MONOS

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

Do a Google Image search of the word monos, and you’ll get mostly a bunch of pictures of monkeys. It is the Spanish word for monkey, after all. It is also apparently slang for “cute,” often applied to kids — the way English speakers might affectionately call children “little monkeys.” One could argue, then, that the Colombian film Monos has a title that translate not so much to “monkeys” as to “cute kids.” This is a clear irony, as the kids in question are all teenagers on some unnamed Latin American mountaintop, holding an American prisoner of war (Julianne Nicholson, the only American actor in the cast, previously seen as Tonya Harding’s skating coach in I, Tonya).

Director and co-writer Alejandro Landes here presents a movie highly stylized, not so much in affect but in editing and cinematography. To my eyes it has shades of Terrence Malick, all visuals at the expense of a fully fleshed-out story, and yet, what a feast for the eyes it is. In the opening shot, this group of teenagers on a lush green mountaintop higher than the clouds, are playing a game of soccer with blindfolds on. There is a palpable sense of camaraderie among them, these teenage kids bound to each other through circumstances, overt military training, and other mysterious means. We never learn anything of their parents, where they come from, how they came to this place or this circumstance in their lives.

Several other critics have likened Monos to Apocalypse Now, and honestly, I don’t quite see it. I actually rewatched Apocalypse Now not long ago, and was stunned by the scope of its production, particularly for a film made in 1979. It is a vast, mesmerizing account of characters traversing the landscape of the Vietnam conflict. That is a film with a very specific point of view, which comes across with real clarity. I’m not sure the same could be said of Monos, which is almost pointedly coy about its point. And although it’s certainly impressive that Monos apparently found remote regions of Latin America that had never before been captured on film for a motion picture, that alone does not mean it matches a film like Apocalypse Now in terms of scope.

Others have compared Monos to Lord of the Flies, and that comparison makes much more sense to me, and was the only other work I thought about while watching this film. This is less a story about the hell of war than it is a story of adolescents embracing circumstantial independence to the point of abandoning any sense of morality. This is something Landes presents particularly well, getting well over half the movie before depicting behaviors that are jarringly callous.

The kids in this story are not given regular names, only the nicknames they all give each other: Rambo, Bigfoot, Swede, Smurf, Dog, Lady, Wolf, Boom Boom. Even the lady prisoner is only ever referred to as “Doctora” by the aforementioned hardened teen soldiers. By and large, they give solid performances, with the notable exception of “The Messenger,” the curiously short yet incredibly buff man who is apparently a sort of ambassador between these kids and an unnamed army fighting in an unclarified conflict. He is played by Wilson Salazar with consistently wooden indifference, even when he’s shouting. He plays a key role, though, as he “loans” a milk cow to this crew of kids, and the cow’s accidental death due to reckless shooting of machine guns into the fog is what sets the majority of this story in motion.

The doctor prisoner makes multiple attempts at escape from the group, as does one of the kids in the group, in both cases resulting in plot detours that get into the fatal senselessness of armed conflict. The kids’ base on the mountaintop is attacked at one point by unnamed soldiers, and the kids make it away alive; this is how the setting of Monos moves from the mountaintop, for maybe half the story, to a thick jungle area along a river. In both cases the landscape is always stunning, making for reliably gorgeous settings for occasional horrors. There is a helicopter ride at the end over a massive city we can only assume is Bogotá, the fifth-largest megacity in South America.

I’m not really sure what Monos actually has to say, what its definitive point of view is, beyond perhaps the tragedy of ease in corruptibility, particularly of youth. Landes leaves out a lot of pertinent information, presumably with the intent of the viewer grappling with questions on their own. This approach sometimes works, and sometimes it doesn’t. Here, I guess, it sort of works. I was engaged in the film from start to finish, and found it intellectually stimulating in the moment. Aside from now well shot it is, however, I’m not sure it will stay with me for a particularly long time. That, if nothing else, certainly separates it from a class of movie like Apocalypse Now, or a class of literature like Lord of the Flies. This movie borrows ideas from both, yet lacks the precision of theme and clarity of either.

They all do bad things, even the doctor prisoner.

They all do bad things, even the doctor prisoner.

AD ASTRA

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

I kind of lost my patience with the pretensions Ad Astra from the very start. That very title, in Latin, translates in English to To the Stars. There is no reason to use the Latin title other than to put on airs that it’s a higher-minded movie than it really is.

And even before that title card appears, we are informed this is the “near future.” in a “time of hope and conflict.” In other words, the story begins by oversimplifying global complexities with overused science fiction buzz words and platitudes. What follows is set in a universe that features lived-in settlements and stations by multiple nations on both the moon and Mars. There is no universe in which such things are in the “near future,” unless we’re considering what will be decades away, at best, the “near future.”

Okay, so I’m nitpicking. It’s just a movie. Except it never feels like Ad Astra regards itself as “just a movie.” It is technically very well executed, beautifully shot, with universally convincing special effects which serve the story rather than the other way around. It’s all done, though, as a sort of meditative exercise, Brad Pitt as the astronaut Roy McBride on a classified mission to save the world from mysterious power surges wreaking havoc around the globe. His destination is an outpost at the edge of the solar system, where Roy’s revered astronaut father H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones) has long been thought to have died.

And in the end, Ad Astra is far more concerned with this father-son relationship than it is with any clarity regarding these “surges” being traced from that outpost. I spent a lot of time wanting more information about that, and the final cut of the film is even less forthcoming than the trailer was. The trailer features a clip not actually in the movie, of Liv Tyler as Eve, talking to Roy in a hospital bed, about “the surge” and how crazy things are everywhere. Director and co-writer James Gray (The Lost City of Z) can’t be bothered to give any tangible sense of that apparent chaos, save for a couple brief news clips detailing the tens of thousands dead as a result.

Instead, the focus stays exclusively on Roy, and his unique ability to remain calm in any and all situations, and the shock of discovering his father is thought to be alive after all. Ad Astra then becomes a relatively quiet account of his journey, making his way from Earth to the moon, then on to Mars, then on to the research outpost by Jupiter. Nearly every other character exists only on part of his journey, such as Donald Sutherland as his escort to the moon, or Ruth Negga as the woman who assists him on Mars. Even Tommy Lee Jones’s screen time is surprisingly limited in the end, with very little opportunity for much in the way of acting. Liv Tyler is particularly underused, almost to the point of being wasted, existing almost exclusively in fleeting moments on things like saved video clips Eve once sent to Roy on his missions.

Broadly speaking, Ad Astra has nothing new to say, and not a whole lot new to show us. It does have a couple of memorable action set pieces for a movie in which not much else actually happens, including a dangerous chase scene on the surface of the moon, and another fairly frightening sequence with escaped lab monkeys. In the end, though, this movie is short of substance.

Damn is it beautiful to look at, though. If you can appreciate such things as well-executed visual effects and cinematography on their own merits, then those things will make up for a lot. In other words, I can only imagine recommending this movie to others based on conditional criteria. That would include perhaps the most noteworthy aspect of the movie: Brad Pitt. As an actor, Pitt has never turned in a more affecting, nuanced performance, and an Academy Award nomination would be well deserved. It is a tragedy that his personal towering achievement should get lost in something otherwise so forgettable and thematically muddled.

Ad Astra is all over the place, in terms of quality. Some viewers may find some of it dull, but I did not — I was engaged from start to finish, albeit with several moments that encourage a bit of eye-rolling. I did not find this movie particularly believable on the science fiction side of it, none of which is necessary for a story about an abandoned son searching for his father. Unless, I suppose, the expanse of the solar system is needed as a metaphor for the emotional distance between them.

Hey did anybody see Stanley Kubrick walk through here?

Hey did anybody see Stanley Kubrick walk through here?

Overall: B

Advance: DOWNTON ABBEY

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

If you’ve never bothered with the original PBS series Downton Abbey that aired six seasons between 2011 and 2016, is there much to interest you in the 2019 motion picture Downton Abbey? Honestly, probably not. It’s difficult to imagine diving headfirst into this film without the context of the show’s history, although presumably it would still be amusing enough. It could not possibly, however, have the lasting power of films like Robert Altman’s self-contained Gosford Park, which was not beholden to any preexisting intellectual property.

Both films do star Maggie Smith, though, and when is she not a delight to see? Never! And if you might wonder then if you have bothered with the series, and loved it, is there any reason to see this movie, the best response to that might be . . . “duh.” The film, directed by series director Michael Engler and written by series creator and writer Julian Fellowes (who, incidentally, also wrote 2001’s Gosford Park), hardly stands as a towering cinematic achievement. What it does is offer fans a familiar and beloved world in which to wrap themselves once again, a blanket of cozy, idealized nostalgia.

The entire cast returns for the film, too numerous to name in full, no particular one a standout because they are uniformly lovely, each with their own distinct personalities. The one particularly notable addition to the cast is the wonderful Imelda Staunton, as Violet Crawley’s cousin returned for a sort of showdown regarding family inheritance. The slight surprise is that, as performers, there’s not a lot in the way of delicious tension between these two, or at least nothing that can compare to the continued “frenemy” dynamic between Lady Crawley and Penelope Wilton’s Isobel Merton. The other notable new character is Tuppence Middleton as Lucy, cousin Maud’s maid, and she is . . . fine.

So what of the plot, then? The trailer made it abundantly clear that this return to the Crawley’s world centers around an overnight visit by England’s King and Queen in 1927, but otherwise it’s basically the same wonderful, upper-crust soap opera Downton Abbey always was. There is an amusing, if somewhat corny, subplot regarding a rivalry between Downton’s servant staff and the snobby royal staff insisting they’ll be taking over completely for the duration of their stay. And there are the requisite indicators of a changing world, such as the sudden but brief discovery by Thomas Barrow (Robert James-Collier) of an underground gay club.

There are numerous other subplots involving plenty of characters both upstairs and downstairs, some of which work better than others, and some that feel only slightly shoehorned into the film’s efficiently packed 122-minute run time. The tidy resolution of pretty much all of them by the end of the film makes it feel a lot like an extended episode of TV you just happen to be watching in a movie theatre, but who cares?

At least the producers of the movie are given the chance to show off with a budget far higher than they were ever afforded for television, although cinematographer Ben Smithard is a tad enamored with his crane shots and drone shots, particularly of the exterior of the castle. In other words, Downtown Abbey the film is basically precisely more of the very same as the TV show that preceded it, just slightly more grand. It will be a predictable delight to those who already love it, and perhaps pleasantly bemuse those who don’t.

Pointed cattiness disguised in polite society is exactly what you came for, isn’t it?

Pointed cattiness disguised in polite society is exactly what you came for, isn’t it?

Overall: B

ONE CHILD NATION

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

Watching the documentary One Child Nation is a jarring experience, one that begs the question of why there is not more discussion about the horrific human rights violations in China. If you thought you had some sense of the horrors perpetrated by their 35-year “One Child Policy,” you don’t know the half of it. We really do just pick and choose which nations of the world to criticize, based on the pet cause of the moment.

The bizarre thing is, countless Chinese citizens have been so indoctrinated by decades of Communist state propaganda that they openly support the policy, even now, even in the face of their very own neighbors having their homes destroyed by the government for the “violation” of having more than one child. The unsettling thing, which is not very much explored in this film, is the clear efficacy of the policy’s goals. One of the many oft-repeated propaganda lines was that China was “going to war against overpopulation,” and one thing this policy absolutely did do was stabilize population growth which, in the 1980s, promised to ruin the nation of China if left unchecked. Now India, the world’s largest — read: most overpopulated — democracy, is on track to overtake China in population in less than a decade. And India has far less land area.

I don’t pretend to have answers, and neither does this film’s codirector, Nanfu Wang, a thirtysomething mother of one who grew up in China embarrassed to be one of the few children around with a sibling and who now lives in the U.S. There are smarter people out there who might have answers, contextualized with the one overbearing plight that the Chinese use to justify these horrors, which is objectively a horror itself: overpopulation. But surely there are more humane answers than what was historically the Chinese government’s approach.

Here we get into things which, if One Child Nation were aired on broadcast television, would absolutely necessitate a viewer discretion warning. We’re talking about forced sterilizations, forced abortions. Women abducted and forced to get abortions on fetuses at eight and nine months, nearly to term. There are no stories in this film of children being killed once they’re born, but there are stories of so-called “Family Planners” taking part in the abduction of these children whose existence violates the policy, taken to sham “orphanages,” and then adopted out to parents overseas who think the children have no parents. In one such case given special attention here, a teenage girl discovers she has an identical twin living in the U.S.

Nanfu Wang smartly notes that the Chinese forced abortions and the U.S. restriction of abortions are two sides of the same coin: a government denying women their body autonomy. Until Wang brought this up, I wondered how American “pro-life” conservatives might try to twist the message of this film.

And that brings us to perhaps the biggest blind spot of One Child Nation, which certainly examines the cultural favoring of boys in China but does not quite properly contextualize it. Whether it’s China’s forced abortions or America’s forced births, it’s all about the subjugation of women. Is it any surprise that there is not one mention in this film of men being forced to get vasectomies? Instead, we get stories of how many babies die in abandoned sacks in meat markets because a family’s one chance at a baby had the terrible fate of being a girl. Wang interviews members of her own family who openly admit to doing this themselves, including an uncle who is clearly remorseful but explains himself by saying his mother threatened to kill the baby and then herself if he refused to abandon it.

So you can imagine how fucked up the One Child Policy is, if not necessarily as a broad idea, but certainly in execution. This is a nation with so many aborted fetuses that it’s not difficult to find their carcasses in sacks labeled “medical waste” drifting among the garbage in polluted rivers. It’s entirely possible some kind of government program could be implemented that stabilizes population growth in a humane way. It is clearly not possible in a society so deeply misogynistic.

So where does that leave us? Wang’s film offers no insight into how else to address what far too people are talking about right now, which is how really to address population control, the single true cause of global warning and the increasing effects of catastrophic climate change. I don’t expect Wang to have the answers, but given the issues at hand, she should at least acknowledge that they are still issues commanding attention.

There is a slight amount of attention given to the official end of the One Child Policy implemented in China as of 2015, when the realization that not enough young people are around anymore to care of the elderly prompted them to change the policy to two children. But what about families that attempt three children? Or whose first two children are girls? Is there any reason to believe the Chinese government is any less brutal about it now?

Wang, and her co-director Jialing Zhang, make One Child Nation a very direct and personal take on the policy, and that is understandable, especially given Wang’s unusual position growing up as a child with a younger brother — who was only possible under the policy due to their having lived in a rural area, and her parents were forced to wait five years to get a second child. Such details only seem like leniency on the surface, and Wang gets deep into details that will surely be incredibly difficult for many viewers to endure. She’s so focused she doesn’t seem to pay much attention to, say, when she’s inadvertently recording herself and her camera in mirrors.

The makers of this movie are surely to be commended, and these are things the world should know, even if they are so tough to process it’s impossible to imagine it ever finding a particularly large audience. And even if this film can’t show how best to deal with overpopulation, it certainly offers clear lessons on how not to.

A single family stands in for a billion people under authoritarian control.

A single family stands in for a billion people under authoritarian control.

MIKE WALLACE IS HERE

Directing: B
Cinematography: B-
Editing: B+

Mike Wallace was a television newsmagazine journalist who died in 2012, when he was just shy of 94 years old. I am now 43, and I barely recognized his name before seeing Avi Belkin’s cleverly edited but relatively shallow documentary, Mike Wallace Is Here. He was a huge part of the long running success of the pioneering TV show 60 Minutes, and this film identifies the show itself being at “the height of its power” in the early eighties — when I was about five.

I’m not sure this film will find much of an audience that is not made up of people who are themselves on their last legs. I mean, sure, I went to see it, and last time I checked, I was doing okay. But I’m a film obsessive, interested in a movie like Mike Wallace Is Here because of cinematic context more than its subject. It’s a movie that gets me interested in someone I know little about, rather than a subject that gets me to go to a movie.

And I went into this film expecting a lot of hand wringing about the degradation of journalistic integrity in America, propping up an old-school journalist meant to be an example of the “greatness that once was.” Instead, Belkin largely contextualizes Mike Wallace as a man so relentless in interviewing style that he ushered in the era of relentlessly sensationalist television news.

Belkin makes a memorable choice as the opening clip for his documentary, with Mike Wallace, very late in his career, interviewing Bill O’Reilly. After presenting O’Reilly with several clips of O’Reilly on his own show shouting at guests like a lunatic, Wallace challenges O’Reilly’s self-perception as a journalist, and says, “You’re an opinion columnist.” O’Reilly counters that anyone who doesn’t like his style and persona can blame Mike Wallace. It turns out that, in this particular instance at least, O’Reilly makes a compelling argument.

In truth, Mike Wallace in hindsight exists in more of a gray area, a bridge between an era of journalism with strict rules of so-called “objectivity” — and, some would argue, merely the illusion of a lack of bias — and the current era plagued with monetizing acts of editorializing. What Belkin wants this film’s viewers to conclude about Mike Wallace is a little unclear, but I was struck by the many clips of pundits lamenting the public’s eroding trust in the press and the media. It’s tempting just to think, people have been saying that shit for decades.

The truth is out there, you just have to learn how to find it and the skill to identify trustworthy sources. It’s the process that changes with each era, and it could be argued that Mike Wallace was part of one major shift in that process. Judging by Mike Wallace Is Here on its own, Wallace could be counter-productively abrasive (one person interviewing him asks why he’s “such a prick”), but had a single-minded obsession with getting to the truth about people. It would seem he had no interest in FOX News-style misinformation and manipulation of his viewers, and that’s not nothing. He was just . . . kind of an asshole.

And therein lies the blind spot of Mike Wallace Is Here, which is undeniably entertaining to watch, but never reaches very deep into Wallace’s psyche. There is a short bit about his struggle with depression, and the revelation that, after denying it in several interviews with other TV journalists, he finally admitted he once committed suicide. But, this film is comprised entirely of archival interviews, both of Wallace interviewing others and of several people interviewing him, edited together to create a broad picture of the man and particularly his work and how it affected the evolution of news media. With no contemporary interviews with anyone to offer any insights about the man without him there in the room with them, it all ends with the feeling that none of it quite got to who he was personally. That’s what I would be more interested in.

In effect, Mike Wallace Is Here is not so much about a man as it is about journalism — or, at least, it wants to be. It struggles to achieve that goal as a 90-minute succession of creatively edited sound bites. This film is not without insight, and it is often illuminating to see how Mike Wallace worked, how he influenced the television news industry, and what kinds of insecurities he had. Having no insights to offer from any present-day perspectives, however, keeps the man at a remove, giving the whole film a broad sense of detachment from this man we’re supposed to be getting to know. At least he commands attention as a screen presence, thus insuring there is never a dull moment.

The one thing Wallace doesn’t get to the bottom of is himself.

The one thing Wallace doesn’t get to the bottom of is himself.

Overall: B

ONCE UPON A TIME ... IN HOLLYWOOD

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

People who have already seen Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood keep talking about “all the think pieces” that will inevitably follow. Does that mean this has to be a “think piece”?

That depends on how you look at it, I suppose. I mean, I do have questions. For instance, do we really need to see Brad Pitt bashing a young woman’s face against a mantelpiece so many times? 25 years into his career, is there a point at which we tire of his long-evident obsession with ultraviolence? Does it really make much difference that the women beaten to a pulp in this movie are murderous “Manson Family” members?

Ironically, well into the second half of this film, I found myself marveling at the apparently total lack of violence in it. It really seemed to be only about a fading movie star, Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his best friend / stunt double, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), struggling with the waning of their careers in golden-age, 1969 Hollywood, and both Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and a bunch of the Manson Family (including . . . wait, is that Lena Dunham??) intersecting with their lives in increasingly creepy ways.

But fear not! Or have some appropriate fear, depending on your point of view. This movie, after spanning the length of a standard full-length film (Tarantino films are never short), takes a turn. It seems relatively mild at first, when Cliff Booth beats up a “hippie” who has slashed his car’s tire. Up to this point, Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood seems mostly just to be a remarkably slavish ode to Old Hollywood.

And I mean “remarkably” even by Tarantino standards. His films have always been in one way or another an ode to a certain type of cinema he loved growing up, usually quite pointedly focused on genre. In this one, the set designs are a sight to behold. This is a guy who always had an unparalleled attention to detail, but it is particularly focused here, given how many scenes are on meticulously recreated late-sixties television and movie sets.

That said, this is a movie made for cinephiles. Tarantino loyalists are likely to be pleased as well — they certainly won’t give a shit about its so-called “think piece” potential. (That’s not necessarily a compliment.) This film also engages in a sort of revisionist history quite similar to that in Inglourious Basterds (2009), which offers a level of intrigue all its own to certain audiences.

But the casual moviegoer? Even the casual movie fan? I’m not sure the rest of the world will have as much patience for this. Tarantino’s last film, The Hateful Eight (2015) clocked in at a labored three hours and seven minutes, and then became his third-least successful movie — quite the come-down after Django Unchained (2012), his second-most successful movie (after Pulp Fiction). Shooting scenes in many fantastic overhead crane shots will not, for many, much make up for how very, very long Tarantino consistently keeps each of his scenes going with hardly anything happening in them. As ever, the man is almost defiantly self-indulgent in his film making.

The thing is, a strong argument could be made for it all being justified. Dubious storytelling choices notwithstanding, Quentin Tarantino now sits comfortably in the position of American director with a body of work that cannot be denied or ignored, a man far more influential than most, who literally changed film making even in the context of cinematic homage. His entire filmography will therefore be scrutinized for decades to come, right alongside Stanley Kubrick or Orson Welles. I don’t know that anyone will ever in their right mind claim Tarantino to be in the same class as such directors, but he certainly rivals them in cultural impact. And that meas, inevitably, Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood is a part of that.

And plenty of it presents itself as such. There is no question that this is the work of a seasoned, assured, masterful director. I’m less inclined to use such descriptors for him as a writer. And, yes, even aside from the shocking sequence of violence near the end, there are really no female characters to be found with any strength or depth — not even Sharon Tate, who barely even has any lines. I’m not sure the film should be judged for that alone, though; there is clear intention to how every character is used, even the minor ones, which include Emile Hirsch as Sharon Tate’s husband; Al Pacino as a bespectacled Hollywood agent; and Bruce Dern as an old man being used by the Manson family. Sharon Tate herself is presented as a hopeful, perhaps naive, young woman with a promising acting career ahead of her, albeit with the retrospect complications of being married to Roman Polanski (uh oh, more “think piece-iness”!). Here fate here only reveals it to be surprising as soon as you think again about it. There’s a stealth quality to how Tarantino uses her, which perhaps many who complain about the under-use of female characters are missing.

And I am not inherently anti- any story that focuses on male characters, incidentally. The issue at hand is simply getting more female stories told, as told by women. That just isn’t this particular movie, which is about two incredibly close (but never homoerotic! — unless you want to stretch and count that “carry his load” line) best friends. I simply also admit to being uncomfortable with the time and energy put into how two would-be murderesses get beaten and torn to a bloody pulp — because it goes far past the point of serving the story. And if there is anyone interested in overkill, it is Quentin Tarantino.

There’s a lot of greatness to this movie, from the production design to the lead performances, which make it well worth seeing for many different people for varying reasons. If there is anything to Tarantino’s later work that distinguishes it from his early output, however, it is that his early stuff was eminently re-watchable. These days, his movies still impress in many ways, leave you feeling like they were worth seeing, but that there is little reason ever to see them again, at least outside of an academic film workshop.

I mean . . . at least Brad Pitt is still the hottest 55-year-old around.

I mean . . . at least Brad Pitt is still the hottest 55-year-old around.

Overall: B

SIFF Advance: TROOP ZERO

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

There’s a pretty strong, old-school “independent movie” vibe to Troop Zero, a light and breezy tale of a young girl in rural late-seventies Georgia getting together a ragtag group of local girls (and one effeminate boy) to form a “Birdie Scouts” troop with the intent of winning a jamboree prize of getting her voice recorded on a record set to be sent to space. The script is both unique and strong, as written by Lucy Alibar (Beasts of the Southern Wild), but the direction, by a female duo called “Bert & Bertie” (which makes me think of avian muppets), much of the time has the feeling of unfinished business. It’s as though there perhaps wasn’t enough time or budget (or both) for a proper amount of rehearsal or number of takes.

To be fair, filming with children is tricky, and Troop Zero features a lot of them, pretty much all of them with the vibe of real kids rather than professional actors. And how easy is it to find that sweet spot between kids who feel genuine onscreen and kids who come across as creepily precocious? Given a choice between the two, I’d take the former; at the very least, there’s nothing odd or unsettling about any of these kids.

Still, I found myself thinking as I watched this movie, what kind of theatrical release this might get. There are far more polished films than this one which these days are better marketed as releases straight to streaming platforms, which seems like perhaps the most appropriate avenue for Troop Zero . Who knows how big an audience it would get there, compared to in movie theatres?

That said, Troop Zero has more than its fair share of genuine charms, not least of which are its opening and closing sequences, with special effects impressively rendered for what was clearly a small budget. The opening credits follow a meteor hurtling towards the Earth, until we zoom in on little Christmas Flint (Mckenna Grace), sitting in a chair under the stars, watching a meteor shower, reminiscing about how her late mother encouraged her interest in making contact with alien life. Christmas is immediately established as a girl with an exceeding interest in science, and what’s not to love about that?

The adult actors rounding out the supporting cast include some pretty big names, not least of which is Viola Davis (who gets top billing, actually) as Rayleen, who works as secretary to Christmas’s downtrodden defense laywer dad (Jim Gaffigan, sporting a truly horrible blond wig). Aside from the many local school bullies, Christmas’s pseudo-nemesis turns out to be Principal Massey, played by Allison Janney.

“Troop Zero” is the number given to the Birdie Scout troop formed by Christmas, because all the other numbers are taken — an attempt at a slight joke at the expense of the misfit kids, I suppose, although it makes little logical sense: apparently the numbers can only go up to thirty? Rayleen gets roped into being their “Troop Mother,” and by extension a much needed mother figure to Christmas.

It feels a little like the more famous actors involved are present as a means of lending attention this movie might not otherwise get. And in more experienced directorial hands, the final product might have been delivered with a bit more finesse. Still, I have to admit that by the end of this movie, it had completely won me over, and I was even misty-eyed by its delightful climax at the jamboree talent show. The story strands all get tied together with a neat bow with a nice emotional payoff, and with a movie like this, you can’t ask for much more than that.

A bit of star power is lent to the proceedings.

A bit of star power is lent to the proceedings.

Overall: B

SIFF Advane: ENORMOUS: THE GORGE STORY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Overall: B

JOHN WICK CHAPTER 3: PARABELLUM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Overall: B

POKÉMON DETECTIVE PIKACHU

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Overall: B