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-

WE THE ANIMALS

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

It makes me sad knowing how few people will see We the Animals -- and how many fewer still will see it in a movie theatre. This is a rare thing, where it's not a big blockbuster or a huge Oscar-baiting prestige picture, but an independent release that still begs viewing on the big screen.

I try to imagine someone getting absorbed into this movie on a small screen, in someone's home, where a litany of distractions will pull the viewer out of its impeccably constructed world. First and foremost I must mention cinematographer Zak Mulligan, making unusually justified use of handheld cameras, and co-editors Keiko Deguchi and Brian A. Kates, together constructing a story that doesn't quite gel into a unified whole until a singular, heartbreaking moment near the end. But, I guess director and co-writer Jeremiah Zagar (adapting from the novel by Justin Torres) is still the boss of them all. This is his movie, and it is a singular vision.

I must admit, We the Animals hits unusually close to home for me. My upbringing was really nothing like this, but I did have an accidental revelation of my sexuality far sooner than I was ready for, very similar in nature to what happens to the youngest of the three brothers who are the focus of this story. I only wish I could have had a fraction of the defiance this kid ultimately has in the face of it.

Then again, 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 did find myself wondering what could possibly become of ten-year-old Jonah (Evan Rosado), given his choices in the end. It left me feeling unsure of how to feel about his potential fate.

The same could be said of his brothers, all very close in age, although Manny is the youngest: there's also Joel (Josiah Gabriel) and Manny (Isaiah Kristian). They are such a tight-nit group of brothers that, to be honest, it's quite a ways into the movie before any particularly distinguishing characteristics come to light. They even all look alike, with identical haircuts. I'm not sure Joel and Jonah ever quite become more than interchangeable.

It seems for a very long time as though this is their story, a long succession of visual vignettes of their childhood, growing up poor with two parents who both work nights, a white woman (Sheila Vand) and a Puerto Rican man (Raúl Castillo). Nearly every scene is inside their home, or in the surrounding woods and streets. There's never even any indication that these kids go to school. When marital disturbance results in Dad leaving for some time, Mom descends into a depression for days, and the kids are left to fend for themselves.

Jonah has a sketch book he keeps hidden under the bed he shares with his brothers. He gets up every night after they have fallen asleep, and creates wonderful scribbled humanoid and insect-like images, which are consistently animated with an affecting melancholy throughout We the Animals. There's more than initially indicated inside this sketch book, something which draws a line in more ways than one. It is the catalyst for Jonah's relationship with everyone in his family being forever changed.

A whole lot of We the Animals unfolds in a semi-dreamlike state, fractured snippets of scenes like those recalled in inevitably fractured memories. The way it all gets tied together is its greatest achievement. It seems, for a long while, to be simply a portrait of a brief period of time in three people's childhoods. But there is a clear story arc through it all, no frame of it wasted on the way there, just waiting to be revealed.

That is why it works best in a movie theatre, an environment designed to get lost in the world being constructed and presented. It's a unique experience that can't be replicated anywhere else.

Subtle implications of fatherhood role modeling come and go in  We the Animals.

Subtle implications of fatherhood role modeling come and go in We the Animals.

Overall: A-

SIFF Advance: WON'T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR?

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

A good portion of the audience for Won't You Be My Neighbor? is trading on nostalgia -- a look back at a beloved public television show from their childhood. It's a little different with me: I never watched Mister Rogers' Neighborhood as a child, and only knew about it as a snotty teenager who was obliged to look at it as this dorky, dumb TV show that was well past its prime.

I'm a lot older now, and feel a bit sad for that former teenage self, who was totally ignorant of what kind of impact Fred Rogers had on the lives of countless young children. This was a guy who was at once conservative and radical, genuinely reserved as well as extraordinarily open-hearted. This documentary, assuredly directed by Morgan Neville and expertly edited by Jeff Malmberg and Aaron Wickenden, captures all these elements of the man as well as anyone could hope for.

You know that meme we keep seeing on Facebook after all these national tragedies that now happen all too often? The one quoting Fred Rogers saying, "My mother would say to me, 'Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.'" He really did say that. It was originally in a newspaper column rather than on his program, granted. But Won't You Be My Neighbor? also features audio of him talking about it.

Here was a man who taught the value of optimism in an uncertain world, who embodied moral certainty in times both bright and dark. He tackled surprisingly heavy topics within the very first week of his local public access show in Pittsburgh in 1968. By the eighties, his show tackled serious topics as a theme -- such as death -- for entire weeks.

Any time a profile like this comes along, of a public figure who so moved so many people in their youth, it begs the question: who in the world is in the public eye right now, who will be similarly revered twenty to fifty years from now? Who in today's world will find them approached by admirers in their twilight years, thanking them for the assurances they felt back in the twenty-tens? Can you think of anyone?

The thing is, Fred Rogers was an anomaly in his own time. Director Morgan Neville says Rogers reportedly stated any movie about his life would be incredibly boring. Neville begs to differ, but he still makes a wise choice by turning Won't You Be My Neighbor? less a straightforward biography of a man, and more "a movie about his ideas." And they are powerful, potent ideas, indeed. This is a man who offered kind words of comfort from his show's beginnings during the Vietnam War, clear until he was making post-9/11 PSAs.

Then again, nobody's perfect, I suppose: François Scarborough Clemmons, who played Officer Clemmons on the show, talks both about what a statement it was for Rogers to have a black man on his show, and about how when Rogers caught wind of Clemmons being seen at a local gay bar, he told Clemmons he could never go back there. As always, depending on the circumstances, you have to pick your battles. According to Clemmons, Rogers eventually came around, and accepted him exactly as he was -- something he had been saying directly to children on television for years.

In any case, even Fred Rogers had his weaknesses, and although it doesn't reveal a great many of them, they are acknowledged by this movie. The most important thing to learn from this portrait, however, is how pure of heart and generous the man really was: the question is posed whether he was the same in everyday life as he was on the show. (You can guess the answer.) Rogers was a man who led by example, a model of tolerance for alternate ways of thinking. He had compassion to spare, especially for children -- so much so that, unless you're soulless and dead inside, you're going to need tissues handy when watching this movie. I got teary several times.

Others featured talking about the man with predictable fondness include musician and show guest Yo-Yo Ma; former crew members on the show, including David Newell, who worked behind the scenes at first and wound up with a regular part as Mr. McFeely; and Fred's widow, Joanne Rogers, to name just a few out of many. They all have deep love and respect for the man, which Won't You Be My Neighbor? makes clear was well earned.

A model neighbor.

A model neighbor.

Overall: A-

Opens locally in Seattle Friday, June 15.

SIFF Advance: THREE IDENTICAL STRANGERS

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

When Three Identical Strangers begins, a present-day version of one of the film's three primary subjects tells the tale of arriving in college, only to be bewildered as countless people on campus believe they recognize him, but call him by someone else's name. In short order, Eddie discovered he had an identical twin neither he nor his adoptive parents ever knew about, named Bobby. They wind up with their picture in the paper, which leads them to . . . you guessed it! A third identical brother named David.

And that's just the tip of the iceberg in this, one of the most astonishing documentaries I have ever seen. "The truth is stranger than fiction," indeed. Except, to be fair, whether it's true or not, how a story is told is the key to whether it's a good one. Director Tim Wardle clearly knows how to tell a story.

Granted, there are a few moments in Three Identical Strangers that are transparently staged, and I don't just mean the re-enactments -- which, as far as typical documentary re-enactments go, are done quite well. And these are details that someone like me, who sees far more movies than most people and am thus tune into certain elements that most won't care about, is more apt to notice. I'm not sure what need there is for us to see a few seconds of an interview subject staring pensively out her living room window, but given the overall impact of this film, it hardly matters. You can only fill the screen with so many talking heads. Then again, if what they're talking about is compelling enough, these little flourishes of dressing aren't needed.

How provocative and layered the whole story of this set of biological triplets is, cannot be understated. Without ever being explicit about it or spoon-feeding the viewer with overt conceptual ideas, it has a whole lot to say about adoption, the influence of class, and perhaps most importantly, scientific ethics. I'm not sure Wardle even intended this, but it occurred to me to wonder at one point if we as the audience were inadvertently continuing participation in the very scientific study the people in this film decried.

I'm already bordering on spoiler territory with that, and to a particularly unusual degree for the documentary genre, the less you know about where the story is going, the better. The details of triplets accidentally discovering each other at the age of nineteen is astonishing enough, and that's truly not even the half of it. There are twists you won't possibly see coming.

I will say that Three Identical Strangers starts off very light and fun, all about the twins' delight in discovering each other, and the details of their adoption backstory get progressively dark and sinister from there. This is not just fun from beginning to end, and it eventually moves into tragedy and some very justifiable anger. But also, questions of morality and ethics, and whether or not some of the details exist in a gray area. The subjects have a clear idea in their mind as far as that goes. But are they right?

This may be the best thing about the film itself. Although it gets slightly oversimplified with its pondering of the question of nature vs. nurture, it allows for consideration of all sorts of other complicated issues, without bringing them up directly. There's a very superficial way this film can be consumed; it could also be the subject of academic study -- both the story it presents as well as how the film presents it. There's so much to mine here, it's hard to know where to begin.

So, I'll leave the rest up to you. If nothing else, Three Identical Strangers is essential viewing.

Eddie, Bobby and Dave. I mean, Bobby, Eddie and Dave. Dave, Eddie and Bobby?

Eddie, Bobby and Dave. I mean, Bobby, Eddie and Dave. Dave, Eddie and Bobby?

Overall: A-