LUCY IN THE SKY

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

Indicating a movie was “inspired by true events” is always a tricky proposition. How can I not wonder how much of the story is based on truth, and how much is embellished? Especially when it culminates in a “what the fuck, you’ve got to be kidding” ending? You can bet I made a beeline for the nearest Internet browser as soon as the movie was over. Turns out, the events immediately leading up to the arrest of astronaut Lida Nowak, on whom “Lucy Cola” is based, were indeed quite similar to those depicted in Lucy in the Sky, albeit with fewer of the principal players present. I guess in the movies, if you have Jon Hamm on hand, you want to keep him onscreen as much as you can.

An attempted kidnapping isn’t even the first Wait—what? moment in the movie. The most egregious is when Lucy is stocking up for the trip, and she pops into a store where she picks up supplies like a knife, duct tape, rope, and a wig in what is apparently the “Psycho Kidnapper’s Supplies” aisle.

It’s too bad there are moments like this at all in this movie, as they are few at least until the very end. Before that, director Noah Hawley, whose previous work mostly consists of writing for television shows like Bones, Legion and Fargo (his previous directing experience limited to five episodes among those shows), is on to something. He has ideas worth exploring in Lucy in the Sky, with an astronaut emotionally unraveling as she can’t cope with returning to Earth after time in space blew her mind. He just doesn’t explore them with any clarity.

His peculiar visual choices don’t help. Never before have I seen a movie that is so fast and loose with aspect ratios, which change with such frequency it’s to the point of distraction. Until the kind of bonkers climax, I was fairly on board with the narrative flow, yet prevented from full immersion by the constantly changing height and width of the picture. And I do mean constant: black boxes would close in on both sides, or from the top and bottom, and then zoom right back out again in a single scene. In some instances, the image is roughly square. In a few cases, the picture narrows vertically to such an extent that it looks like someone got slaphappy with the “panorama” feature on their smartphone. It’s an interesting idea, I suppose, presumably intended to evoke Lucy’s emotional state. I could only find myself wondering about its necessity.

Often, though, what’s actually composed within these constantly changing frames is quite visually compelling, a kaleidoscope of visions and memories and waking dream sequences, in one case an apparent hallucination, and several lovely shots taken from so far over neighborhoods and streets they evoke the passing of satellites overhead.

Lucy in the Sky would be much worse if not for Natalie Portman as the title character. People love to drag her for her accent work, first in Jackie and now as a Texan here. Admittedly I do not have a nuanced ear for southern accents, but she sounded great to me. In fact, Portman is easily the best thing about this movie. Most of the others, including Jon Hamm, are merely serviceable. The only other possible exceptions are Dan Stevens as Lucy’s increasingly worried and exasperated husband (a kind of nice reversal of the usual gender roles in stories of this sort), and Pearl Amanda Dickson as Lucy’s visiting teenage niece, Blue Ivy.

These actors, and even the script, are engaging enough for the first three quarters of the run time to make all the moving picture shapes almost forgivable. But then Lucy in the Sky approaches its climax, and it goes off the rails in spectacular fashion. True, the life of the real astronaut by whom this was “inspired” did the same. But the movie would have been crazy enough had it stuck to what actually happened, rather than piling on extra fictional details—like the presence of a gun—that serve no real purpose other than eye-rolling melodrama.

And by the sound of things, Lisa Nowak was maybe just kind of nuts. Real-life astronauts have weighed on on the implausibility of this film’s very premise that several days in space might cause them to lose their grip on reality. In other words, Lucy in the Sky is a pure fantasy, and a potentially problematic one at that. At least it’s also an intermittently pretty one, I guess.

Somebody’s in over her head!

Somebody’s in over her head!

Overall: B-

MS. PURPLE

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

I could see why some critics enjoyed Ms. Purple, a very small-budget drama about a Korean American family in Los Angeles, with a particular focus on the grown daughter who works as a karaoke bar hostess in Koreatown. For the life of me, I could not find a way in, to connect with it in any real way.

The largely amateur sensibility of director and co-writer Justin Chon — probably best known as Eric from the Twilight series, but here directing a feature film for the third time — is a pretty significant barrier. But, I was most consistently distracted and irritated by Ante Cheng’s cinematography. Making pointlessly liberal use of slow-motion effects to convey, I guess, a sort of dreamlike state in a film that otherwise never means to be “dreamlike,” most scenes look as though they were shot by someone who saw great cinematography in other, far better films and took great pains to emulate it, without any visual cohesion.

I’ll grant that the story, largely mystifying at first, starts coming together in unexpectedly satisfying ways in the last act. It’s enough to make me feel like I did not completely waste my time. I still don’t feel like I would missed out on anything special had I not bothered to see this movie to begin with, but whatever.

At the very lest, the acting is . . . fine. Tiffany Chu plays Kasie, the central character, who struggles to make ends meet as she lives alone with her unconscious, bedridden father in obvious need of hospice. When the live-in caretaker can’t take it anymore and resigns, Kasie calls up her estranged brother Carey (Teddy Lee) to ask for help. He actually shows up, although soon enough a relatively twisted family life reveals itself in flashbacks, and we see Carey screaming at his unconscious father’s face. We eventually learn that his and Kasie’s mother left them all when they were young children, although the story never reveals nearly enough about how or why.

Such is the case with much of this story, which follows Kasie around, largely at the karaoke bar where she works, with clients often indifferent to her relatively listless presence. When Ms. Purple begins, it’s with several minutes following her around such environments, with no straightforward dialogue. I began to when we’d start hearing people speak in audible and complete sentences. We eventually learn about a man in Kasie’s life who gives her large sums of money and, although her role in his life is never defined as such, treats her basically like a call girl.

I spent a lot of time watching Ms. Purple with my attention waxing and waning, but there is a scene near the end that certainly got my attention, in which Kasie is involved in a violent incident, coming to the defense of a client getting belligerent with another hostess. A bit of a melee occurs, but a ton of the other women working there come rushing in, to her defense. I’d be much more interested in a movie about the dynamics and interpersonal relationships among these women, a sort of Koreatown Karaoke version of Hustlers.

But, this is the one I got. There are some “aha moments” as certain childhood traumas inform this set of siblings’ current life circumstances, and a bit more life gets injected into the story. Indeed, the broader story arc is a lot better constructed than most of the actual dialogue, which is often rambling and aimless. It’s easier to appreciate the big picture than the details in this movie.

Waiting for the break.

Waiting for the break.

Overall: B-

CHAINED FOR LIFE

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

Sometimes a movie is thematically ambitious in a way the production can’t keep up. Such appears to be the case with Chained for Life, a movie deemed so obscure that it plays exclusively today and tomorrow at the SIFF Film Center at Seattle Center, destined to be watched eventually on some streaming service by . . . almost no one. It’s true the showing I attended was the first of the day at 3 p.m., but still only five people in the audience seems a little sparse. This movie is far from perfect but it deserves better than that.

Then again, it could be argued it deserves better than an editing style that only serves to rob the narrative of any real clarity. Writer-director Aaron Schimberg is clearly influenced by Robert Altman, both with his multiple characters talking over each other and with camera movements that quickly zoom in on faces with a semi-rapidly veering style that feels like a reference to a bygone era of cinema. He also has something to say about beauty, and about how people with disabilities or deformities find their way into a culture’s ongoing narrative of beauty.

Chained for Life is a movie-within-a-movie, about the production of a movie called Marked for Life, in which disfigured people meet up with a doctor who can offer them miracle corrective surgeries. But, before any such surgery occurs, blind woman Mabel (Jess Weixler) falls in love with Rosenthal, who has neurofibromatosis, a condition which causes noncancerous tumors to grow along someone’s nerves. Rosenthal is played by Adam Pearson — previously seen in a small part in 2014’s Under the Skin — who actually has the same condition.

In fact, Weixler and Pearson are surrounded by a supporting cast playing characters who also have the same respective conditions they have in real life. Or at least, they do inside the movie-within-the-movie. It’s unclear how for real-real all the conditions are, such as the “hermaphrodite” who presents as two genders literally split down the middle, or the pair of young women who are conjoined twins. Some of them are unavoidably authentic, such as the super-tall man, or the little person, or the little person who is also a wheelchair user.

Watching Chained for Life, it feels like this ambiguity is the point, and I’m just not sure how effective that is. I left the movie having no idea what I was supposed to have gotten out of it, although it certainly has some compelling and provocative ideas. Schimberg deliberately blurs the lines between fact and fiction, though, regularly cutting from dialogue between cast and crew on the set of Marked for Life, directly to a scene of dialogue between the “othered” characters, only after several minutes revealing they are actually acting out a scene rather than having a real conversation outside the making of the movie. There’s even one sequence that is rather shocking and later reveals itself not to be either an on-set scene or a “real world” occurrence, but rather some kind of projected dark fantasy. At least, I think it was.

Chained for Life seems a little like a modern take on the 1932 film Freaks, with that famous scene of “circus freaks” chanting the phrase “One of us! One of us!” It’s definitely a point of reference for Schimberg, where he sort of flips that narrative, having that very phrase repeated by a couple of the so-called “normal” people.

I keep wondering how the disabled and/or disfigured actors felt about this movie, and their involvement with it. It’s easy to assume they we on board with however Schimberg’s script appeared to them, although of course they would not have any idea while filming how it would look edited and on camera (although, ironically, there is a scene in which all said characters gather in a small screening room to watch dailies). On the other hand, it’s also easy to imagine actors with all manner of disabilities, who get very few acting opportunities otherwise, simply being happy for the work. Does this movie make sense to them? Does it matter?

From scene to scene, I found Chained for Life compelling enough, until it jumped to another scene that deliberately avoided making clear whether we were supposed to take it at face value or as a performance of a scene on set. Even the acting skill among this ensemble cast is all over the place, and it’s hard to tell if a lot of them are just supposed to be playing bad actors, or if the acting just isn’t great on average in this movie. Nearly all of them range from wooden to noticeably performative, even when we’re watching crew members talk amongst themselves.

The critical consensus for this movie seems to be pretty positive, although I can’t help but wonder how much of that is informed by condescension. I was more bemused by it than anything.

Contemplating the film’s own question, “Is this exploitative”? First let’s try to make sense of the story.

Contemplating the film’s own question, “Is this exploitative”? First let’s try to make sense of the story.

Overall: B-

JOKER

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

Within five minutes of Joker starting, I thought to myself, Well, I’m jumping off this train. From then on, to the very end, I was not on board. If I weren’t planning to write this review and therefore felt an obligation — I did it for you, dear reader! — to stick it out until the closing credits, I would have walked out. At least I could take some small comfort in fantastic cinematography by Lawrence Sher (Garden State), and a fully committed performance by Joaquin Phoenix, even if it was in service of a script that is almost shockingly, willfully wrong-minded.

I’ll save my “woke” criticism for now, and perhaps appeal to even the “anti-PC” crowd with some comic book legacy logic. The Joker, as presented here by writer and co-director Todd Phillips, is a man who starts with at least moderately good intentions but turns bad in the face of an oppressively uncivilized world conspiring against him. The problem with this approach is that the Joker was never intended as a figure to be pitied. Phillips wants us to empathize with him, to find ourselves saying “That poor guy” in spite of his abhorrent behavior, which is antithetical to the decades-long legacy of the character, who is an unrepentant but darkly comic psychopath. Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker is never genuinely funny; instead, he just inspires a citywide revolt among rich frat bros with nothing else to stand for.

It doesn’t exactly help that this is the fourth high-profile casting of this character in the past thirty years. Jared Leto’s ridiculously excessive antics on the set of Suicide Squad in 2016 are now far better known than the movie itself, and at this point is hardly worthy of anything more than disregard. Prior to that, the role was made iconic twice: first by Jack Nicholson, in my opinion still the best Joker ever portrayed, in Tim Burton’s Batman in 1989; then by Heath Ledger 19 years later in Christopher Nolan’s superhero masterpiece The Dark Knight in 2008, earning him a posthumous Oscar. It’s now 11 years after that, and not only are we bombarded with countless superhero movies every year, including endless sequels and reboots that occur with less and less lag time between them, we’re moving into supervillain origin stories.

Who asked for this movie, anyway? Nothing about Joker will be iconic with any lasting merit; it has no chance when it gets swallowed by the sea of derivative comic book superhero narratives surrounding it. There were complaints about the Ben Affleck Batman movies depicting the death of Bruce Wayne’s parents yet again. Guess what we see in Joker! Presumably Todd Phillips thinks he’s giving it a clever twist, but it’s hard to give a clever twist to the beating of a dead horse. It’s just an animal corpse that is impossible to twist because it’s too huge and heavy.

Joker has many problems, but its second-biggest one is how it willfully and brazenly conflates mental illness with villainy. It’s frankly irresponsible, presenting this idea that the Joker as a persona was created because the man behind the clown makeup is “misunderstood.” He has a “condition,” which causes him to laugh hysterically at inappropriate times. People regard him as a freak and abuse him for it; his lashing out against them is exacerbated by his conscious decision to stop taking his many medications. We eventually learn of what his behaviors can be traced back to, and it is even more clichéd than you might fear.

Someone should tell Todd Phillips that the most compelling villains are sane ones. I never thought of either Jack Nicholson’s or Heath Ledger’s Jokers as insane; these were comically sinister figures who knew exactly what they were doing, and happily took responsibility for it — something Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker really never does. In the original Batman, when Vicki Vale tells the Joker “You’re insane!”, he quips back, “I thought I was a Pisces!” And in The Dark Knight, Bruce Wayne has his “aha moment” regarding the Joker when Alfred says to him, “Some men just want to watch the world burn.”

I thought about that line several times while watching Joker, which rejects the sentiment behind it wholesale. Some may be tempted to say that’s just what this Joker wants by the end of the film, but they would be wrong — this whole plot turns on an alienated and severely socially awkward loner, who is so cliché he lives with his ailing mother, basically setting the world on fire as a means of gaining acceptance.

The Joker was never meant to be such a towering figure of insecurity, of barely contained fragility. He’s supposed to be an unnerving sociopath with no sense of morality and without even a thought about justice, preferably with a wicked sense of humor. Joker fails on all these fronts; instead, we see him in the fetal position getting beaten up by teenagers within the first five minutes. I never once felt bad for this dipshit.

There is one moment near the end, involving Robert De Niro as a late night talk show host, that is played for a shock so effective, I will begrudgingly give this movie some small amount of respect. If only the rest of the movie could have had more such moments. It’s great to look at, at least. The first lines heard at the beginning are the sounds of a man on a radio discussing a worker strike leaving the city clogged with bags of garbage. That turned out to be one hell of an apropos metaphor for Joker, which is a slick pile of garbage.

Pretending to enjoy this movie like

Pretending to enjoy this movie like

Overall: C+

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.

JUDY

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

When I first saw Bradley Cooper’s A Star Is Born nearly a year ago, I expressed appreciation for how pleasantly surprised I was by how it made me feel seen, as a gay man. The film featured drag queens and gay characters fairly prominently, and it felt very much like a nod to the gay fans of the woman who first made the title role so famous: Judy Garland. She didn’t originate the role, nor was she anywhere near the last one to play it, but she certainly made it hers: if Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz were not her most iconic role, her role in the musical version of A Star Is Born would be.

It’s odd, then, that Judy, the new biopic directed by Rupert Goold and starring Renée Zellweger, never once mentions it. There are several references to The Wizard of Oz, and it ends with a wrenchingly emotional rendition of “Over the Rainbow.” Judy is a bit uneven overall, but one thing it does quite memorably well is the same thing last year’s A Star Is Born did: it goes out of its way to acknowledge how much Judy Garland meant to gay people.

This is not something biopics of this sort did much of fifteen or twenty years ago, and it’s a nice change. A Beautiful Mind making no reference to John Nash’s homosexuality is just one example. Filmmakers at the time stated they opted not to mention it because they feared viewers would make the wrong connection between Nash’s sexuality and his schizophrenia, but it feels likely that if the film were made today, they would have found a respectful way to fully represent the man. And here, with Jud, Garland isn’t presented as at all queer. But her decades-long status as a gay icon is certainly recognized.

It’s not just a passing reference, either. Judy is set during the last year or two of Judy Garland’s life, with occasional flashbacks to her teenage years as a budding superstar treated so horribly by the studio that they are essentially blamed for her addiction to pills. In this final stage of her shortened life and career, she is desperate to make a living, has a terrible reputation as an unreliable performer, and she moves temporarily to London for an extended residency. Her star has faded enough by this point that she only has two fans waiting for her out the side stage door, and they are a middle-aged late-sixties gay couple, who have buying tickets to every night’s performance — something Judy notices. In one extended sequence, she invites them out to dinner, and, being too late for anything to be open, they invite her for eggs at their place. They bond over being lonely, misunderstood, emotionally isolated people. It sounds like something so easily corny, but I was deeply moved by it.

In fact, I was so moved by Zelleger’s career-high performance — if she’s not nominated for an Academy Award it will be a miscarriage of justice — it was relatively easy for me to overlook the fact that her singing, while perfectly decent, does nothing to illustrate what a uniquely powerhouse voice Judy Garland had. Granted, this is at the end of her life, she’s two years past a suicide attempt that damaged her voice, and she refuses even to rehearse; it would make sense her voice is not at its peak ability.

That said, it’s a curiously long time before any singing is heard at all, and it’s only ever heard by the elder version of Judy. The teen Judy, played otherwise competently by newcomer Darci Shaw, is never heard or seen singing at all, and her youth is the period in which he voice catapulted her to stardom. Although no modern singer could ever match the unparalleled cadence of Judy Garland’s voice, this still feels like a bit of a travesty. How is anyone watching this film supposed to understand and properly contextualize this woman’s life story without ever hearing her voice at its peak? With the write skill and finesse, even lip syncing to Judy’s real voice could have worked. It certainly would have lent this film greater weight. As it is, her enduring status as an icon as presented her feels a tad too abstract, and that’s a pity. This is a woman whose voice made her, and in a biopic about her, we never actually hear it.

So really, Judy relies heavily on aging movie-goers who still have a working memory of when Judy Garland was still alive, or at least have working memories of when her movies and music outlasted her for decades in cultural impact. In that context, the movie still works surprisingly well, avoiding the typical trap of trying to cram a person’s life into two hours and instead mostly focusing on just a couple of years. The editing keeps it at a brisk pace without ever feeling rushed, because this story is focused on the end of a fading megastar.

And most importantly, Renée Zellweger sells it. Some have called her performance “a gimmick,” but that’s now how I saw it at all. This is a woman with a distinctive look, easily recognizable in nearly all her roles, and he disappears completely in this movie, totally transforming into Judy Garland. Seeing clips taken out of context may make it seem odd or idiosyncratic, but Zellweger embodies her wholly as a character, giving her wide ranging dimension. I totally forgot the actor I was looking at, and completely bought her as Judy. How else could the moment where it reaches “Over the Rainbow” be so emotionally affecting? I was nearly as moved by that as I was by the earlier scene with the gay couple, and all she was doing was singing a song. I made a mistake not bringing tissues.

Judy is an imperfect but effectively respectful portrait of an icon, without ever even representing when she was at the top. All we ever see is the beginning of her rise, or the end of her wane, and still it paints a complete picture, and it’s one worth considering.

No, we won’t forget you, Judy.

No, we won’t forget you, Judy.

OFFICIAL SECRETS

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

“Official Secrets” might seem like a rather bland and generic title for a movie, but as it turns out there is a good reason for it: the United Kingdom’s Official Secrets Act of 1989, which one Katharine Gun was nearly charged of violating in 2004. She leaked a memo that proved the United States and British governments were lying about the legality of the Iraq War.

Gun is played here by Keira Knightley, in a rather unusual role for her: relatively contemporary (okay, fifteen years ago), playing a government agent, by some measures a spy. It’s a story, as directed by Gavin Hood — who brought us the surprisingly gripping and provocative Eye in the Sky in 2016 — filled with international intrigue, and, as they say, “based on true events.”

As a fictionalized account of a true story, however, Official Secrets transparently traffics in embellishments, relying on dramatization that feels suspect when considering whether things really played out the way they’re depicted. A near-miss with the government’s attempt to deport Gun’s Muslim immigrant husband Yasar (Adam Bakri), for example, where Katharine intercepts him just in time at the airport. It’s those kinds of shameless “Hollywood-izing” of the story that temps one to roll the eyes.

Storytelling contrivances notwithstanding, Official Secrets is strikingly engrossing for a movie that’s ultimately just about a leaked memo. With shades of All The President’s Men — complete with a character actually referencing “Deep Throat” — a copy of the document exchanges hands in an underground parking garage. Once the press runs with the information, Gavin Hood’s direction very effectively conveys the weight of risk Gun put herself in. Based on nothing more than her own integrity and principles, she put her own livelihood, her own marriage, ultimately the fate of her entire life on the line.

The gravity of her choices are easily felt, particularly at simple but fateful moments when Gun chooses to confess at her office rather than subject her colleagues to intimidating interrogations, or when she risks prison by deciding she’ll plead Not Guilty because she simply feels it’s the right thing to do.

Official Secrets features several other well-known British actors, almost to the point of distraction: Matt Smith as reporter Martin Bright; Matthew Goode and Rhys Ifans as newsroom colleagues of wildly different demeanor; Ralph Fiennes as Katharine’s defense lawyer — who spends a little too much time just giving her admiring looks from opposite ends of tables. Fiennes is capable of both great acting and phoned-in acting, and here it’s the latter.

Luckily the same could not be said of the rest of the cast, who are generally convincing and engaging, especially Knightley, who usually feels much more at home in period costume dramas. And although she and her gorgeous husband are typical examples of regular people being played in movies by impossibly beautiful people, Knightley remains convincing as an otherwise average citizen who finds herself in extraordinary circumstances and still makes the difficult choice to do what’s right. This movie is quite clearly on her side, and rightly so.

It’s a fascinating exercise to observe the stories contextualized in world events of two decades past, and consider how they inform how the world got to where it is today. Official Secrets simultaneously references broadly dubious government lawmaking (and lawbreaking) and narrows it down to an individual level in a satisfyingly effective, if moderately contrived, way. Honestly, most people with any interest in being both illuminated and entertained by a movie about the consequences of government whistleblowing will not likely be compelled to nitpick about such things as plot contrivances. They’ll just plain enjoy this movie.

Some things are quite literally on the nose.

Some things are quite literally on the nose.

Overall: B+

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

HUSTLERS

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

Husters isn’t going to change the world, but it is a product of a changing world, in all the best ways. Never before has there been a movie about strippers that treats those women with such respect, or given them this much agency, or certainly afforded them this many dimensions. In the end this is a story about otherwise good people getting sucked into doing very bad things, and those things don’t particularly have anything to do with them being strippers. The stripper part is incidental, and just happens to have also been the case with the real life women whose story this film was inspired by.

It can’t be overstated how significant this is, a total lack of shame when it comes to stripping as a profession, and that is meant in the best sense. Not one character in this film berates or belittles any of these women for what they do for a living. This is a profession about which these women have a great deal of pride, and rightfully so, as they have the skill to match. Ditto all the women who play them. Jennifer Lopez gets an entrance, an actor who is fifty years old playing presumably slightly younger, in which she does a pole dance. The whole sequence is spectacular, incredibly well shot, and a jaw dropping performance by Lopez.

Lopez’s character, Romana, is raising a daughter. The father is evidently out of the picture, and we never learn anything about him. We don’t need to. This isn’t his story. The central character, Destiny (Constance Wu, holding her own), also has a child, and that baby’s father gets a bit of screen time, until Destiny is single again. Destiny takes care of her grandmother (Wai Ching Ho), and although it is never made explicitly clear that Grandma knows how Destiny makes her living, neither does it seem to be a secret. There is one scene in which Destiny has left stripping for a while to raise her little girl, and when she’s in an interview discussing her resume, I really expected this to be the predictable moment when some other character — also a woman — looks down her nose at her. Granted, Destiny says twice that what she did at these establishments was “Bar tending, mostly,” but it’s still clear what kind of places they are. But the issue that holds Destiny back is not judgment but something a lot more boring: a lack of retail experience.

And for the record, if there is any one thing that Hustlers is not, it’s not boring. These are empowered women in an ensemble cast telling a seamless story that has no need to point out or underscore how empowered they are. “Show don’t tell,” as they say, and writer-director Lorene Scafaria has it down. We even get delightful bit parts by the likes of Cardi B. and Lizzo among the strippers, and a maternal figure among club staff (they literally all call her “Mom”) played by Mercedes Ruehl. These are all confident women who know who they are and are great at what they do.

If anything is a little bit disappointing, it is the muted use of the great Julia Stiles, her third billing a surprise given how small her part is, as the journalist interviewing Destiny as Destiny tells their story. Sure, her part is essential and it may simply be that Stiles wanted to be part of a movie this great, but she still deserves better. She gets no scenery to chew.

That is left mostly to Jennifer Lopez, and it must be said: the buzz is justified, as is the talk of an Oscar nomination. Scafaria has crafted a film, in fact, worthy of nominations in several categories, particularly — and this is an unusual thing for me to notice — sound editing. Those sorts of nominations tend to go to flashier films with lots of explosions, but effectively subtle work can be just as important.

And Lopez pulls off a neat trick here, being a character who is anything but subtle, but giving a fairly restrained performance, all things considered. Ramona is basically the ring leader of a group of criminals, who spent several years effectively roofie-ing filthy rich Wall Street guys and then robbing them blind. This is their story, and it’s a lot more nuanced than it would be in many other hands, particularly those of a lot of male directors. It’s notable that Hustlers is infused with sexuality yet has not one actual sex scene, and while it’s wall to wall with female sexiness, there isn’t much female nudity either. The most gratuitous nude scene involves a man given too much of their amateur blend of drugs and has to be rushed to a hospital. It’s not especially sexy. Parts of it, in fact, are funny, as is the case with the movie overall.

And Stiles, as the reporter, kind of serves as an expected audience stand-in when she assures Destiny in the middle of their interview, “I don’t feel sorry for these guys.” Destiny replies immediately, “I do feel sorry for them,” and understanding why is Lorene Scafaria’s achievement. This is a group of women impossible to see as villains, even as though do objectively villainous things. Just because Wall Street players got away with vast financial crimes in the wake of (and which largely caused) the Great Recession of the late 2000s doesn’t mean these women should get away with something like this. Destiny’s guilt about it is appropriate, as is her guilt about how things went down in the end between her and Ramona, who offered her a kind of sincere support she never found anywhere else.

None of this is simple, except perhaps for a few of Scafaria’s plot contrivances. But even those contrivances make for a better movie — this is not a documentary, after all. You won’t leave Hustlers feeling like you witnessed perfection, but you will feel you witnessed something different and great, the best version of what it can be.

They’re sexy and they know it and that’s beside the point.

They’re sexy and they know it and that’s beside the point.

Overall: B+