THE REPORTS ON SARAH AND SALEEM

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

What do you do when you’ve told a lie in an official capacity to cover up one truth, the official lie convinces the authorities of a much broader, more sinister truth, and you endanger everyone you care about in the process?

The Reports on Sarah and Saleem is a modern, geographically specific take on the very idea of a catch-22, where characters are forced between two decisions that are equally horrible. It takes some time to get there, of course, and Palestinian director Muayad Alayan increases the tension in the meantime, so steadily you barely register it’s even happening until it’s been doing on for a while.

There are four characters, two married couples, and the story at first revolves around what seems like a pretty straightforward extramarital affair — straightforward, at least, in the context of the politics those involved naively think they can avoid: one couple is Israeli and the other is Palestinian. This alone could easily make for a compelling story, given the obvious prejudices at play.

But, here things are not that simple. This is the story of otherwise regular people making small but bad choices, which turn out to have huge and horrible consequences. Saleem (Adeeb Safadi) is a Palestinian man struggling at a low paying job at a delivery service, who is having an affair with Sarah (Sivane Kretchner), an Israeli bakery cafe owner in West Jerusalem. Both are part of communities in which extramarital affairs on their own have dire consequences. They meet in secret and have sex late at night on the side of empty streets in the back of Saleem’s delivery van.

But, they make two key mistakes, when Sarah agrees to go out for drinks with him in a part of Jerusalem where nobody knows them, where Saleem has agreed to make extra cash making nighttime deliveries, but Saleem gets into an altercation with a man aggressively trying to hit on Sarah.

It’s difficult to explain how things snowball from there without giving spoilers, but suffice it to say that official government reports — hence the movie’s title — are involved, they contain falsehoods intended to save Saleem’s livelihood and reputation, but the Israeli government takes them at face value and considers them a threat. Ultimately Saleem and Sarah both find themselves faced with a choice between either ruining the other person’s life to save their own, or ruining their own lives.

And that’s not to mention their spouses, both of whom bring greater richness to the storytelling here. Sarah’s husband, David (Ishai Golan), is a colonel in the Israeli army, unknowingly inching closer to the case against Saleem and therefore some version of the truth about his wife. Saleem’s wife, Bisan (Maisa Abd Elhadi), is very pregnant, very suspicious of the circumstances surrounding Saleem’s arrest, is pushed away as a nuisance at every turn as she attempts to uncover the truth, and is very tenacious. Of all these characters, Bisan is the most underestimated, although Sarah is a bit as well.

All of these actors deliver excellent performances. And it must be said, the tenuous relationship that develops between Sarah and Bisan is treated with a refreshing delicacy. There are no reductive clichés about women scorned or pitted against each other here; rather, they reach a sort of painful understanding of each other. I did find myself thinking about the Bechdel Test as I watched this movie, and it does pass it, albeit barely, and technically. The entire story is about an affair after all, so by default nearly any conversation between the two female leads is bound to be about a man. It’s worth remembering, though, that the Bechdel Test is more of a barometer than an indicator of a film’s quality. A lot of stories, even compelling ones, are simply about the relationships between men and women. That said, I would argue The Reports on Sarah and Saleem has a far more feminist bent to it than you’re ever likely to find in any other story like this. The two women here are the strongest characters, with the most dimension.

Best of all, Muayad Alayan does not pass judgment on any of these characters, the women or the men — one of each potentially seen, depending on the point of view of the observer, as a victim and as a criminal. Here Saleem and Sarah are each both at once, in over their heads because of very human mistakes. It’s easy to sympathize with every single one of them, and that’s what makes this movie great, as it offers no easy solutions and yet still provides a thoroughly satisfying movie experience.

Sometimes you don’t realize there was a fork in the road until it’s too late.

Sometimes you don’t realize there was a fork in the road until it’s too late.

Overall: A-

THE LION KING

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

One might easily argue that a 2019 CG remake of The Lion King is both pointless and redundant, after a 1994 original animated film that at the time became the fourth-most successful movie ever; a 1997 Broadway musical version that continues to run to this day and is the highest grossing Broadway production ever; and even a 2011 re-release of the original animated film in 3D so skillfully applied it actually enhanced the experience.

I went in to this new Lion King with every expectation that it would be . . . okay. For me, that counts as a heavy dose of skepticism. As it happens, this new movie easily justifies its own existence.

And I say this as someone who would still say the original was superior, and even that the 2011 3D version is superior. It’s rare that 3D impresses me, but that one did; I gave it a solid A. That 2011 release genuinely amazed me.

I did not see the current release in 3D, which is an option. Maybe it’s fine; I can tell you it’s a great movie even without it. This is director John Favreau’s second CG treatment of a classic Disney property after The Jungle Book (2016), which I also very much enjoyed, and The Lion King is even more impressive in its environmental renderings. The Jungle Book had a live-action boy at the center of it, but the thing that makes The Lion King stand apart is that it looks very much like live action, but is technically an entirely animated film. In its own way, this movie genuinely amazed me as well.

It’s almost shocking how well it works. We’re talking about a story whose characters are all talking animals, rendered more realistically than anything you’ve ever seen out of actual live action. In traditional animation, talking animals are expected; they can easily be given more relatable, human-like emotions and expressions. This animal kingdom is sort of like watching a wildlife documentary except the animals are caught up in Shakespearean drama — literally: the story is basically Hamlet with lions. In any case, this unusual combination might cause a bit of cognitive dissonance for some.

I’ve already heard the many reasons people have for being disappointed with this movie, really none of which do I agree with. I have a theory that anyone who loved the animated feature as a child but chooses to reject this film just grew old and uptight and needs to pull the animated stick out of their ass. Really, this is like the natural evolution of animation as a genre, and it’s the perfect kind of story for it. There is very little “uncanny valley” effect here.

I will say this. The effects in this movie are stunning. That does not mean they’re guaranteed to age well. It’s still relying on computers to render the picture of human imagination, and it still has limits that date it in ways traditional animation can’t be. Animated classics remain as beautiful today as they were at their time of release, from Bambi to Sleeping Beauty to The Little Mermaid to The Lion King. Another twenty years from now, the original Lion King will look as good as it ever did; the 2019 version certainly won’t. Special effects technology will improve to the point where you can’t decipher the difference between it and live footage, in which case, what’s the point? Well, getting the animal characters to talk, I suppose.

But, we’re talking about right now, and right now The Lion King is absolutely worth the time and effort, particularly to be seen in a movie theater. The story is nearly identical to the original film — even a good majority of the shots are — but there is true magic in seeing it rendered this way. In the first half of the film, when young Simba (voiced by JD McCrary) and young Nala (Shahadi Wright Joseph) are lion cubs, they are almost unbearably adorable. If you’re a cat lover at all, you will love this movie.

I do tend to insist that movies should be judged on their own merits, but that assertion works better for film adaptations of novels than for remakes. The original Lion King is still out there and still beloved, after all, with unforgettable voice work by the likes of Whoopy Goldberg, Cheech Marin, Jeremy Irons and more. In the current iteration, the only voice used again is that of James Earl Jones as Mufasa. Jeremy Irons was deliciously evil as the villain brother Scar, now voiced by Chiwetel Ejiofor. The delivery now lacks a certain punch, but it’s also appropriate. In this photorealistic version of the animal kingdom, it comes with a natural subtlety that actually works better for it. Ejiofor still effectively makes the character his own.

And it must be noted that this film is not without its own fun and humor, particularly with John Oliver voicing Zazu the Puffin; a charmingly gruff Seth Rogen as Pumbaa the warthog; and Billy Eichner, so delightful as Pumbaa’s meerkate best friend that he might be the greatest highlight of the movie. The rest of the cast includes Keegan Michael-Key and Eric André as hyenas; Amy Sedaris as a guinea fowl; Elfre Woodard as Simba’s mother Sarabi; and Simba and Nala as grown lions are voiced by Donald Glover and Beyoncé. Glover and Beyoncé don’t especially stand out in their speaking parts, but they certainly serve their purpose as vital characters — and God knows, Beyoncé’s singing voice is always a welcome addition.

And yes, there’s that — not only do these animals talk, but they sing. So what? They did in The Jungle Book too, and in both cases, somehow, it works, even with these songs all being lifted directly from the original film (with one new track by Beyoncé). I did think about this: how well does 2019’s The Lion King play to people who, by some miracle, actually have never seen the original? In spite of the fact that these animals sing solely because the original exists, and this certainly would never been a musical film otherwise, I would still say it likely plays quite well to anyone coming to the story for the first time. In fact, this movie is overall so well executed, it’s entirely conceivable that anyone seeing thei version first would prefer it to the original. And there wouldn’t be anything wrong with that!

There’s a lot to say about The Lion King — clearly, as I’ve already said about 1100 words about it. This is one case where I am mystified by the mixed reviews, but entirely unsurprised by the box office success. The criticism people have is almost exclusively nitpicky, borne of people overprotective of their own childhood memories. This movie exceeded my expectations on every level, gripping me with its drama in spite of how familiar it was, and otherwise left me with a constant smile on my face.

The rightful rulers of their world.

The rightful rulers of their world.

Overall: A-

WILD ROSE

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

When it comes to movies about musicians and their music, you’ll be hard pressed to find any better than Wild Rose. This movie is better than Rocketman, certainly better than Bohemian Rhapsody, arguably even better than A Star Is Born. The travesty is that Wild Rose flies under the radar compared to those films — so far under the radar, in fact, in effect there is no radar at all. And this one is better executed, more deeply emotionally affecting, than all three of those others put together.

And I say this as someone who is not particularly a country music fan, regarding a movie about a young, single mother (Jessie Buckley, fantastic) dreaming of leaving her hometown of Glasgow, Scotland for Nashville, Tennessee to try making it in the country music business. Rose-Lynn is clearly talented (as is Jessie Buckley), but the basic arc of this story, unlike most stories like it, is that she must realize her own naiveté.

Rose-Lynn is just getting out of a year in jail when the movie starts, and we soon learn she is in her twenties and has two children, who have been staying with their grandmother (Julie Walters, always a welcome presence). She remains singularly focused on her Nashville dreams, to the detriment of her relationship with her young children, as well as with her exasperated mother. Rose-Lynn soon finds work as a housekeeper for a relatively well-off woman (Sophie Okonedo), to whom Rose-Lynn lies about having any children, during which they develop a friendship.

The first time Rose-Lynn cleans Susannah’s house, and Susannah pops out for a while and leaves Rose-Lynn alone, we see Rose-Lynn immediately snooping around the rooms, even stealing a glass of some of her liquor. In most other movies, this would be a bit of “Chekhov’s gun” forecasting: surely this will come back to her, and she’ll get caught somehow. But in this case, it’s the first of many examples of the story not quite going in the direction you expect.

Rose-Lynn finds support for her career in unexpected places, most of them home-grown when she’s far too obsessed with visiting Nashville — where, as Wild Rose soon enough makes perfectly clear, trying to launch a career from obscurity is about as easy as a nobody moving to Los Angeles to become a movie star.

And indeed, given her circumstances, Rose-Lynn spends much of the movie being pretty selfish. So much so that I actually began to wonder about it: Will there come a point where I am comfortable rooting for her? Especially to Jessie Buckley’s credit, Rose-Lynn is compelling as a character from the start. And, her story arc is not just satisfying, but is peppered with pretty fantastic country music along the way, including a few original compositions.

Wild Rose is the rare film about a musician trying to make it, with as much concern for well-rounded characters as it has for great music. Most other films that might otherwise be compared to it have a much more singular focus on a rise and fall, and in some cases redemptive rise again, of some tortured artist. In this case, Rose-Lynn rarely makes the obvious choice, and the film is all the better for it. It has its own kind of triumph in the end, but it’s very much on its own terms. Besides, how often do you get a Scottish film about country music? Just this once, as far as we know — and director Tom Harper, and especially Jessie Buckley, knock it out of the park.

Jessie Buckley shines.

Jessie Buckley shines.

Overall: A-

THE LAST BLACK MAN IN SAN FRANCISCO

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

The Last Man In San Francisco is about so many things, I hardly know where to begin — except, perhaps, the subtext that pervades every part of it, which is the gentrification of San Francisco, particularly to its exclusion of low-income, nonwhite people.

It’s a bit of a cliche now to call the city where a film is set “is also a character,” but San Francisco definitely qualifies here. It’s a somewhat curious experience to see this movie while still in the middle of the current season of Tales of the City on Netflix, which very much tries to do the same thing with San Francisco — only in the series’ case, it’s through a queer lens. In this movie’s case, it’s through a black lens.

There is a scene in the first episode of the current Tales of the City in which a cab driver is keeping his pet turtle in the passenger seat. I found myself feeling very skeptical about it: could San Francisco, with all its homogenized gentrification, really still be that commonly weird? Well, there’s a scene in The Last Man in San Francisco where the protagonist, Jimmie Fails (played by . . . Jimmie Fails), is sitting in a bus stop. This older white man, stark naked, meanders into frame, sets down a tissue on the bench, and sits on the other side of the bus shelter, apparently also just waiting for the bus. A cable car full of frat bro partiers pulls up next to them for a minute, and once it pulls away again, the naked man says, “This city, man!” Totally unfazed by the white guy’s nakedness, Jimmie just replies, with a wistful look in his eyes, “Tell me about it, bro!”

In both of these examples, the sentiment is basically the same: “This city, man!” — people exasperated by the changes wrought upon the city they love. There is some irony, too, in the sentiment being expressed by the very people who are clearly keeping the city plenty weird.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco is directed, incidentally, by Joe Talbot — a white man, offering his feature directorial debut. Still, its direction is unusually confident and assured for a debut. Also, he and Jimmie Fails grew up together in San Francisco, and receive co-credit for writing the story. Fails plays a fairly aimless as well as obsessive young man who stays in the house of his best friend, Montgomery (Jonathan Majors), and Montgomery’s blind father (Danny Glover). Montgomery is an accessory to Jimmi’s truly eccentric crimes, all of which are tired to his obsession with the Victorian house he lived in for a time as a child. The house’s current occupants, an upper-middle-aged white couple, are bemused by Jimmie’s insistence on coming by when they’re not around to do upkeep on the house, such as gardening or painting the trim.

This truly gorgeous house is as much a character in its own right as San Francisco is. A huge portion of the story takes place inside or around it, as when the house is unexpectedly vacated, Jimmie and Montgomery move all of Jimmie’s belongings in, and basically become squatters.

The lore behind this house is a big part of the story, with Jimmie often repeating that it was actually built by his grandfather in the forties, having been regarded by locals at the time as “The first black man in San Francisco.” Jimmie’s family is complicated, and I do wish more details about them were revealed. His father sells knockoff DVDs. His mother, seen only once when Jimmy happens to run into her on a city bus, seems relatively affluent in her own right, but there is the sense she hasn’t even seen him since well before he became an adult. Why? We never find out. His aunt (Tichina Arnold, really maximizing what few scenes she’s in), lives outside of town now, in a place she can afford.

There is much more at play going on, and every part of The Last Man of San Francisco, gorgeously shot by Adam Newport-Berra in a way that makes the film more art than drama, is dense with layers of meaning. It is both totally absorbing, and feels like something that could be studied in college film courses. It contains multitudes of fascinating narrative choices, not least of which is the heavy focus on the intimate friendship between Jimmie and Montgomery, to the exclusion of any apparent romance in either of their lives. The closest we get to romance, in fact, is a couple of slightly comic looks of lust on Auntie Wanda’s face as she watches her husband skateboarding in the street.

This is a film that pulls off the trick of universal themes via ultra-specific viewpoints. The gentrification subtext is a familiar one to me; I feel like a lot of the people I know could make a similar movie called The Last Gay Man in Seattle. Except the dispersal of queer people from Seattle is nowhere near as dire as people like to characterize it, and I could not trust anyone I know to make a film of this quality. The Last Black Man in San Francisco is a less hardened, much more wistful and contemplative companion piece to last year’s excellent Blindspotting, its own subtext largely being the gentrification of the city across the Bay, Oakland. Those two movies would perhaps make a great double feature.

In any case, The Last Man in San Francisco is a unique experience, even as it is a treatise on a lot of well-trod cultural conversations. It’s not to be missed.

An American Dream unravels.

An American Dream unravels.

Overall: B+

GIANT LITTLE ONES

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

The more I think about Giant Little Ones, the more I decide I loved it. It’s the kind of movie that takes a minute to sink in, how pitch-perfect it was. It doesn’t exactly crackle with urgent energy onscreen; its sensibility is much more subtle than that. Its many nuances are what make it work so well.

I kind of wonder what the thought process was behind that title: Giant Little Ones — it tells you literally nothing. This is an incredibly fine-tuned story about confused responses to an innocent sexual act by adolescents, and some heavy consequences to those responses. All the kids are sixteen years old, by definition neither giant nor little. They’re young, sure; but hardly “little ones,” although the emotions they are dealing with are, certainly, giant to them.

The sexual act in question is pretty minor, and occurs between Franky and Ballas, who have been best friends since they were little. The scene is perfectly tasteful, showing nothing explicit whatsoever: for a few brief moments, after the boys have gone to bed together in a drunken stupor, quiet gasps and moans are heard from beneath a blanket, the top of which is all that’s seen onscreen. But this is a deliberate part of writer-director Keith Behrman’s narrative choices: when Ballas suddenly leaves Franky’s bedroom in a panic and Franky tries to convince him to stay, we have no idea what precisely happened. And in fact, word gets out about the incident, only it’s converted into a rumor that is ultimately untrue, and the truth of the matter effectively becomes a minor plot twist.

But it’s an effective one. There are also other characters that complicate matters, most of them other kids in Franky and Ballas’s lives. First there is Franky’s girlfriend Jess (Hailey Kittle), who serves an admittedly somewhat pointless plot distraction early on, as she complains about whether Franky is actually interested in her. But then, even after the incident between Franky and Ballas, Franky forges a connection, at least partly sexual, with Ballas’s sister Tash, who is in a fragile state as she still recovers a specific trauma all her own. All of this is not even to mention Franky’s divorced parents, played by a lovely Maria Bello as his mom and Twin Peaks’s Kyle McLachlan as his semi-estranged, gay dad.

All these details make Giant Little Ones sound inevitably over-complicated and heavy-handed, but with Behrman’s steady hand, all such pitfalls are seamlessly avoided, and the story unfolds organically, all of the characters coming across as authentically multi-dimensional characters. A huge amount of the credit there should be afforded the wonderfully expressive Josh Wiggins as the lead character of Franky — but a great deal also to Darren Mann as the tortured Ballas, and Taylor Hickson as his sister.

The greatness of Giant Little Ones is in its concurrent uniqueness and absolute relatability to contemporary audiences. This movie contains no cliché moments, no emotional “coming out” scenes; in fact, it’s relatively pointed in its refusal to define any character’s sexuality. Within the dialogue comes this great pearl of wisdom: “It sounds like you had a sexual experience with someone you really loved. It may be as simple as that.”

Furthermore, the as both Franky and Tash understand a specific truth Ballas is terrified to come to grips with, even though it would make things easier for themselves, they endure certain hardships just because they clearly understand that this truth is still not theirs to tell. It’s rare to see a depiction of teenagers, with all their inherent messiness, with such inherent integrity. There’s no question that at least some such kids exist, and it’s wonderful to see them get their due.

None of this is made explicit in the film, mind you — these are simply the conclusions I came to. Perhaps someone else would settle on a different point of view. That, really, is the beauty of such delicately executed nuance.

A close friendship complicated by ultimately normal adolescence.

A close friendship complicated by ultimately normal adolescence.

Overall: A-

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-

ROMA

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

It may be that you have to be a bona fide cinephile to appreciate Roma, which is unique in both its subtlety and depth, and really takes its time. If you’re not given to noticing impressive feats of cinematic execution, you might genuinely be bored. The Venn diagram of lovers of the “Marvel Cinematic Universe” and lovers of foreign intellectual meditations like this one must have the tiniest sliver of overlap.

Distributed by Netflix, Roma has had an unconventional rollout. It opens in theatres today (December 6), only one week before it will be available streaming. Advocates for the film insist it’s an immersive experience that must be seen on the big screen — I took them at their word, and shelled out $17 to see it at Seattle’s unparalleled best movie theatre, the Cinerama. The guy who came out to introduce it raved about its sound mixing: “This will be the best movie you’ve ever heard,” he said. What an odd selling point. So it’s like a radio play, but with pictures?

I have to be honest. I watched the first half or so of Roma wondering what all the fuss was about. Alfonso Cuarón, who serves as cinematographer for the first time on a film he also directs, keeps his camera lingering on a 1970 middle-class Mexico City family living in the neighborhood the film is named after (which is never actually mentioned onscreen). We see them go about their day to day lives.

The central character is the family maid, Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), and when we first see her, she is gathering laundry. She cooks, she makes tea, she gathers dishes — she’s part of the family, at least so far as the four children, three boys and one girl, are concerned. In one scene, in the middle of gathering dishes as the family sits on a couch watching TV, she sits on a discarded couch cushion on the floor next to the couch. Within minutes, however, the kids’ mom is asking her to get them a drink.

The many wide, tracking shots packed with astonishingly well-choreographed action in Roma don’t quite register for some time after they’ve started — in some cases, after the movie has ended — because so much of the first half of the film is in quiet observance of this family. The basic beats of the story arc could not possibly be simpler. Then comes the gripping, tense scene of Cleo giving birth, and its one-shot chaos is reminiscent of the birth scene in Cuarón’s jaw-dropping Children of Men (2006). This time, however, instead of being a ray of light in a truly bleak world, that dynamic is inverted.

The key difference between the feats of editing, cinematography and production design of Children of Men and Roma are that in the former film, one could argue that Alfonso Cuarón was showing off. This time, the details are so subtle they are easy to miss, as you very slowly yet very assuredly become invested in the goings-on of this family. Even the truth about the kids’ mother and father’s marriage takes its sweet time to reveal itself.

And then, a string of visual set pieces, seamlessly woven together. Cleo looking on dumbstruck at babies in a hospital nursury when an earthquake hits. Witnessing “El Halconazo,” or the 1971 massacre of student demonstrators in Mexico City, through a set of second-story windows while crib shopping. A New Year’s Eve forest fire fought by nearby revelers suddenly tasked with passing buckets of water to splash upon the flames, in a chain stretching from a nearby lake. An unbroken shot from shore, well into the waves of the ocean, and back to the beach again, as Cleo goes out to retrieve two kids who swam out too far, even though she herself can’t swim. Details here and there making lasting impressions: earthquake rubble on top of a hospital nursery’s baby incubator. Onlookers at the New Year’s Eve fire calmly sipping from their champagne glasses.

Almost entirely constructed as recreations of Cuarón’s own memories, Roma is packed with detail, but because he refuses to sensationalize any of them, they can be easy to miss. Cleo’s life is marked by hardship, but she herself barely seems to notice. The problems of the family that employs her seem almost laughable by comparison, but she serves as a sort of rock for them.

Roma has clear sociopolitical implications regarding where class and race intersect — Cleo is of indigenous descent. One wonders how this presentation plays within activist circles in Mexico, and what might be considered offensive or overwrought. The story is plainly told from Cleo’s point of view, though, and its presentation seems to be devoid of cliché, at least from my admittedly limited, white-American perspective.

If anything seems to be typical of Alfonso Cuarón movies, it’s that they tend to be marvels of cinema in nearly every way except one. That one flaw seems to vary. Children of Men suffered from glaring implausibility. Gravity (2013), a stunning achievement in visual effects, was thin on story. Roma suffers no such problems, but the acting is . . . not the best. Not only are all the actors (who speak both Spanish and indigenous languages) completely unknown to American audiences, they seem to have no real acting training either.

One could argue that the actors are themselves often props, part of a succession of elaborately designed action-dioramas. It’s easy to go back and forth on this, the idea of “authenticity” when it comes to the acting in Roma. They may not seem schooled in acting technique, but maybe that makes them somehow more real. I found the acting far less compelling than the presentation at first, but — well, that birth scene is really an emotional gut punch, from which no one, in the film or in the audience, quite recovers.

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.

A family fits as only they can in  ROMA.

A family fits as only they can in ROMA.

Overall: A-

CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME?

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

It’s difficult even to pretend to be objective when it comes to the film Will You Ever Forgive Me? It’s very meaningful to me personally, as a gay man, observing the drastic change in attitudes over the course of my own life.

The irony — and it’s one of many when it comes to this movie — is that this movie places no particularly great focus on the sexuality of its characters. But the incidental nature of Lee Israel (a stellar Melissa McCarthy) being a lesbian and of Jack Hock (an excellent Richard E. Grant) being a gay man is precisely the point. Years ago, I said many times this was exactly what I wanted: a movie whose main characters just happened to be gay, but that had nothing particularly to do with the story being told.

And here I am putting arguably undue emphasis on it. Well, I can promise you this: the more movies like this get made, the less compelled I will be to call attention to it. But right now, particularly in the current cultural climate, it’s heartening. It feels like progress.

Of course, there is the easy counter to such statements: that these parts should be played by actors who are themselves gay. And there are certainly compelling arguments for that. But I would argue, that does not take away from the performances here, both the leads of which are worthy of Academy Award nominations. It doesn’t hurt to see Jane Curtain appear in a smaller supporting role either, as Israel’s publisher. She’s barely recognizable, but also great.

In fact, Can You Ever Forgive Me? is the kind of movie whose greatness increasingly reveals itself the more you contemplate the execution of its nuances of detail. Every single minute, every frame of this movie has an air of authenticity to it, the feeling like these are people and places that exist in the real world, the world we actually live in. That is a rare feat for any motion picture.

The story itself is certainly unique. Lee Isreal, a by now a largely forgotten writer once on the best-seller list with biographies, is far behind on her bills until she turns things around by forging personal letters by famous writers. Book stores and collectors paid hundreds, sometimes thousands for such letters. And this actually happened. It occurred to me to wonder: how much might an original Lee Israel forged-letter go for today? I would consider paying for one myself. And what delicious irony is that!

Israel managed to make money off those letters herself, even after making money off of them illegitimately: she wrote a memoir about the experience, with the same title as this film, which is based on it. She passed away at the age of 75 in 2014, and this is how her legacy lives on.

Melissa McCarthy more than does her justice. McCarthy tends to be great in everything she’s in, even the many rather bad movies she’s done, and Can You Ever Forgive Me? is plainly the best of her films, and the best performance she has ever given. Never before has she ever so completely disappeared into a character.

She easily holds her own opposite Richard E. Grant, with whom McCarthy has a great, if somewhat surprising, chemistry. Even their friendship rings true onscreen, a rare reflection of the highs and lows of true, yet flawed, close friendship. There comes a moment of tragic betrayal, but it still doesn’t nullify what was seen before — the kind of things that made me think, That is a good friend.

The depiction of Israel’s relationships all around — with her friend, with her ex-partner, a woman she dates, even her publisher and the book store owners she sells to — gives her a meticulous sense of dimension. This is not much of a surprise coming from director Marielle Heller, who previously directed the excellent Diary of a Teenage Girl (2015). This is a woman with a deep understanding not just of entertainment, but of effective storytelling. She’s given us films that stay with you well after you leave the theatre, for very specific, unique reasons.

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. It’s a role unusually low-key for Melissa McCarthy, but she is perfectly cast. (That’s not to say she’s never offered effectively dramatic performances before: she was also great in 2014’s St. Vincent.)

Nearly everything about Can You Ever Forgive Me? seems better in retrospect, upon further inspection. Its like how well-constructed and executed it is sneaks up on you after the fact. There is nothing splashy about it, and it’s easy to see how it could mean more to a cinephile like myself than to perhaps some other people. But anyone who bothers to give it their attention will not be disappointed.

This could be the start of a criminal friendship.

This could be the start of a criminal friendship.

Overall: A-

A STAR IS BORN

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

Here’s something I didn’t even think to expect from Bradley Cooper’s A Star Is Born: to feel so seen — as a gay man, as part of a gay community so long associated with appreciation for megastars in movies bearing this name. Few movies have been remade as many times as this one, and certainly no other comes to mind with the same pedigree of icons featured in its many iterations. Judy Gardland. Barbra Streisand. Lady Gaga.

In Bradley Cooper’s telling of the story, we’re treated with a surprisingly queer element: when Cooper’s middle-aged rock star Jackson Maine first meet’s Lady Gaga’s unknown singer Ally, Ally is the one cisgender woman, also singing with her own voice, performing in a drag bar. Among the many drag queens here who pop up a few times over the course of the film is one whose YouTube channel I’ve long subscribed to: Willam Belli. She gets a couple nice gags in to boot, and was a delightful surprise.

So are the entire first two thirds or so of this A Star Is Born, which are, quite simply, spectacular. Watching Jackson and Ally meet and fall in love, as he nudges her into an overnight stardom that quickly overshadows his fading limelight, is enchanting to a truly unexpected degree. I mean, it’s not like we haven’t seen this story before — this specific story is being told for the fourth time here (some might even argue the fifth, as many felt the “original” A Star Is Born in 1937 ripped off the story of a film called What Price Hollywood from five years prior). Every remake thereafter has been a spectacular showcase for its female lead’s talents: Judy Garland in 1954; Streisand in 1976.

The thing about that 1976 version is . . . it sucked. Streisand’s singing was the only good thing about it. After the first film focused solely on movie stars and their acting careers, then the second turned it into a musical, the ‘76 version turned the characters into rock stars. Bradley Cooper’s A Star Is Born is everything Frank Pierson’s version should have been but just wasn’t.

Bradley Cooper is offering us something quite rare in 2018, a story with exceedingly broad appeal, a love story with great singing that wide swaths of audiences who otherwise often cannot agree with each other can get behind. And that singing! Lady Gaga has a set of pipes tailor made for this role. The first time you hear her sing, she’s doing so softly to herself, walking down an alleyway after getting off work, as the movie’s title comes onscreen. And I got chills. Oh and by the way? Bradley Cooper’s a shockingly good singer too. Sure, in vocal ability Lady Gaga’s way out of his league — but Cooper more than holds his own. It’s genuinely impressive.

As is his entire performance, which is sure to get an Oscar nomination, and his winning would be no tragedy. I must admit to some healthy skepticism that he could pull off both directing and performing in this movie — and I could find no faults on either front.

So how about the music itself, then? Honestly, if anything comes close to being disappointing, it’s the music — which is a sad irony. To be fair, the music is good. It’s just not great. There is no iconic power ballad like, say, The Bodyguard’s “I Will Always Love You.” Even Gaga’s number that predictably closes the film, while emotionally affecting, is almost curiously understated. Gaga’s stellar voice elevates every track on which she sings, but I struggle to imagine the soundtrack taking off in line with the inevitable popularity of the movie itself.

Another quibble: the final act sags a bit, the tragic arc of these two lovers’ respective rise and fall lacking the crackling chemistry of the beginning of their relationship. Ally’s pop stardom is meant to showcase a sort of vapidness that belies her true talent, but the lyrics featured in her “hit single” are so truly dumb it’s distracting. Sure, some artists might get a minor hit singing “Why’d you come around me with an ass like that?” — but a Grammy nomination? It’s painful to see a songwriter of Lady Gaga’s obvious caliber singing such drek, and strains suspension of disbelief.

But! 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? This movie is both progressive at its heart and uninterested in drawing attention to that fact, unencumbered by ego. Supporting roles by Sam Elliott as Jackson’s older brother, Andrew Dice Clay as Ally’s father, and Dave Chapelle as Jackson’s best friend are played without showiness or vanity.

This is the kind of story where you root for everyone, even though you know some won’t get their shit together. To a person, they’re still worth rooting for. Well, except maybe Ally’s manager (Rafi Gavron). He’s kind of a dick.

A Star Is Born in 2018 is a diamond in the rough, a gem of mainstream entertainment in a sea of superhero sewage. It would be impossible to be considered anything close to original, and among the many versions of this film that have existed over the past eight decades, there’s no way it could be considered the best of all of them. (That would indeed be the original 1937 film. Seek it out.) But, it is the best one for those of us living right now. This movie was made for us, and I left the theatre feeling gratitude for it.

Sing me something good . . .

Sing me something good . . .

Overall: A-

SCIENCE FAIR

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

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? Maybe I’ve just become a sap, but this film was such a joy to watch, it worked as an antidote to the exhausting defiance in the face of despair that fueled the making of Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 11/9.

That other film is plenty worthy in its own right, mind you. It even offers plenty of hope, showcasing individuals and organizations working to make positive change on the political landscape. The key difference here is those people are pushing back, against truly dark forces. Science Fair, by contrast, is like the thinking-man’s escapism, with a purity not found anywhere else — of youth, of intent, of research and data. Nothing here is corrupted in any way.

Okay, so there’s a young Muslim woman at a high school in South Dakota headed to the International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF), whose own science teachers have no interest in supporting her, who finds the unlikeliest of champions in the school’s football coach, of all people — and whose stunning scientific achievements on a national stage do not get the slightest official recognition by her school. This is of course, awful, and mentioned in passing, but guess what that kid is doing now? Attending school at Harvard. Fuck you, South Dakota!

This is one of very, very few negative details of any kid’s story showcased in Science Fair, and it barely gets notice. It’s far more important, and significant, that young Kashfia found a widely recognized practical application for her brilliance, and that she did so with the support of her Muslim parents raising her in a deep red state.

With 1700 students from around the world competing at ISEF, in this film presented in 2017 in Los Angeles, surely plenty of them aren’t the most telegenic, or the most charming, or the most articulate kids in the world — but Science Fair doesn’t bother with them. I always wonder about how much footage gets shot in films like these, how they choose to find the subjects they will follow around with cameras from rather early on in whatever tournament it is. In this case, although most of the kids do come from the U.S. — nine projects qualify for ISEF from one Long Island high school alone — there are also kids featured in several other countries doing extraordinary things. A young woman researching the cure for the Zika virus in the poor Brazilian region where it originated. A young German man who re-engineered the 100-year-old plane design and cut its fuel consumption by a third.

Even a lot of the American kids come from surprisingly rural areas, such as the kid from West Virginia who designed an AI program that generated rap lyrics modeled on the style of Kanye West (not to mention Kashfia, from South Dakota). One person in the film somewhat pointedly mentions that smart people come from rural areas too.

The common quality among all of them is how they give meaning to the phrase “best and brightest.” It’s awe-inspiring to look upon these kids, on average incredibly well behave and disciplined, because how else could they take part in a competition like this? They are, to a person, a joy to watch onscreen. In most cases they are outright adorable. One would be hard pressed to find anything else to offer so much hope for the future, with this mass of kids who will clearly be changing the world we live in tomorrow, in many cases literally revolutionizing the future. These kids have emotional investment in making the world a better place, a passion that is infectious. I honestly could not get enough of it.

Consider the countless kids who don’t win any of the top awards, or place at all (several of the kids the cameras follow, in fact, don’t win anything at ISEF). They are an entire community of world-changers. That would include plenty of the kids who competed in statewide and regional science fairs who didn’t even make it this far.

Co-directors Cristina Costantini and Darren Foster do take a brief moment to interject a clear agenda, there near the end of the film. At least two teachers interviewed lament how the United States is “becoming anti-science.” In the context of Science Fair in its entirety, though, that feels less like a statement of hard fact than of caution. They take care to note how many scientific breakthroughs made in America were made by people not American-born. But if these kids are the inventors of our future, at least for now, scientific breakthroughs will for some time come from immigrants thrilled to be here.

I suppose with any audience bothering to see this movie, it’s preaching to the choir. Except almost none of it is preaching, and even the choir can use a pep talk from time to time. The stories showcased here are overwhelmingly hopeful, and that’s precisely what we all need to be seeing. Science Fair is charming beyond measure, from its opening footage of 15-year-old Jack Andraka going nuts with excitement after winning the top prize at ISEF in 2012 (and being interviewed now as a 20-year-old with just as much rousing energy), to the closing montage of where these subjects went after the 2017 competition. A 14-year-old girl with stunning self-confidence working to prevent cancer by detecting arsenic levels in water supplies is just one thread of many, the tip of the iceberg. I left Science Fair having my well-worn cynicism cracked open, riding a wave of optimism, however cautious it may be.

Science as the feel-good movie of the year: enthusiasm for all the right things.

Science as the feel-good movie of the year: enthusiasm for all the right things.

Overall: A-