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

SIFF Advance: GOOD KISSER

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

Sometimes you go to a movie festival screening not knowing quite what to expect, you’re compelled by the premise, but it could really go either way — and then it turns out to be surprisingly delightful. Good Kisser is one such movie. It is well written, well acted, well shot, and a Seattle production to boot: last night was its world premiere screening, at the Seattle International Film Festival.

Given that it’s about a lesbian couple, Jenna and Kate (Kari Alison Hodge and Rachel Paulson, respectively — the latter being, incidentally, the younger sister of Sarah Paulson), engaging in a first-time hookup with a third woman, Mia (Julia Eringer), it makes all the difference that it was written and directed by a woman, Wendy Jo Carlton. Presumably there are some few men out there who could have made a decent movie about this, being open to enough input from female cast and crew, but none could pull it off with Carlton’s specific brand of delicate sensitivity.

To be sure, that premise alone doesn’t necessarily hold much promise: “three women with varying degrees of nervousness attempt to get it on.” It sounds like a clichéd porn premise intended for the straight male gaze. Good Kisser could not be further away from that, although it certainly works for all audiences open to the story it’s trying to tell. And it is a story, an absorbing one at that, hooking you into the specific motivations of each separate character.

Indeed, much of the story unfolds like a one-act play, once Jenna and Kate arrive at the home of Mia, all set for, as Jenna noted earlier to a ride share driver, “a date with another woman.” The dialogue is written so well that it would indeed work as a stage play without really having to change anything, at least not the majority of the film set inside the house, where the three woman cautiously make small talk, work their way through wine and tequila, play a couple of ice breaker games I actually thought would be fun to play myself, and yes, eventually wind up in bed.

There are, soon enough, minor twists and turns as we learn more about these characters, extrapolated from what is clear from the beginning: Mia is free spirited and down to go with the flow no matter what happens; it is clear almost immediately that Kate is more into Mia than a one-night fling might suggest and has ulterior motives; Jenna is by far the most tentative and prone to anxiety and panic attacks.

Maybe 80% of the run time, which runs at a brisk 80 minutes that feels totally appropriate for a straightforward story with such a small cast. Otherwise there are only two other cast members: the ride share driver (Courtney McCullough), and Clark, the writer who lives in the grandmother apartment out back (Carter Rodriquez). Both characters serve a specific purpose, although honestly Yuka the driver does so in a slightly more natural way. Carter keeps hanging out in the backyard with his dog, often chatting with Jenna when she goes out for fresh air, and although he makes it clear he knows exactly what’s going down, everyone is very chill about it. I liked the way Yuka fit into the story a lot better.

Still, it was no more than ten or fifteen minutes into Good Kisser that I found myself thinking about how impressively written the dialogue was, not to mention the production values, particularly how well shot and beautifully lit the three women consistently were. This production design is solid by any standard, but by independent, local production standards, it’s kind of off the charts. Nobody working on this film was an amateur. It’s rare that pretty much every aspect of a movie’s production has the same level of competence, no matter who is making it, considering what a collaborative effort filmmaking is. Still, that consistency is probably more credit to the director than anyone.

And yes, it does get to a point of some amount of sex scenes, which are also very well shot, sensual rather than titillating, although I can imagine plenty of lesbians in particular will find it very hot. The sex stuff in particular is shot, and edited, in a measured, almost half-dreamy manner, gentle clips of limbs caressing and removing articles of clothing, or close-ups of wet skin, a neck or a wrist, where ice has been swiped.

Virtually any story must have some kind of conflict that must be overcome or accepted, and Good Kisser takes so much of its time getting there, I began to wonder if it would even happen. It does, but it’s gentle and subtle in the telling of it. You’ll find no bona fide drama here, and it works. Good Kisser might be the most “chill” movie I see all year. It’s basically “Netflix and Chill” without any Netflix. The characters still express feeling and emotions; they just do it in more relaxed and controlled ways than typically found at the movies. Even Jenna’s occasional anxiety is presented with a dignified respect. I guess you could call this a meditation on open relationships, with an emphasis on the meditation part. I left the theatre both impressed and relaxed.

More games are being played here than just what’s at the surface.

More games are being played here than just what’s at the surface.

Overall: B+

HER SMELL

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

I left Her Smell with one lingering, burning question: What does Becky Something smell like? You never find out! No one discusses odor even once in this movie. Maybe you’re just supposed to assume something, I don’t know, pungent, because Becky is so fucked up? Unless this is a collective “her,” some kind of reference to women in general? I don’t know that we have the time to unpack that idea. Okay sure, maybe I have a problem with being too literal about things. But I do think a movie’s title should make sense.

Otherwise, it’s easy to imagie Her Smell being at least somewhat polarizing. There have been comparisons of this story, starring Elizabeth Moss as the frontwoman for an all-female rock band just over the crest of fame, to Courtney Love. I don’t particularly see it, myself. Writer-director Alex Ross Perry reportedly used Axl Rose as more of an inspiration. That makes more sense.

The plot structure is compelling. There aren’t very many scenes in this film, which runs rather long at 134 minutes. Each scene goes on much longer than usual, with each transition usually a pretty big jump forward in time. There was a moment when I actually found myself thinking I rather liked the editing, but that was before no less than three moments that could have worked perfectly well as an ending. One of these is an extended, almost jarringly quiet sequence with Becky in her house, bonding with the young daughter she has had very little time with. She sings her a song at the piano, the scene is beautifully lit, and I found it all very moving. After that moved into yet another scene, even later in time, it wasn’t even the last time I thought, Wait, there’s more?

There’s something weirdly off about the performances, even though Elizabeth Moss brings a crackling, vaguely sinister intensity. It feels, counter-intuitively, like rehearsed improvisation. It’s easy to assume these extended scenes of rambling dialogue are improvised, but according to Moss herself, every line was scripted. There’s something very impressive about that. There’s also something vaguely unnatural about it, though you can’t quite put your finger on it as you watch.

“Becky Something” is the stage name. Backing her up are guitarist Marielle Hell (Agyness Deyn) and drummer Ali van der Wolff (Gayle Rankin). When the film opens, the camera follows tracking shots of Becky backstage after a club performance, these other two women already exasperated from years of her manic behavior. Her ex-boyfriend Danny (Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens, here very familiar looking but hard to place with an American accent) brings their little daughter by, something I never quite understood. Why not leave the kid with his new girlfriend as long as Becky is messed up?

Becky alienates many people, most notably her mother (Virginia Madsen) and another trio of young women musicians who can’t help but fawn over her. But as unconventional as Her Smell seems in the moment, with nearly all of its scenes set in backstage halls and dressing rooms of theatres (except for that one lovely, quiet scene at Becky’s house), it has a long arc of redemption which, overall, is almost disappointingly conventional. There comes a point at the end where you half-expect the final shot to be a freeze frame of Becky and the band performing onstage.

As such, the writing is competent, but slightly under-cooked. It’s really the cinematography and the performances that make this movie, which command attention. It is a bit of a showcase for Elizabeth Moss’s versatility. It also, in the end, falls slightly short of the feast for the senses it clearly intends to be. Keegan DeWitt’s score is worth noting, with its semi-muted percussive tensions keeping you feeling nervous about what crazy thing Becky might do. Even that feels like approaching a boiling point without ever coming to a full boil.

She’ll keep you interested, even when the movie doesn’t.

She’ll keep you interested, even when the movie doesn’t.

Overall: B

HIGH LIFE

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

There was a moment in High Life where I caught myself thinking, I don’t know what’s happening.

Maybe half an hour I circled back around and thought, I have no idea what’s going on.

In other words, I found this movie difficult to follow. Its clearly cerebral ambitions make it easy to see how critics have generally quite liked it, but also how its box office take has been less than stellar (three weeks since opening, it has yet even to break $1 million). It is plainly a low-budget feature, and it is often beautifully shot considering those constraints, but to my eye there are moments when those constraints hurt it. In one early scene — “early” being a relative term given the seemingly endless time it takes before the title card appears — the main character, Monte (Robert Pattinson), takes all of the remaining crew members, all in a cryogenic sleep, and chucks them out the air lock of his ship. Each one of them falls directly down, as if gravity exists in space.

I’m no physics expert here — I only passed my college physics class at all because of a massive grading curve — so perhaps someone can clarify this for me. Monte mentions in voice-over narration at one point that the ship is in a constant state of acceleration, which has the effect of creating gravity for them. That part makes sense, but what of the poor souls Monte chucks out the door? Even if they are thrown out into space, since they are already in the same amount of acceleration of the ship, wouldn’t they still appear just to float away? Or would the laws of motion change once they’re outside the ship, and thus appear to fall away quickly?

Under different circumstances, such questions about a film could be argued as irrelevant. But, this is not just science fiction, but high-minded at that: High Life has intellectual ideas, and as such some across — to me, anyway — as a low-rent 2001: A Space Odyssey. And I will concede that High Life does a lot of things fairly well, chief among them being obtusely intellectual in tone. The problems I have with it are not just that it is hard to follow, but that whatever it does succeed at, plenty of other movies before it have done better.

So what’s the point, really? This is director and co-writer Claire Denis’s first English language film, but otherwise she is a longtime veteran of filmmaking. Apparently Robert Pattinson long had interest in doing this film. High Life might have done better if only its star had an ounce of charisma. He and Keanu Reeves should do a movie together sometime, maybe a buddy-cop flick about two guys who can only pretend they know how to emote.

The concept behind High Life is intriguing, at least: everyone on this ship is a convicted felon, prisoners tricked into taking an exploratory trip into space with the intent of harnessing the energy of a black hole. They left thinking they’d eventually come back, but they will not; along the way, they become the subjects of sexual experiments.

This is where things get weird. The ship’s apparent medical officer, Dr. Dibs (Juliette Binoche), herself a felon who once murdered her own children, is “obsessed with reproduction,” and collects regular sperm samples from the men on board. It’s never made clear why, but they aren’t allowed to have old fashioned sex with any of the women. They get to use “the box” as a masturbatory tool to release their sexual frustrations. This applies to Dr. Dibs herself, and she is the one character featured in a bizarre, ritualistic sex scene between her and the contraption.

Monte, it seems, has chosen abstinence as a mark of strength — including the denial of his sperm sampling.

Pretty much all of this stuff is told in flashback, as High Life begins and ends with Monte and his daughter, Willow, living on the ship in isolation. How he gets said daughter is another rather weird bit: I’ll only say here that it involves Dr. Dibs walking down a hallway with Monte’s semen cupped in her hands. At the beginning, Willow is a baby; at the end, she is a teenager (Jessie Ross). I fear I may have missed a key element to the very end, as they head off into the sunset (or black hole, whatever), but . . . I fell asleep. I honestly don’t think it matters.

This is as a sort of myster-scifi-horror movie, and it’s a very paced, quiet one at that. If you want to see that done in a compelling way, go watch a brunette Scarlett Johansson in Under the Skin a movie I also found imperfect but at least worth seeing, and worthy of recommending to others, depending on their tastes. High Life seems like a movie that believes itself to be something greater than the sum of its parts. I walked away feeling like it was just unfinished parts.

The futile search for meaning in this film’s universe.

The futile search for meaning in this film’s universe.

Overall: C+

HOTEL MUMBAI

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

Watching a filmed dramatization of a historic terrorist attack can be tricky. Such depictions of Mumbai’s coordinated terrorist attacks on November 26, 2008 — which ultimately claimed the lives of 166 victims — are much like films about the 9/11 terror attacks in the U.S. It’s a very delicate subject matter with varying types of passionate feelings associated with them.

Hotel Mumbai, as it happens, is a multinational production of Australia and the U.S., in addition to India. Much of the action was filmed in Adelaide, which is where the director, Anthony Maras, is from. The large ensemble cast is quite deliberately international, including the likes of Dev Patel as a hotel attendant; longtime and prolific Indian actor Anupam Kher as the Taj Hotel’s head chef; Jason Isaacs (known as Lucius Malfoy in the Harry Potter movies) as a Russian model agent of some sort; and Armie Hammer and Nazanin Boniadi as a well-to-do couple with a newborn baby looked after by a nanny (Tilda Cobham-Hervey), to name but a small fraction.

This is a film about heroism, sacrifice, and even a pointed lack of judgment toward those who specifically choose not to be heroes or make sacrifices. There’s a real respectability in that, which is really never seen in films. Were this a typical American production, there would be pointed focus on the heroes and survivors. Well, you should know this: not all of the principal characters make it.

These attacks in Mumbai may have been coordinated, but their execution and fallout were largely chaotic. The attacks included bombings and shootings in multiple locations, which Anthony Maras shows unfolding in a way that serves the narrative. But he smartly chooses one part of it on which to narrow the focus for this story: namely, the many staff of the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel who chose to stay and attempt to protect their guests. Many of them made it out — many of them did not.

There is too much going on and far too many characters to get to know any of them truly; as such, Hotel Mumbai is less of a narrative story than simply a very humanized depiction of a terrible event. Something like this doesn’t quite qualify as entertainment, but it is both gripping — and sobering. The fact that not all the characters the story singles out actually live to the end is a key element, underscoring an essential truth about senseless attacks. You don’t get to just choose to zero in on the “good” people who made it out alive.

And given the sensitivity of the material, Maras depicts the events with respect and tastefulness, showing violence in ways that effectively convey the horrors at hand without once even hinting at sensationalizing them. Regardless, it’s easy to see how it could be difficult for some to sit through. After the screening I attended, I walked past an evidently South Asian couple, the young man consoling the crying woman. Do they have some personal connection to this event? Are they just random, unusually sensitive audience members? Does it matter?

Apparently quite a lot of films have already been made about these 2008 Mumbai attacks. This happens to be the first one I ever saw, and its angle is the Taj Hotel staff and the sacrifices they made as they were stuck inside the hotel for hours, waiting for special forces to come from Delhi to this city otherwise defenseless against an attack of this magnitude.

And Hotel Mumbai is nothing if not consistent: an equal level of quality in every aspect of its production. It can be difficult to sit through, but at least from an outsider perspective, it seems to honor the many victims well, from the hotel staff to the guests to the local law enforcement who did their best with what little resources they had. It’s heartening, at least, to see that within a couple of years the Taj Hotel was rebuit, as the closing title cards state, “to its former glory.”

It’s a bit of an uncomfortable ride.

It’s a bit of an uncomfortable ride.

GLORIA BELL

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

Full disclosure: I did not realize until I sat down to write this review that Gloria Bell is director Sebastián Lelio’s English language remake of his own Chilean film from 2013, which got a U.S. run in 2014 and which I did not like. It’s a curious experience to re-read that review I wrote five years ago, describing a film virtually identical to this one but with different actors, and yet — this one, I actually liked.

I’d have to re-watch the original to truly jog my own memory about it, but one key difference seems to be the editing: one of my chief complaints about the original was its scenes that went on for minutes too long. That movie cocked in at an hour and 50 minutes and felt twenty minutes too long; this one is all of eight minutes shorter, and honestly it still could have worked better with maybe ten minutes shaved off — but, it undeniably works better regardless.

A key factor here could be nothing short of experience. I never made the connection until now, that Lelio also directed the very good film about Jewish lesbians, Disobedience (2017), as well as the truly excellent, semi-fantastical about a trans woman, A Fantastic Woman (2017) — which starred a trans woman, and garnered Lelio a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar last year. I am literally realizing only as I write this that Sebastián Lelio is a director who commands attention, someone whose films I should see just knowing he is the one making them.

It’s as though Lelio went on to make far better movies as practice before returning to Gloria to make it again, only this time he did a much better job. It would seem that not all critics agree with me — the crtitical consensus remains slightly higher for Gloria than for Gloria Bell (83 versus 80 on MetaCritic), and honestly, even now I find the score oddly high. Why do critics regard these as such bastions of excellent filmmaking?

When it comes to Gloria Bell, I would say it’s an example of very good filmmaking — a great showcase for Julianne Moore at the age of 58, to be sure, but realistically, how many people will mark this as one of her “great performances” in years to come? This is a very good movie that works very well in the context of its time, and that’s basically where it will stay.

As with Gloria before it, Gloria Bell begins with a series of scenes depicting a fairly mundane life of a woman divorced twelve years on, with two grown children with problems of their own who can’t be much bothered to notice her relatively lonely existence.

One thing that sticks out pretty early on, however, is Gloria’s agency as a character. She spends a lot of time going to clubs to go dancing (although, again, I wonder where these clubs packed with middle-aged dancers actually exist), which she loves to do and has zero self-consciousness about it. She repeatedly introduces herself to men, often making the first move. This is a woman not interested in wasting her time.

Soon enough, she catches the eye of a man, Arnold (John Turturro), and they embark on a relationship that basically establishes this film as a romance for the older set. Critics may love this movie, but it’s difficult to see it as a popular choice as a first date movie for young lovers. The trailer to Gloria Bell was edited to make it seem like a funnier movie than it really is; in reality, it has a subtle through line of melancholy to it. I won’t spoil anything, particularly a pretty satisfying move that Gloria makes in the end, but suffice it to say, Arnold does not turn out to be the greatest guy. I spent a lot of time rooting for her to just be rid of him once and for all.

I must mention, beyond all that, how great the cinematography is in this movie — everyone and everything is shot noticeably well, particularly Julianne Moore as the title character, who has never looked better. The movie itself acknowledges this, in a way, when a woman at the bar at the dance club asks her if she’s had work done, because she looks so great — and Gloria says she has not, and thanks the woman for being so complimentary.

Everyone looks great in this movie, though, which includes an impressive list of stars in supporting roles: Brad Garrett as Gloria’s ex-husband and Jeanne Tripplehorn as his current wife; Michael Cera as her son and Holland Taylor as her mother; Rita Wilson as one of her friends, and even Sean Astin in a stint as an evening fling so brief he barely has a couple of lines. One can only assume a lot of these actors were eager to work with the director of Disobedience and A Fantastic Woman; I can’t help but wonder how familiar any of them were with the original Gloria.

I’ll certainly give Sebastián Lelio this much: he’s come a long way in the past half decade, as he’s come back and remade a movie I didn’t really like into one that I rather did. The performances are great all around, and if nothing else, longtime fans of Julianne Moore should very much enjoy it as a mature, thoughtful romance that avoids cliché at every turn.

This might be going quite in the direction you think it is.

This might be going quite in the direction you think it is.

Overall: B+

GIANT LITTLE ONES

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

The more I think about Giant Little Ones, the more I decide I loved it. It’s the kind of movie that takes a minute to sink in, how pitch-perfect it was. It doesn’t exactly crackle with urgent energy onscreen; its sensibility is much more subtle than that. Its many nuances are what make it work so well.

I kind of wonder what the thought process was behind that title: Giant Little Ones — it tells you literally nothing. This is an incredibly fine-tuned story about confused responses to an innocent sexual act by adolescents, and some heavy consequences to those responses. All the kids are sixteen years old, by definition neither giant nor little. They’re young, sure; but hardly “little ones,” although the emotions they are dealing with are, certainly, giant to them.

The sexual act in question is pretty minor, and occurs between Franky and Ballas, who have been best friends since they were little. The scene is perfectly tasteful, showing nothing explicit whatsoever: for a few brief moments, after the boys have gone to bed together in a drunken stupor, quiet gasps and moans are heard from beneath a blanket, the top of which is all that’s seen onscreen. But this is a deliberate part of writer-director Keith Behrman’s narrative choices: when Ballas suddenly leaves Franky’s bedroom in a panic and Franky tries to convince him to stay, we have no idea what precisely happened. And in fact, word gets out about the incident, only it’s converted into a rumor that is ultimately untrue, and the truth of the matter effectively becomes a minor plot twist.

But it’s an effective one. There are also other characters that complicate matters, most of them other kids in Franky and Ballas’s lives. First there is Franky’s girlfriend Jess (Hailey Kittle), who serves an admittedly somewhat pointless plot distraction early on, as she complains about whether Franky is actually interested in her. But then, even after the incident between Franky and Ballas, Franky forges a connection, at least partly sexual, with Ballas’s sister Tash, who is in a fragile state as she still recovers a specific trauma all her own. All of this is not even to mention Franky’s divorced parents, played by a lovely Maria Bello as his mom and Twin Peaks’s Kyle McLachlan as his semi-estranged, gay dad.

All these details make Giant Little Ones sound inevitably over-complicated and heavy-handed, but with Behrman’s steady hand, all such pitfalls are seamlessly avoided, and the story unfolds organically, all of the characters coming across as authentically multi-dimensional characters. A huge amount of the credit there should be afforded the wonderfully expressive Josh Wiggins as the lead character of Franky — but a great deal also to Darren Mann as the tortured Ballas, and Taylor Hickson as his sister.

The greatness of Giant Little Ones is in its concurrent uniqueness and absolute relatability to contemporary audiences. This movie contains no cliché moments, no emotional “coming out” scenes; in fact, it’s relatively pointed in its refusal to define any character’s sexuality. Within the dialogue comes this great pearl of wisdom: “It sounds like you had a sexual experience with someone you really loved. It may be as simple as that.”

Furthermore, the as both Franky and Tash understand a specific truth Ballas is terrified to come to grips with, even though it would make things easier for themselves, they endure certain hardships just because they clearly understand that this truth is still not theirs to tell. It’s rare to see a depiction of teenagers, with all their inherent messiness, with such inherent integrity. There’s no question that at least some such kids exist, and it’s wonderful to see them get their due.

None of this is made explicit in the film, mind you — these are simply the conclusions I came to. Perhaps someone else would settle on a different point of view. That, really, is the beauty of such delicately executed nuance.

A close friendship complicated by ultimately normal adolescence.

A close friendship complicated by ultimately normal adolescence.

Overall: A-

FIGHTING WITH MY FAMILY

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

Fighting with My Family opens by thrusting us into the local Norwich, England wrestling world of the Knight family, playing up how passionate this foursome is about the profession. It’s based on a true story, and the actual Knight family is from a town called Penzance in the southwest of England, but maybe the filmmakers thought that would remind too many people of Gilbert & Sullivan? Now I’m imagining the overlap in a Venn diagram of Gilbert & Sullivan fans and World Wrestling Entertainment fans. It’s probably at least a little wider among Brits.

Anyway, the family consists of middle-aged parents Ricky (Nick Frost) and Julia (Lena Headey, about as far from Game of Thrones’s Cersei as she could get), running a local business of small-time wrestling performances. With their eldest in prison, their star players are son Zak (Jack Lowden) and daughter Saraya (Florence Pugh). To a person, they are well cast, a playfully vulgar, tight-knit family with working-class charm to spare.

This movie does not shy away from the ins and outs of the wrestling industry, and early on Ricky finds himself explaining that “it’s not fake, it’s fixed,” and the job can result in serious injuries. Not since Darren Aronovsky’s gritty The Wrestler (2008) has anyone presented so honest a look at wrestling; the difference now is that writer-director Stephen Merchant moves away from self-destruction for a feel-good movie about triumph of will and moving beyond the limits of initial circumstances.

It’s a pretty standard Hollywood story arc, but you know what? Fighting with My Family works rather well on its own terms. I suspect at least one secret to its success is the British angle; Merchant himself is English, and thus offers a vital perspective. It seems less likely this movie’s sweet sincerity would play the same way in the hands of an American filmmaker.

And yet, it also stays true to the sensibilities of wrestling, and in particular wrestling fans. In spite of some subtle jabs here and there (“Our fans can’t read anyway”), this movie has no contempt or judgment of those who love and participate in wrestling. It gets a nice couple of scenes with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and a decent supporting performance by Vince Vaughn as an American wrestling coach.

The basic story focuses on young Zak and Saraya’s dream of becoming professional wrestlers — together, but difficulties must be overcome when only Saraya gets chosen to move on in the selection process. It’s relatively transparent how much of the story here is embellished for dramatic effect: Zak must deal with boiling resentment; Saraya must look past her own judgments of other, prettier women wrestlers and learn to make some friends.

Honestly, this is the kind of movie that I would not immediately expect to like, due to my own admittedly unfair biases. I was super into a movie like The Wrestler, but that was a movie about obsession and self-destruction in deeply nuanced ways, with wrestling as the backdrop. Fighting with My Family is a very different movie, the kind that is heartwarming by design, and is also clearly made by and for genuine fans of wrestling.

I’ve never been a fan of wrestling. I am, however, a fan of solid storytelling, and charismatic performers, both of which this movie has plenty of. It makes it the rare kind of movie that, for instance, both my more populist-leaning family members and I can enjoy. You could say this is a movie for everyone, a great choice for mixed company with people who can rarely agree on what to watch. At least, as conventional as its storytelling is, it has a subversive streak to it. I wouldn’t quite call it wholesome, but I would call it great entertainment for the whole family.

The family that body slams together stays together.

The family that body slams together stays together.

Overall: B+

ARCTIC

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

Here is a movie so sparse, it can be difficult to gauge at a critical level — for me, at least. “Survival” movies can be tricky, and I spent a lot of time thinking as I watched Arctic whether I would like it better or worse if it truly ended on the bleak note it seemed to be headed toward.

It’s a little easier to imagine the response of the general movie-going public. This is no blockbuster. There are no hordes of people eager to see a film with all of two characters, one of them with no more than one or two lines beyond injury-inducing moans; the other himself spending most of the film with little to no dialogue. Whether the final shot of the film qualifies as pandering — after the film studiously avoids it up to that point — is up for debate.

I suppose you could call this Cast Away in the North, except that Tom Hanks was (and is) a bona fide movie star; Mads Mikkelsen is decidedly not. He is, on the other hand, a deservedly well-respected character actor, who spends the duration of Arctic with a grim determination. And, unlike a movie like Cast Away, Arctic neither has its character talking to keep himself company, nor includes any harrowing crash scenes to maximize the excitement factor.

That’s not to say nothing exciting happens in Arctic — a movie, which, curiously, first-time feature director Joe Penna (who also wrote the script) originally conceived of as set on Mars. But instead of forcing a lot of expositional context into the script, the story was stripped to its barest bones by switching it to a character stranded by a small plane crash in the Arctic. We are introduced to Overgard, in fact, in the middle of a daily routine that has clearly gotten mind numbingly repetitive for him. Catching a live fish from beneath the ice qualifies as a bit of excitement.

This is where patience is rewarded, though, because it’s this entry into the story that strengthens what exciting things do happen: an attempted rescue helicopter crashes nearby, leaving Overgard to find new purpose in nursing an injured woman back to health. Or at least, he’s trying. Days go on even after this, until he feels left with no choice but to walk the woman through the Arctic mountains to a seasonal outpost station.

Meanwhile, as he pulls this injured woman along on a sled, Overgard endures incredibly harsh weather, to the point of frostbite on many extremities; unfamiliar landscape that can be surprisingly dangerous; and a wandering polar bear that, in one scene, scared the living shit out of me. He sees that bear in the distance early on, and I was reminded of “Chekhov’s gun,” the idea that if you see a gun early on in the story, it best be part of the story later. I knew that bear would come back, and it was an effective tool for heightening tension.

And to be sure, Arctic is tense. It’s not especially exceptional as far as survivalist movies go, even if the shoot was apparently the most difficult of Mikkelsen’s career. It’s well constructed and stands up against most other films like it, but setting it in the Arctic still doesn’t make it special. This is simply a really good movie for people who enjoy movies of this sort.

I did wonder a lot about the production, which was shot on location in Iceland. What was it like working with that polar bear? How difficult was the whole shoot for the actors? Surely this was a physical challenge for everyone. The acting itself certainly commands attention — especially on the part of Mikkelsen, who is in every frame — but the characters here don’t exactly have wide emotional range. Mekkelsen does get a couple of chances to emote, at least.

I do keep thinking about the film’s parting shot — I can’t quite decide how I feel about it. It feels intended to allow the audience to decide whether or not it’s a happy ending. It’s ambiguous in a way more frustrating than compelling, a single second that perhaps changes everything. Or does it? If nothing else, a film this quiet holding interest from start to finish is an impressive feat.

Well at least I won’t go thirsty!

Well at least I won’t go thirsty!

Overall: B+