READY OR NOT

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

An unsuspecting bride discovers on her wedding night that her husband’s family initiates her by playing a deadly came of . . . hide and seek. Sounds unbearably corny, right?

Don’t judge a movie by its dumb concept, man! Or its hokey title, for that matter. True, usually a movie like this is quite predictably a waste of time. But Ready or Not has a sly undercurrent of self-awareness, never takes itself too seriously, and while it might be a stretch to call it “clever,” it is consistently funny, largely thanks to its great ensemble cast of mostly unknown actors. The most recognizable player is Andie MacDowell as the groom’s mother, and she immediately proves delightful.

All of these judgments are largely subjective, of course, and this movie absolutely won’t be or everyone. Some viewers will still dismiss it as stupid; others will be unable to stomach its gruesome humor. It’s hardly a surprise the reviews are somewhat mixed, albeit leaning toward favorable. As far as I’m concerned, co-directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett have created a work of such specifically dark humor, fundamentally, this movie is my jam. But I find a lot of seriously twisted shit funny.

Ready or Not is unique in its consistency of quality. The script, by Guy Busick and Ryan Murphy (not the TV producer), relies a bit too much on exposition at times, but most people open to a movie like this to begin with isn’t going to care much. Suffice it to say that if you have a bent sense of humor, this movie is a guaranteed good time. I laughed a lot.

And the plotting is impressive, considering it’s about a rich family attempting to kill a woman just married into it, as part of a traditional ritual involving a common child’s game. It’s 95 minutes of not knowing what’s coming next, a surprisingly unpredictable maze of menace, tension and hilariously lethal accidents. The variable tone never stretches too far; one minute I was looking at the screen through my fingers, and the next I was cracking up. Either way it’s a blast.

There is an element of satire regarding the filthy rich, which this movie could have benefited from leaning into a bit more, or perhaps the notion of the bride, Grace (Samara Weaving), becoming the type of person she’s running from. It’s somewhat ironic how this movie “keeps it light,” given how much bloodshed there is in it. I guess the work of considering how fucked up it is to delight in the demented is left to ponder once the movie is over. You might be a bit distracted by how over the top it gets at the very end.\

Ready or Not is not designed to be anything but fun — and the knowledge that some people might be horrified or disgusted by its playfulness with things like Satanic ritual is a big part of the appeal. I kept thinking about how much more fun this movie would be going into it blind, not having any idea what it’s about. It begins with what seems like a lovely wedding at a stately mansion. I’d love to find friends to introduce to this movie in such a way. Who doesn’t love being blindsided by the delightfully deranged?

You won’t believe what’s coming.

You won’t believe what’s coming.

Overall: B+

ISLE OF DOGS

Directing: B+
Acting: B
Writing: A-
Cinematography: A-
Editing: B+
Animation: A-
Production Design
: A-

Isle of Dogs is only Wes Anderson's second foray into stop-motion animation, but he turns out to be uniquely suited to the form. Plenty of his live-action films seem like they might as well be animated, with their static shots of stunningly detailed, colorful tableaus. This gives a strangely static tone to many of his films, as though the characters live in a world just off from the real one.

That's not so much of an issue with animation, as was the case with Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009). What makes Isle of Dogs the superior of the two films is a sentimentality that's missing from many of Anderson's other films. Rather than being witty and clever just for its own sake, this film gets to the heart of the bond between people and their pets. And rather than being multiple species who all wear clothes, these are dogs who actually act more like dogs than people -- sure, they talk, but it's still more realistic and thus more relatable.

The plot is surprisingly complex, set in Japan twenty years in the future, a corrupt mayor declaring all the dogs in the city of Megasaki infected by a canine virus a public menace and exiling them on the island of the title. The first of these dogs is one named Spots, his master being the mayor's distant nephew, Atari (Koyu Rankin), whose parents died in a terrible bullet train accident. Months after all the dogs have been exiled, Atari flies a small plane to the island in search of Spots, and a group of dirty alpha dogs helps him search for him.

To be honest, fun as it looked, the trailer for Isle of Dogs gave me slight pause. The voice cast features a couple dozen famous talents, most of them American. How was Wes Anderson going to handle this, having the story set in Japan? This seemed potentially problematic. In the end, he comes up with some clever devices, while retaining several Japanese actors actually delivering lines in their own native language -- in fact, Atari has many lines, and Koyu Rankin delivers nearly all of them in Japanese.

Many of the Japanese lines are delivered neither with subtitles or translations; no such efforts are made when it makes no difference to understanding the story. That said, very occasionally, subtitles are used. Most of the many television news reports featured are handled by a character who is herself an interpreter, played by Frances McDormand. So what of audiences who actually speak Japanese, then? This film is clearly made for American audiences first and foremost, which alone makes the use of Japan as basically a complex prop itself problematic, but as someone fluent only in English, I cannot speak for such people. You might do well to read this Vulture piece featuring the perspectives of several Japanese speakers, a fascinating read indeed, on the whole pretty positive in response to the movie but also offering many totally fair criticisms.

Really, Isle of Dogs could just have easily been set in any American city in the future, without using Japanese language and styles as a gimmick -- or perhaps it even still could, if set largely in a given city's International District, using, say, the bilingual child of Japanese immigrants. I mean, I quite enjoyed it all, to be honest. But it must be acknowledged that I speak from the perspective of a white guy with limited understanding of Japanese culture.

Now, dogs -- that's a different story, even though -- confession time! -- I am much more of a cat person, and would be delighted by a film of this sort featuring cats as the main characters. As it happens, cats do feature in this story, just none of them being given any lines. They don't talk. They are just grumpy looking props for all the villainous city leaders attempting to eradicate all dogs. To be fair, even as props the cats are put to good use and are nearly always amusing in their own right.

But the essence of Isle of Dogs gets down to my favorite exchange of dialogue in the movie: Nutmeg (Scarlett Johansson) asks Chief (Bryan Cranston), "Will you help him then, the little pilot?" When Chief responds, "Why should I?", Nutmeg replies, "Because he's a twelve-year-old boy. Dogs love those." All the dogs speak English, by the way; the opening titles offer the explanation that "all barks" are translated. In any case, it's this kind of sentiment that informs the story, and makes it likely that any dog-loving twelve-year-old would likely love this movie. Ironically, the film is rated PG-13 due mostly to some surprisingly graphic elements, such as the somewhat striking scene depicting a complete human liver transplant. (It makes sense when you watch the movie.)

Honestly, if there's any element of Isle of Dogs not deserving of praise, it's the persistently stoic delivery of the voice acting, typical of all Wes Anderson movies. Actor performances are never his strong suit, even with such an incredible roster of voice talent, here including Edward Norton, Bob Balaban, Bill Murray and Jeff Goldblum as the rest of the alpha dogs; Liev Schreiber as Spots; Harvey Keitel as Gondo, the leader of dogs from the island's pre-existing animal testing facility knocked out by natural disasters; F. Murray Abraham as Jupiter, the island's most-respected elder statesman dog; Tilda Swinton as Oracle, Jupiter's prophetic sidekick (the subject of a great running gag); Yoko Ono as one of the city's assistant scientists; Ken Watanabe as the Head Surgeon; and Greta Gerwig as the arguably unnecessary foreign exchange student who is American and therefore provides a lot of context via her lines delivered in English. It's fun to recognize all these people's voices, for sure (and especially the "Y" and the "O" tied around the assistant scientist's braids), but to a person, the delivery is the same: nearly always soft-spoken; almost monotone; just short of wooden. Possibly the one exception is Jeff Goldblum, who is incapable of speaking in anything but his specific Goldblum voice.

It's the animation that gives them all personality, and this movie's incredible animation must be acknowledged. This part is indeed on the same level as Fantastic Mr. Fox, with an attention to detail that is truly a sight to behold, itself reason alone to see the film, particularly on the big screen. Combined with cinematography made all the more impressive when it's stop-motion, production design on the level of excellence all Wes Anderson films are known for, and the nearly universal relatability of kids who love their dogs unconditionally, Ilse of Dogs (say that out loud) transcends all the reasons it gives to nitpick. Most people watching aren't going to bother with the nitpicking, and will easily surrender to its ample charms.

Atari and the alpha dogs in search of Spots.

Atari and the alpha dogs in search of Spots.

Overall: B+

THOROUGHBREDS

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

I love a good one-word title. And then the conceit of Chekhov's Gun: If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Plenty of educated people might find it hacky for me to bring this up at the very beginning of a review, but I guarantee you plenty of my readers have never heard of Chekhov's Gun, so work with me here.

Thoroughbreds gets right to this concept, and as a result I thought of it in a way I'm not sure I ever have while watching another film. The opening shot is of a horse -- this movie is not about horses, but they feature prominently in the story -- with a teenage girl we later learn to be Amanda (Me and Earl and the Dying Girl's Olivia Cooke) staring it down. This goes on several seconds too long for it to be comfortable, until she reaches out to touch it. Fade to black, and there is a brief shot of a knife being set down. That would be, of course, Chekhov's Knife.

Rather than acts, Thoroughbreds is presented in "chapters," and indeed we learn what the deal was with that knife soon enough. It's pretty gruesome, and never shown onscreen -- Amanda and her friend Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy, all steely looks and piercing eyes) simply talk about it. There's a sort of foreshadowing to this technique by debut feature writer-director Cory Finley, which may or may not have been a means of saving on production budget, but it's memorably effective either way. By the end, the climactic incident is just as gruesome and also occurs offscreen, the camera lingering an unnaturally long time on Amanda passed out on a living room couch.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Suffice it to say that Thoroughbreds is a unique vision with DNA derived of that in movies like American Pyscho -- it's also been compared to Heathers, although that strikes me as a stretch. The latter is much more about how women back stab each other, in that case literally and fatally; Amanda and Lily never betray each other. It's a little more like they're Patrick Bateman's psychotic granddaughters.

The script here really should be commended. This movie is mostly tense and measured dialogue between two characters, always falling just short of feeling natural but featuring a delivery that gives it a mesmerizing quality, perfect for the darkly comic tone it's going for. Amanda, at first coming for tutoring lessons for which her mother is paying Lily, admits early on that she feels no emotions: "I'm a skilled imitator," she stresses, more than once. There is a false sense at first that she is the dangerous one and Lily is the one who will be drawn into her vortex of blithe immorality. On the contrary, Amanda's skills come from keen observation, and it's an astute one when she says to Lily, "Empathy isn't exactly your strong suit."

These young women come from affluent families, Lily's particularly so, and she has deep hatred for her stepfather (Paul Sparks, perfectly cast). This guy never really treats Lily that badly, and when Amanda overhears some of his criticisms she even notes that he's not far off base. Lily being such a spoiled rich girl is perhaps part of the point; nevertheless, Amanda, ever the rational one, poses the question: if they could get away with killing him, why not? When she's got a point she's got a point!

They blackmail a local loser drug dealer into doing the job for them, so they could both be out of town and thereby have "airtight alibis." This guy comes in the form of the late Anton Yelchin, in one of the very last performances before his death. I didn't even realize it was him until the end credits began with a memorial dedication to him. Is it a great and powerful final performance? I'd love to say it is. It's fine.

It's Olivia Cooke and Anya Taylor-Joy, really, who make this movie. In ways specific to each of them, they both become increasingly unsettling as the story unfolds. It's kind of The Bad Seeds for the 21st Cenutry, but with girls a few years older, and a targeted adult who has no idea what kind of danger he's in. Stepdad is just a moderate douche, thoroughly clueless.

It's us, as the audience, who either fear or know what's coming, and that's what makes Thoroughbreds work like a truly well-oiled machine -- almost too oiled, at times, with its obvious precision. Every gesture is a clearly made decision, as though every frame were a meticulous diorama. The perfectly framed cinematography is at times hypnotic, especially when paired with Erik Friedlander's strange but effectively percussive score.

There's something about Thoroughbreds that makes it feel within a stone's throw of perfection -- like something very subtle and unidentifiable is missing, but in the end that doesn't matter nearly as much as how well its over-polish actually makes it work. It features a glossy veneer that belies its gritty insides. None of these characters are particularly relatable, but they command undivided attention anyway. Cory Finley has taken some very wrong things and done something very right with them.

Just wait until you find out what happens upstairs.

Just wait until you find out what happens upstairs.

Overall: B+

THE PARTY

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

It's a bit of an irony that a feature film clocking in at the incredibly short time of only 71 minutes has more of the feel of a typical short film, but one that goes on rather too long. That includes the plot twist revealed at the very last second. It's almost as though The Party doesn't quite know what it wants to be. On the upside, you don't get much of a chance to get bored.

Although even with this movie, it takes a few minutes to really get things going. The action takes places entirely in the house of Janet (Kristin Scott Thomas), who is preparing for a dinner party in the kitchen, fielding countless calls of congratulations while her husband Bill (Timothy Spall) sits drinking and listening to records in the living room, in a sort of stupor that lasts pretty much the entire film.

Janet has just been elected Shadow Minister for Health, and is hosting a dinner party with several intellectual friends -- each of them written with a broadly satirical flair by director and co-writer Sally Potter (Orlando) -- to celebrate. Women's Studies professor Martha (Cherry Jones) is there with her much younger partner, Jinny (Emily Mortimer), who is newly pregnant. Tom (Cillian Murphy) shows up without his wife who is never seen but understood to be a close friend and coworker of Janet's. And easily the best character of them all is Janet's best friend April, an idealist-turned-cynical-realist played by Patricia Clarkson, who never disappoints; she arrives with her insufferably anti-science and recently-separated husband, the German Gottfried (Bruno Ganz).

These are the only seven characters ever seen onscreen, the living room, kitchen, bathroom and backyard the only locations ever used, giving The Party very much the feel of a stage play being adapted for the screen. It is perhaps no coincidence that all the actors here have had successful stage careers. Except unlike most plays adapted into movies, The Party for the most part works very well. The writing isn't quite as clever as everyone involved clearly thinks it is, and the movie would have benefited from more of the snappy editing that characterizes the movie trailer much more than the movie itself. Yet, it's easy to get sucked into this story soon enough, on the strength of two key components: the performers, who across the board elevate the material (Clarkson most of all; she's the biggest reason to see this movie); and especially the cinematography, shot in black and white by Aleksei Rodionov in a way that puts all the tight quarters in effectively stark relief. Seldom is a location so static this compelling to look at.

Although one of the characters is never seen, there are four couples at play here, each of them with significant news and/or a secret that will be revealed in turn, often with terrible timing. I won't spoil what any of them are, should you decide to check this movie out, except to say that one of them brings a gun. It's no spoiler to say whose hands it ends up in, because the opening shot is of Janet opening her front door and pointing the gun directly at the camera, the point of view of whoever is standing at the door. And we don't get to find out who that is until the final shot, which recreates that scene but extends to Scott Thomas's last line.

To all The Party a dark comedy would be an understatement, and that's a big part of its appeal, at least for those with interest. The characters spend a lot of time barely stopping short of being parodies of themselves as they have high-minded, academically philosophical conversations about very typical things like love and politics, infidelity and betrayal. It's as though it doesn't matter what their socioeconomic background, people still have conflicts over the same shit.

The Party would have done better with some greater clarity, either by fleshing out its themes as a feature film or by tightening up the action as a short film. Still, I was more than sufficiently entertained. You might be too, on whatever streaming platform you see it on eventually.

This party has a bit of a hostile vibe.

This party has a bit of a hostile vibe.

Overall: B