of her, stripping her of any character flaws she must realistically have.

To that I say: So what? A nation needs its iconic heroes to be lionized for generations, maybe even centuries, and our nation is in desperate need of women in those roles. Why not Ruth Bader Ginsburg? Seriously, erect a ridiculously oversized monument to this woman on the National Mall. People can then spend decades smugly pointing out her character flaws and evolving imperfections of idealism just as they do Abraham Lincoln now.

All this is to say: I enjoyed On the Basis of Sex more than I expected to. Predictably, it’s far from a perfect film. But its heart is squarely in the right place, even in the face of rational arguments against the commodification of feminism, which these days co-opts Ginsburg herself far too often. But I have a counterpoint to such arguments: Have we not become rather fond of the phrase “representation matters”? On the Basis of Sex is not just some throwaway, forgettable movie about a great historical figure. It presents a woman who leads by example and amassed extraordinary accomplishments in the midst of limitations young people today can scarcely imagine. And even now, if this movie sells even a halfway decent amount of tickets, plenty of young women will see themselves in her, and be inspired to follow in her footsteps, expanding on those accomplishments.

So, yes, the telling of the story goes by the typical Hollywood playbook. Sometimes it’s even a little corny, as with successive close-ups of appellate judges’ faces trying a little too hard to look contemplative as Ginsburg’s persuasive arguments are convincing them. At another point, female Harvard Law School students are asked by the Dean to justify their having “taken a spot that could have gone to a man.” Some moments in this movie are a little on the nose. There’s even a self-consciously “woke” line by a white man arguing that black men or members of religious minorities actually have it worse in this country than women.

And, well, maybe they do — although it’s worth noting the argument avoids mention of women who are also black or part of religious minorities. But this is not their story, and they deserve more than token reference in this story. They deserve their own movies that should be supported and championed in their own telling. On the Basis of Sex is the specific story of how a pioneering woman changed the course of American history — and, all things considered, tells it pretty well. I found myself easily absorbed by it, anyway. It even takes care to mention, more than once, the pioneering women who came before Ginsburg, on whose shoulders she stood. One of them is even played by Kathy Bates.

This is a movie people of multiple generations can enjoy and appreciate, inspiring an appropriate amount of respect and, sure, even reverence for this woman. She, along with a husband (played affably by Armie Hammer) who survived testicular cancer, faced seemingly insurmountable odds. She has a young daughter, Jane (Cailee Spaeny), who is more interested in street activism than judicial ethics — and debates moral nuances of To Kill a Mockingbird with her firm but loving mother. And Felicity Jones strikes a nice balance as Ruth herself, walking a fine line as a feminist with a certain softness while also defiantly staring back at all the male condescension surrounding her. Would this be the right time to mention how much I loved her black skirt suit with white trim?

On the Basis of Sex has its contrivances, of the sort I often complain about in other movies, but I easily surrendered to them. Sometimes, contrivances work. Director Mimi Leder and writer Deniel Stiepleman want us to see Ruth Bader Ginsburg as a legend because that’s what she is. How else could the brief shot of the real Ginsburg herself at the very end hold such power? It brought a tear to my eye.

Ruth you work in that suit!

Ruth you work in that suit!

Overall: B+

Advance: MARY POPPINS RETURNS

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

Watching Mary Poppins Returns, I kept wondering how it might play to anyone who has never seen the classic 1964 original. Surely there will be plenty such people. Perhaps it makes a positive difference to them to be removed from how blatantly this sequel coming 54 years later traffics in nostalgia?

It should come as no surprise to anyone who has seen the first film, with Julie Andrews in arguably her most iconic role, that nothing can possibly stack up to it. Mary Poppins Returns attempts to recapture a whole lot of the kind of magic that really only existed in a bygone era, but excels when making bits of original magic. In other words, this film is full of its own delights, and also a bit of a mixed bag — especially if you’re looking for something for which there is no comparison.

Comparisons are quite literally what this movie is asking for, though. So let’s start with the stuff which, if far from terrible, well, could have been better.

It’s not often that I wish a movie were longer than it is, especially when it’s already 130 minutes. (The original film was 139 minutes.) Much of Mary Poppins Returns is not quite frantic, but just shy of it; it feels very much a product of its time, ironically — as though made for people with no attention span. It’s packed to the gills with story, and the story seldom gets any room to breathe.

That said, maybe it doesn’t need to be longer — the story could have been given room to breathe if the first “magic of imagination” sequence were simply done away with, and all the rest of the scenes fleshed out a tad. This movie jumps right in with a bathtub number that is rather over the top with its undersea colors and effects, and it’s just a little much, a little early.

I might not have had so much of a problem with packing so much story in, if that story weren’t so contrived and undercooked. This time out, we get Colin Firth as a bona fide villain — a character type I don’t recall existing at all in the original Mary Poppins. The charm of the original film was the simplicity of its themes: if there were any villain, it was time itself, and how it robs grownups of their childhood wonder. This idea returns here, but it’s attached to a ridiculously predictable plot involving the search for shares in Michael Banks’s bank, in time to save his lifelong home from being repossessed.

So yes, some of this is outright nitpicking — but when it comes to the legacy of a film as pitch perfect as Mary Poppins, there shouldn’t be so much room for it. The music in particular is fine, but “fine” is not good enough for Mary Poppins, who once regaled us with such unfortgettable tunes as “A Spoonful of Sugar” or “Feed the Birds.” Not one song here comes remotely close to such classic songs: no answer to “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” no “Chim Chim Cheree.”

Granted, for those of us who grew up watching that film so many times we practically memorized it, it arguably doesn’t matter what anyone making a sequel did, they just couldn’t win. So from my perspective, it’s a great compliment to Mary Poppins Returns that while it’s nowhere near as great as I wanted it to be, it remains far better than I feared.

This movie falters when it attempts to recreate specific ideas and feelings from its predecessor, which it does a lot — instead of Dick Van Dyke as a chimney sweep, we get Lin-Manuel Miranda as a lamplighter, complete with many friends who come together for an elaborate dance sequence much like those of the chimney sweeps in 1964. The inclusion of stunts on bicycles feels strangely like a strained attempt at modern sensibility while coming up slightly short of the original choreography.

But, once it gets past that slightly ill-advised bathtub swimming sequence, Mary Poppins Returns does offer several sequences that are both original and an effective expansion on the original sensibility. Popping into the animated world of the etching on a ceramic bowl, a horse and carriage rides along a path that curves with the bend of the bowl. In this sequence, the blending of animation in a specific-era Disney style with live action has a comforting authenticity to it.

As for the live-action cast? Honestly, Emily Blunt, while otherwise very well cast in the title role, slightly overdoes it at times with the Poppins pomposity. Other times, in spite of there being no replacement for Julie Andrews, Blunt seems to channel her surprisingly well. Ben Wishaw and Emily Mortimer are serviceable as the grown Michael and Jane Banks. Michael, now a widower, has three children of his own, played with more childlike wonder than precociousness by Pixie Davies, Nathanael Saleh and Joel Dawson.

Poppins’s return is much more about setting things right with the grownups than the actual kids here — she simply uses the kids as a means to that end. Of course, the adults being the ones with a lesson to learn was the original idea — a tried and true concept that really needed no conceit about shares in a bank to be tied to it.

Mary Poppins is undeniably fun regardless, and I must admit, by the very end, after a truly delightful number involving balloons at a spring fair, I finally decided I was fully on board. Sequences like that convince me I’d enjoy watching the movie again, even with its many minor flaws. Not one of those flaws are fatal, after all — they simply weigh down the legacy it’s clearly attempting to live up to. For every flaw, though, there’s a new delight. Many of them involve brief appearances that inevitably bring on a smile: Meryl Streep as “Topsy,” Poppins’s eccentric cousin who fixes things; Angela Lansbury as the balloon seller; even Dick Van Dyke — not as Bert the chimney sweep, but this time as an old bank executive. His spry performance at 93 years old might be worth the ticket price alone.

Of course, I really wanted Dick Van Dyke to be coming back as Bert. Don’t get your hopes up on that one! Consider that less of a spoiler than a way to avoid being disappointed during the movie. It’s wonderful to see him onscreen no matter what part he plays.

And contrived as it is, the Mary Poppins Returns script does have its clever moments. You could call it uneven: slightly rough patches of story telling, and other parts that are smooth sailing. It’s the moments of smooth sailing that keep you believing in the power of imagination.

The Banks children young and old think to themselves . . . “Hey, you’re not Julie Andrews.”

The Banks children young and old think to themselves . . . “Hey, you’re not Julie Andrews.”

Overall: B

Opens Wednesday December 19.

ANNA AND THE APOCALYPSE

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

The zombie genre has been so overdone for so long. now even “funny takes” on the zombie genre are overdone — from Shaun of the Dead (2004) to Zombieland (2009) to Warm Bodies (2013) to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2016). Even television shows are getting in on the “funny take on zombies” action, from The CW’s iZombie to Netflix’s Santa Clarita Diet.

The point is, there really is no original take on zombies at this point. Even the idea of a genre mashup has been done, with roughly the same amount of middling success, with Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (which, if you can believe it, worked better as a novel). Honestly, I should have known better. Anna and the Apocalypse is clearly trying to hark back to the original “edgy comic take” on zombies, Shaun of the Dead, being a low-budget British production with clear affection for the American productions it emulates.

I could be said this film is a mashup of four different genres, if you want to consider “Christmas” a genre. Anna and the Apocalypse is a horror-comedy-musical Christmas movie. The thing is, director John McPhail blends these genres fairly well, all things considered. Most strikingly, the music and songs are good — they’re catchy, the performers have fantastic voices, they often have irresistible beats. The actual zombies don’t show up until maybe a third of the way through, and there are several songs prior to that, as though this story is a perfectly straightforward musical about kids in school. A British High Shool Musical with a slightly quirkier sense of humor.

And to be fair, I did laugh pretty hard a few times. Still, McPhail can tend to linger on the same gag just slightly too long, until the joke runs out of steam. Perhaps the relative earnestness of the songs themselves is part of the joke. But if that’s the case, then that part of the humor is slightly too high-minded to work for a production that basically amounts to “scrappy.”

When the songs aren’t going on, the dialogue in Anna and the Apocalypse is not particularly concerned with wit, which is a bit of a disappointment. There’s a lot of pretty forgettable stuff said in this movie. There are some memorable moments, such as the beheading of a zombie in a snowman outfit.

Anna and the Apocalypse is mostly fine, which is about as glowing a review as it deserves. It would find a comfortable home on any streaming service; there is absolutely no reason for anyone to go out of their way to see it in a theatre. It seems strange that any effort should be made to give movies like this a theatrical release, and such cinematically visionary work as Roma get a single week in theatres before being disseminated on mobile devices.

So, Anna is fun enough, and good for a few laughs. But it does have a key thing in common with all these other comic takes on the zombie genre: it’s okay, not great. The only one that comes within spitting distance of greatness is the original comic British zombie movie, Shaun of the Dead, and one could even make the case that that one’s overrated. Why do we need all these “zombie comedies,” anyway? The endless stream of zombie horror movies wasn’t enough?

Well, it will be eventually. Maybe even with Anna and the Apocalypse, which is about as entertaining as it looks (as in: moderately), and pretty much guaranteed not to make a whole lot of money. Especially if, curiously, it apparently has some kind of promotion deal with MoviePass — making it literally the only movie available to users on the day I went. (I showed my MoviePass card to the cashier and he said, “Yeah, you better use that while you can before the bottom falls out.”)

Granted, I’m not exactly the target audience here. I went to see this movie only barely convinced to: because the critical response was slightly better than average; I had free access via MoviePass; there was nothing better playing at the moment; I love Christmas. I’ve been bitching about there being too many movies about zombies for ages — since before I started bitching about superhero movies (and now also Star Wars movies) over-saturating the market. Tonight, I literally settled for Anna and the Apocalypse. It proved to be a movie that can work if it’s something you’re settling for. It has well-sung, toe-tapping music, at least.

Anna takes a moment to realize the zombie apocalypse is about to catch up on her.

Anna takes a moment to realize the zombie apocalypse is about to catch up on her.

Overall: B-