WHERE'D YOU GO, BURNADETTE

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

Every once in a while, it seems Richard Linklater gets inspired to take a step away from his indie cult movie roots and take a stab at Hollywood mediocrity. Sometimes his Hollywood offerings are actually pretty good, as in 2011’s Bernie or even 2017’s Last Flag Flying. Compared to the greatness of his earlier work, though, Where’d You Go, Burnadette has Linklater basically phoning it in. It’s only because his name is attached that the film does not get written off as basically forgettable.

It’s too bad, especially for fans of the runaway hit novel, by Maria Semple, on which it’s based. That goes double specifically for Seattleite fans of the novel, who appreciated Semple’s humor and satirical look at local culture in the Pacific Northwest, through the eyes of a transplant Los Angeles architect (here played, quite well, by Cate Blanchett) who rather dislikes the city. Only a little of that sentiment makes it through in the adaptation to motion picture, really confined to one ranting monologue by the title character.

Sometimes a sensibility just works in prose and doesn’t translate to the screen. And as always, a film should succeed on its own merits. Where’d You Go, Burnadette does’t exactly fail, it’s more like it coasts, gliding along with no real resonance.

That said, as a longtime Seattle resident, there are some frustratingly cliché things about the depiction of Seattle in this movie (which definitely were not part of the novel). As always, it rains way too much, and every time it’s raining, it’s raining too hard. Linklater and his two co-writers attempt to give themselves an out by having it mentioned that it’s “the wettest winter on record.” It’s still an inauthentic representation of Seattle weather, long an overused crutch in movies set in the Pacific Northwest.

On the upside, the performances elevate the material, at least a little bit. Cate Blanchett remains the consummate character actor, every bit as much as she is a movie star, slipping into true specificity as she channels Burnadette Fox. Billy Crudup is all exasperated bemusement as her husband, Elgie, deals with Burnadette’s erratic behaviors. Emma Nelson is lovely as their 15-year-old daughter, Bee. And Kristen Wiig is perfect as Burnadette’s snooty neighbor, at the end of her rope regarding the invasive blackberry bushes from Burnadette’s yard.

Lawrence Fishburne, Steve Zahn and Megan Mullally show up in much smaller parts as Burnadette’s past colleagues in the architecture profession, and although they all show up well for what they’re called on to do, it’s all brief enough that it kind of feels like wasted talent.

The story takes at least half the movie’s run time to get to this point, but Burnadette disappears out her bathroom window in the middle of an attempted intervention wrapped around her mental health. Before long, Elgie and Bee figure out she has left without them on what had been a planned family trip to Antarctica. How this trip got planned to begin with is a little oddly contrived, but whatever: Elgie and Bee go after her, spending a fair amount of time just behind her on other tourist vessels, and the action movies from Seattle to Antarctica. There was no filming at the bottom of the planet, but production did move to Greenland as the closest approximation, and if nothing else, it makes for some very pretty scenery to look at.

Beyond that, Where’d You Go, Burnadette doesn’t even try to be much of an actual mystery, and is more of a hang with these barely-odd characters, and it’s pleasant enough most of the time, when it’s not being ridiculously unrealistic, particularly regarding how Burnadette half-cons her way onto vessels in Antarctica that would be far more careful than this in the real world about unauthorized personnel. But, sure, I’m just nitpicking now. Still, there is a feeling of a great lot of unrealized potential here, a lack of electricity in the dialogue, a sense that there should be some kind excitement. No part of this story is exciting or electric; it is merely adequate at entertaining as long as the movie goes on. It’s fine but nothing special, when it clearly could have been something special.

She went to the Seattle Public Library, apparently. Mystery solved.

She went to the Seattle Public Library, apparently. Mystery solved.

Overall: B-

THE REPORTS ON SARAH AND SALEEM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Overall: A-

THE KITCHEN

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

I guess DC Comics should be given some credit here — The Kitchen is originally a graphic novel published by them, written by Ollie Masters and drawn by Ming Doyle. This film adaptation, written and directed by Andrea Berloff, thus qualifies as a cinematic offering by DC that’s a tad better than the abysmal “DC Cinematic Universe” of superhero films of recent years.

That said, “tad” is perhaps the operative word here, as The Kitchen gets to be a little on the nose with its “female empowerment” themes, rendering them trite at times, occasionally even hypocritical, as these women evolve into even more ruthless monsters than the mobster husbands they take over for when they are sent to prison in the late 1970s (also the setting of the graphic novel). Perloff has previous co-writing credits on such films as World Trade Center (2006) and Straight Outta Compton (2015), and if The Kitchen proves anything, it’s that Berloff is better off as a team player. There is plenty to like about The Kitchen, but unfortunately Berloff’s direction and her writing are easily its two weakest elements.

How close is this movie to the story in the graphic novel, I wonder? I don’t read comic books. I can only hope this graphic novel in its original form is better, and doesn’t stumble so much over its own feminist themes. This movie is trying to hard, and in the end lacks narrative clarity.

It’s not to a fatal degree, at least. This movie isn’t bad — certainly not nearly as bad as a sore of 35 out of 100 at MetaCritic would suggest, or a 21% on Rotten Tomatoes. The B- by audiences at CinemaScore seems much more reasonable, although by industry standards that’s a very low score. It’s as though this movie is a crushing disappointment. It’s not terrible! It just . . . isn’t great.

I’m really selling it, aren’t I? This is one of those movies that falls into the gray-area category of not feeling like a waste of my time, but not something I’m going to go out of my way to recommend to anyone else. If it has any selling point, it’s the actors — specifically, the women in it: Melissa McCarthy as the one housewife with a relatively decent husband; Tiffany Haddish as the black woman who never gained the trust of the Irish family she married into; Elisabeth Moss as the woman with a physically abusive husband; even Margo Martindale in the (as always) character part of a monster matriarch who is a no-nonsense bit. Among the many men with much smaller parts, the only standout is Domhnall Gleeson, who sheds his natural Irish accent in favor of a New York accent so convincing it takes a minute to realize it’s even him.

The film is also decently edited, and has several nice flourishes of cinematography as the camera moves through a Manhattan converted to look like it did in 1978, but I don’t know how many people besides me will care about that much. None of that really means anything without the strength of the performances, with three lead actors who have a workable onscreen chemistry. McCarthy, Haddish and Moss all have wide appeal, their only moderate crossover spreading out the appeal quite widely between the three of them. They have all been on better projects, but together here they lift the material so it doesn’t quite buckle completely under the weight of its own narrative contrivances.

I did get to a point where I struggled to understand whether I was supposed to be rooting for these women. The moral compromises they make are plain and obvious, and yet Andrea Berloff never really makes them part of her themes, of which The Kitchen is in short supply. It’s long on plot though, with a bit of a twist near the end that doesn’t quite make it all any better. All of that notwithstanding, the lead performances command attention, and reveal some of these actors, especially Tiffany Haddish, to be capable of better and richer things.

Three people who can stand the heat.

Three people who can stand the heat.

Overall: B-

THE THIRD WIFE

Directing: A
Acting: A
Writing: A
Cinematography: A
Editing: A

When it comes to patriarchy, it seems it’s just the same shit, different day — and different place.

The Third Wife has a unique point of view for American audiences in particular. It’s one thing to get a window into other cultures through foreign films, and another for that film to be a period piece. Sure, there are history buffs with a working knowledge of history around the world. But this one gets pretty specific: late-nineteenth-century Vietnam. And although that country has a more recent history quite obviously inextricably linked to that of the United States, such events were far from even a glimmer on the horizon for the Vietnamese, say, 125 or 150 years ago.

The opening title card introduces us to May (Nguyen Phuong Tra My), a young woman — to us, a child — who has become the third wife to “a wealthy land owner.” And this is indeed her story, skipping how she was chosen to be wed to this man and starting with the beginning of her married life. The custom of displaying her bloody sheet on her wedding night for all of her community to see, evidently, was widespread the world over. All the movies I have seen depicting this custom prior to this have been western, or Eastern European.

Written and directed by Ash Mayfair, who is herself Vietnamese, The Third Wife is quite deceptively serene in its storytelling, from its gorgeous cinematography depicting rural 19th-century Vietnam, to the quiet delivery of the dialogue and action. Only in rare cases do the proceedings get overtly dramatic, and they are always brief. This is a depiction of a quiet way of life, and it seems that is the point: the way girls and women fit into this society is not just something everyone is resigned to. It’s literally all they know.

Some details are only heartbreaking in retrospect, and regarded by many with neutrality at the time. Mayfair includes a subplot wherein it’s a young man who is devastated to be expected to marry a girl chosen for him, when he is in love with another. And here, even when it’s the man who breaks from tradition and accepted moral codes, it is the girl who gets blamed an punished: her father refuses to take her back, and asks her what she did to keep the man from wanting to touch her.

But his reasons are obvious but unspoken. May is herself only fourteen, learning the ways of her wealthy yet still repressed life as she goes along, and spends much of the story pregnant. This other girl is even younger. Her age is never stated, but she hardly looks older than ten. The man, himself young but still much older than her, is quite understandably not even interested. The girl attempts to undress for him on their wedding night and he barks at her to stop.

Mayfair treats her characters, to a person, with unusual empathy. It does not feel pointed that none of the men in this story are villainized, only that it was unnecessary. The men, by and large, are acting according to cultural strictures, just as the women and girls are. No one here is depicted as especially malicious. The caning of a young man who impregnated a woman out of wedlock is not so much a conscious evil as it is simply part of the rules. This is a society of people who lead otherwise peaceful lives, albeit in a deceiving way, given the subtle cancer that is sexism the world over.

It’s hard not to love Mayfair’s choice of perspective here. This is not the story of men who oppress, but rather the story of women who are barely even aware of the oppressive society in which they live. As such, The Third Wife features all of about three male speaking parts, and their combined dialogue is very limited. The husband to the three wives in question, who form a sort of sisterhood amongst themselves, is barely heard talking at all.

I can think of nothing negative to say about The Third Wife. I can think of nothing wrong with it — even though it caused some controversy in Vietnam itself, which pulled it from local release. One might have some ambivalence about the age of the lead actor, who was only 13 years old during shooting. I did not learn that particular detail until after seeing the movie, during which I did wonder how old she was — never thinking she could be that young. This may make little difference to some, but by all accounts the young actor is a precocious one, with a nuanced understanding of the script, and even though she was involved in some “intimate” scenes, none of them were outright sex scenes and none involved nudity. Well, now that I think about it, there is one scene in which she french kisses one of the other wives, who is much older than her. Any sane person would feel ambivalent about that at best.

I have no idea how much leeway to give cultural differences here. If nothing else, there is some comfort in the director having been a woman, with a clear vision of the story she was telling and an intricate understanding of the sexual politics involved. How appropriate was Nguyen Phuong Tra My for this part, then? That’s hard to say. I’m choosing to separate that knowledge from the final product onscreen, which is sublime in its presentation. It’s too bad its local theatrical run is limited to three days, and ends tomorrow. Its quiet, melancholy beauty is certainly best appreciated on the big screen.

A girl arguably too young for the part plays a girl too young to be married.

A girl arguably too young for the part plays a girl too young to be married.

Overall: A

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

THE LION KING

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The rightful rulers of their world.

The rightful rulers of their world.

Overall: A-

THE FAREWELL

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

I guess there are two things a movie needs these days to be successful, even if it’s only an independent or foreign film. It’s not enough just to be good — it has to be marketed well too. The people over at A24 Films seem to know what they’re doing: last weekend, The Farewell managed the year’s highest per-screen average to date, even higher than Avengers: Endgame. Granted, last weekend The Farewell only played on four theatres. But it’s clearly a strategy that worked: several publications ran stories about it. People on pop culture podcasts talked about it.

I fully expected the 6 p.m. showing I went to at The Egyptian Theatre on Seattle’s Capitol Hill might be sold out. I pre-purchased my ticket last night for that very reason, and arrived twenty minutes early. In the end, the house was not sold out, but it must have been at least 80% full. I found myself wondering if it might have been even fuller if not for the Capitol Hill Block Party going on all of one block away.

The hope, clearly, is that The Farewell can rely on word of mouth, so here I am telling you about it. Honestly, I’m not convinced the film quite lives up to the expectation. I grabbed three napkins on the way in, fully expecting a massive tear jerker. I only wiped away a couple of tears.

But it’s a matter of perspective, I suppose. I’m just a white guy in America whose only window into Chinese culture is precisely movies like these. As the opening title card says, it’s “based on an actual lie” — the typical practice of Chinese families not to tell a terminally ill family member that they are sick. In this version of the story, written and directed by Lulu Wang, it’s the family matriarch, the grandmother they all call “Nai Nai” (Shuzhen Zhao, who is wonderful, in her sole acting role). She has cancer and is given three months to live.

Although maybe three quarters of the dialogue is in Chinese, The Farewell is actually an American production, presumably with an eye for both American and Chinese audiences. That bridge comes in the form of the central character, Nai Nai’s granddaughter who has lived in the U.S. since she was little, Billi, played by Awkwafina in a breakout performance. Awkwafina managed to shine as well in movies like Crazy Rich Asians and Ocean’s Eight, but those were “cool, fun” supporting parts, often quite funny. Here is a dramatic role which, although very much part of an ensemble cast, is the central character around whom the story revolves. We start and end with Billi, following her from New York City to Changchun, China and back, watching her as a very Americanized young woman struggling with this choice made by her extended family. In one scene, she notes that in America this would be illegal.

The family schedules a wedding for Billi’s one cousin, Hao Hao, and his Japanese wife, as a means of getting all of the family back together one last time with Nai Nai. Hao Hao lives in Japan because his father long ago moved him there, after all; Billi’s parents have themselves lived in the U.S. for many decades. But this wedding is the one area where Lulu Wang’s storytelling gets a little awkward, as both Hao Hao and his wife are barely utilized — as members of a relatively small extended family, it would have made sense to give them a bit more dimension as characters. Instead, Chen Han as Hao Hao doesn’t even have an audibly spoken line until what feels like halfway through the movie. Aio Mizuhara, as his wife who only speaks Japanese and does not speak or understand Chinese, never gets any lines at all, but for a brief scene in which she and Hao Hao sing a song together. It’s a little odd, given the extended sequence at a wedding everyone is pretending to be in their honor.

But if some of the supporting parts are not as fleshed out as they could have been, the relationships between Billi and Nai Nai, and also between Billi and her parents (Tzi Ma as the father with a sporadic drinking problem; Diana Lin as the mother who has a strained history with her mother-in-law; both actors are great), are as compelling as you could ask for. Nai Nai also has a sister (Hong Lu, also her only acting credit), who also has few lines even though she’s the one spearheading the secret. The whole scenario is deeply fascinating and poses a valid philosophical question. If this were an option for you, to keep their own terminal illness a secret from your own mother or grandmother, would you do it?

There is a certain difficulty in assessing a film like this for me, being so completely removed from the culture from which its premise comes. It seems entirely possible it would speak to people with Chinese families in a completely different way, and perhaps speaks most directly to American children of Chinese immigrants. The Farewell is genuinely moving, regardless of such nuances. It may not have made me cry as much as I expected it to, but perhaps that just means it makes the refreshing choice of avoiding emotional manipulation.

In fact, by and large this film is rather understated and subtle, which works very much in its favor. It’s quiet and contemplative, aided in large part by Awkwafina’s restrained performance. Its polished cinematography and tight editing conspire to make this a story, full of as much heart and humor as there is sadness, easy to fall into.

A family that lies together . . . won’t have to cry together?

A family that lies together . . . won’t have to cry together?

Overall: B+

WILD ROSE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jessie Buckley shines.

Jessie Buckley shines.

Overall: A-

THE LAST BLACK MAN IN SAN FRANCISCO

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An American Dream unravels.

An American Dream unravels.

Overall: B+

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