TIGERS ARE NOT AFRAID

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

The original, Spanish title for the Mexican film Tigers Are Not Afraid was Vuelven, which translates to They Come Back. This feels a bit like an American marketing tactic to obscure how grim this story really is, and instead focus on fierce bravery. Never mind the fact that said bravery is among children orphaned by Mexican drug cartels and living on the streets of city neighborhoods turned into ghost towns.

To call this movie “haunting” is an understatement, and I mean that as a compliment. It didn’t even occur to me until it was over that this can fit comfortably within the horror genre, albeit a sort of fantastical version of it. This is the kind of movie Guillermo del Toro should be aspiring to. But instead of a twisted love story set in a dark fantasy world, this is a dark fantasy that reflects a profoundly bleak reality.

Clocking in at a brisk 83 minutes, writer-director Issa López gets right to the point, opening in a classroom where the children are tasked with writing a fairy tale — which Tigers Are Not Afraid then becomes. Gunfire is heard outside and the students and the teacher all get on the floor. The teacher hands Estrella (Paola Lara) three pieces of chalk and declares them three wishes. When Estrella’s mother later disappears at the hands of local drug lords and she makes a wish for her mother to come back, the wish comes true, but not quite in the way she wanted.

There are shades of the W.W. Jacobs short story The Monkey’s Paw here, although it remains to be seen whether Issa López is even familiar with it. López isn’t offering any lesson about interfering with fate. There is an altogether different purpose to the dead returning to 10-year-old Estrella (hence the Spanish title). Some viewers may want to brace themselves for the stark turns this story takes, with death being a constant reality for all involved, including the gang of children at the center of the proceedings. In one case, a child’s stuffed tiger returns along with him, now alive and apparently here to help, a strangely comforting presence with its regular purring under perilous circumstances.

The apparently supernatural elements of Tigers Are Not Afraid are used with subtlety and sparingly, which is a big part of what gives it a uniquely hypnotic power. These kids are on their own in mostly empty neighborhoods, scavenging for food and hiding from unscrupulous murderers, much of the time in once-grand abandoned buildings. And then wall graffiti of a tiger might suddenly be animated, or a bat-sized dragon might fly out of a cell phone. A thin line of blood slowly flows in straight lines around indoor spaces toward characters in fatal danger. In any case, it is all shot with stark, often beautiful precision. The kids, all of them amateurs with no prior acting experience, have a peculiarly raw screen presence.

The drug lords who are after them are given no real story of their own, beyond them looking for the cell phone stolen by the kid gang’s de facto leader, Shine (Juan Ramón López). There is no background there, and otherwise no real backstory for the kids either, except that they have all been orphaned by the drug war. All of that is besides the point, given how present these kids always have to be in the here and now. It was hard not to think about this when the gang buries one of their own, how as far as the rest of the world is concerned, that kid may as well have never existed. Who will remember him now? These kids live in functionally post-apocalyptic circumstances. Consider the many kids in other parts of the world for whom that is their lived reality.

Spoiler alert, there are no happy endings here, not really. Tigers Are Not Afraid offers a fantasy world in which a few select villains reap what they sow, but at a terrible cost, and if you think about it, the world they leave behind remains unchanged. The upside is merely the power of storytelling, giving lost children a voice. Issa López is certainly a distinctive voice in cinema, someone whose work I hope we see more of. It’s not often someone can lure me in with what essentially amounts to ghosts and zombies, but they feel different because their use and function are so imbued with meaning, however despairing it may be,

Benevolent undead stuffed tigers are certainly not afraid.

Benevolent undead stuffed tigers are certainly not afraid.

DIAMANTINO

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

Try to imagine how a movie gets to this point: A disgraced star soccer player, who has grown breasts, is approached by a young woman he thinks of as his adopted refugee son, who reveals her own breasts hidden under bandage wrap. This is when said soccer player, who, and I cannot stress this enough, had thought of the woman as his son, is seduced by her, and then they “make love,” even though Diamantino has heretofore been presented as a man with an otherwise empty, childlike brain that is completely sexless.

Wait, what? Conceivably someone with more capable skill than co-writer-director duo Gabriel Abrantes and Daniel Schmidt could have brought us to this point in a way that was at all satisfying or at least made some sense. This team doesn’t quite make it, always presenting a story that merely flirts with making sense, that’s somewhere two steps to the left of innocently bizarro fun.

And that kind of “fun” seems to be what Diamantino is going for. Instead, it tackles disparate topical issues by examining them, and mixing them, in vaguely uncomfortable ways. It starts innocently enough, introducing us to Diamantino (Carloto Cotta, nailing the “dumb jock” look) on the soccer field, playing in the World Cup for Portgual (from which this movie comes), getting “in the zone” by imagining he is surrounded by giant fluffy puppies moving through a pink mist that looks sort of like viscous cotton candy.

But, he misses a penalty kick and thereby loses Portugal’s chance at the World Cup title. In the wake of this, he decides he wants to give up soccer, and after he helps his father take some refugees of a raft onto his yacht, he sets his sights on adopting a refugee child. This guy is presented as so dumb, when discussing this on a nationally televised interview and asked where he might adopt a child from, he replies, “Anywhere! Maybe Canada.”

Suspected by the government of laundering money, a lesbian couple who work for the Portuguese Secret Service pose as a nun and the aforementioned refugee boy. They make this deal in an empty underground garage, because of course, that’s where nuns frequent. Then again, Diamantino is just a lovable idiot, after all.

I haven’t even mentioned his evil twin sisters yet. They are awful from the moment they first appear onscreen, and never in a fun way. All you can do is actively hate these women. They treat Diamantino, as well as their father, like shit; they are insanely entitled “rich bitches” (which they use as the password for their joint computer account, on a computer they share with their brother, like all spoiled rich kids, right?); who spent a lot of time literally screaming at people in unison for no particularly good reason. They are such awful characters they nearly make the movie unbearable on their own.

Somehow, Diamantino has gotten this far without ever developing a mean bone in his body, oblivious to getting duped at every corner, to the point where his sisters sell him out to experiments meant to clone him to make an entire new national soccer team. The aim? To replicate his “genius” on the field (aside from that last mistake, I guess) to the point of whipping up Portuguese nationalism, with the ultimate aim of “making Portugal great again” and leaving the European Union. That’s right: all of this is in service of a broader plot point about the evils of nationalism. The people who run these experiments, which Diamantino has been led to believe are “physicals” — he does find them weird, at least — are like bad carbon copies of Bond villains.

As over the top as it is, Diamantino as a film seems to think it’s being subtle with its “topicality.” Instead, it uses themes of ethnic tensions and sexuality in vaguely dubious ways. It can’t seem to decide between a “white savior” complex, a crisis of conscience, and its uniquely bizarre take on gender-bending. It does not engender much faith that it could tackle any one of those things, should the focus be narrowed down, with much finesse.

I can’t help but wonder how this movie plays to Poruguese audiences. To be fair, there is a clear undercurrent of satire that quite possibly works better in cultural context. Some of it is easier to pick up, such as Diamantino’s omnipresent underwear campaign, on billboards and such. But again, Diamantino is prestented as completely sexless, except for the one point where, to put it bluntly, he fucks the woman he thought was his son. The rest of the movie is so platonic in its explorations of everything about him that, even when a later fantasy sequence features him nude on the soccer field with the giant fluffy puppies, it is in no way erotic. He’s just like an overgrown, little boy.

And I just don’t get it. Maybe this entire movie is genius and I just don’t have the IQ for it. Otherwise, it’s a rare example where I am more in line with the befuddled audiences than the other critics who have surprisingly quite liked it. It’s the audience interest that really matters, though, and no one in the U.S. is really rushing out to see this movie. They don’t need to, and just trust me, neither do you.

A man who can use a little self-reflection.

A man who can use a little self-reflection.

Overall: C+

GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS

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

When I saw Godzilla back in 2014, I had high hopes for director Gareth Edwards, who had in 2010 made a name for himself with the indie alien mystery Monsters. That film revealed a director with real potential, which made Godzilla all the more disappointing. That movie spent its first half being static and lifeless before turning into an even worse disaster movie than 2012.

Godzilla: King of the Monsters, now, overcompensates for that previous lifelessness by jumping right into the action — although I use “action” loosely here, as it would be more accurate to call this film a “mess of chaos.”

Why did I even bother seeing this movie, you might wonder? I’m wondering the same thing. I literally went to it thinking to myself, These movies are never very good, I don’t know why I keep coming back. My only defense is that I held on to the idea that I knew full well it would be dumb, but the spectacle might me fun on its own terms. Some blockbuster special effects extravaganzas do work that way.

Well, not this one. This movie has not one redeeming quality. The closest it gets is that some parts of it are merely average — the acting, for instance — rather than terrible.

Otherwise, I hardly know where to begin. I found myself thinking, Why the hell would that happen? so many times, I can’t think of any specific examples. Maybe when Godzilla bites off one of the heads of the three-headed rival “alpha predator” that was reawakened in Antarctica, then that head literally grows right back in a matter of seconds, and this is explained away by somehow figuring out that it’s the one monster that is an alien, whereas all the others are actually native to Earth? That ridiculousness is just the tip of the iceberg here.

If I were Kyle Chandler, Vera Farmiga, Ken Watanabe, Ziyi Zhang, Bradley Whitford, Charles Dance, Bradley Whitford, Thomas Middleditch, Sally Hawkins, Aisha Hinds, O’Shea Jackson Jr., or David Strathairn, I would be embarrassed to be in this movie, but apparently none of them are. I guess they’re all happy to act proud of this mess since they got a nice paycheck? Presumably they got paid up front: King of the Monsters made half in its opening weekend what the previous Godzilla did. And trust me, no word of mouth is going to save this one: you might think that earning $80 million so far is nothing to shake a stick at, except it cost $170 million to make!

What a colossal waste of money. The special effects are subpar, the lighting is almost always too dark to get a visual handle on what the hell is going on, the editing makes it impossible to get any real sense of continuity, and this is in action set piece after action set piece that make up about 80% of the movie. Director and co-writer Michael Dougherty (Krampus) never takes things down a notch long enough to allow any time for the story to breathe. On the few occasions things do slow down, it’s apparently just to insult our intelligence.

At the beginning of our “story,” such as it is, it’s been five years ago since “the attacks” on San Francisco, and for reasons no one can explain, Godzilla has been in hiding all this time. We find Kyle Chandler’s Mark Russell off somewhere studying wolves — which evidently involves taking pictures of a pack feeding on a carcass, using a long lens from behind a nearby log otherwise exposed in a massive field. This is the “foundation” for which we learn about “apex predator” behaviors later applied to Godzilla, and the three-headed monster, and how all the other long-dormant monsters frozen in time suddenly wake up and answer their calls in one way or another.

Vera Formiga’s Dr. Emma Russell has devised an audio contraption that apes these so-called apex predator commands and somehow can render them docile — if used correctly and in the right hands. All sorts of wrong hands come into play, the one exception being Mark and Emma’s daughter Madison (Millie Bobby Brown), who of course has more brains and logic than any of the adults around her, which in this movie isn’t saying much.

We do get brief shots of other “massive unidentified terrestrial organisms” (MUTOs, they actually call them that), by the way, with three or four very quick shots and/or references to “Kong.” This is a transparent attempt at laying the foundation for the next film in this “cinematic universe,” Godzilla vs. Kong, also co-written by Dougherty and already in post-production. I’m exhausted already. At this rate, no one is going to care what Kong or Godzilla are doing by next year. I already don’t.

I’d be tempted to say that at least this time around you get to see Boston get destroyed, but . . . honestly, it hardly matters. You can barely see the city at any given time. And it’s just the same shit in a different movie, with no characters you feel any need to get emotionally invested in. This movie is supposed to be a thrill ride but I lost my patience with it within fifteen minutes and soon after became so numb to the onslaught of nonsensical carnage that it literally made me drowsy. Maybe that’s this movie’s best defense: Godzilla: King of the Monsters works if you have insomnia!

Hey, let’s have a sleepver! And watch this movie to go to sleep!

Hey, let’s have a sleepver! And watch this movie to go to sleep!

Overall: C-

AVENGERS: ENDGAME

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

The more I think about it, the more I find myself resenting this movie. Captain America: Endgame is on track to be the biggest global box office success of all time, and I would argue it’s the least deserving of that distinction of any film in history. The same could have been said of the previous record holder, Avatar (2009), but at least that movie had stunning, cutting edge special effects going for it.

Otherwise, when it comes to the record breakers, I guess this is just the new normal. At least Titanic (1997), corny as it was, had a certain gravitas thanks to the backdrop of genuine history. Who remembers anything about Avatar now except for its unprecedented effects? It didn’t even have any memorable lines, nothing worthy of enduring parody, no “I’ll never let go, Jack!” And what has Avengers: Endgame got? Just a bunch of people collecting paychecks. What will be remembered about this movie in another ten years? Literally nothing. (Side note: none of these “broken records” mean anything at all when adjusted for inflation, in which case Gone with the Wind still remains the most successful movie in history. And that, in context, actually makes sense.)

I would have had so much more respect for the Marvel Cinematic Universe if it had just ended with Infinity War, a bold, tragic end with half of life wiped out of the universe. But I knew even then, when I saw half of these heroes blow away into dust, there was no reason to think any of that was permanent, no reason for any true emotional investment in any of their fates. Superheroes were long established as all of them basically gods — not just Thor and Loki. Death doesn’t mean anything in this universe, even when it’s disintegration, and therefore neither does risk. Seriously what reason do we have to care?

That said, Endgame is not without its sacrifices, some of them with what at least appears to be permanence, and for that at least, I am glad. The whole plot revolves around the use of time travel to get everyone back, which is beyond predictable (and therefore hardly a spoiler), where characters point out the logical fallacies of time travel in several other movies famously based on time travel, while inventing logical fallacies all their own — not to mention self-contradictions. This might as well be a continuation of the Back to the Future franchise, which itself gets name checked.

Where I’ll give Endgame some credit, is in the sacrifices its characters actually make — none of them based on a plot device that can transparently be reversed with age-old storytelling tropes. This is where the movie actually managed to touch my emotions. Much has been said of how many times people have cried watching this movie, and I am not above admitting that I teared up myself at least twice. In fact it was exactly because of this expectation, the assertion that this film carries a surprising amount of emotional heft, that I opted to open my mind to it and actually go see it in the theatre — and I had not given Infinity War the same courtesy (hence my never having written a review of it). When I finally watched Infinity War on Netflix, I found it to be surprisingly entertaining, clever and funny, at least until that ending that was supposed to be shocking but kind of made me roll my eyes and say “Whatever!” By contrast, Endgame is comparatively overlong and disappointing.

I like a three-hour movie to earn its run time. This one clearly thinks it does just that, by asserting itself as the marker of the end of an era, the final chapter of twenty-two movies over twelve years. Endgame finds the time to callback something from probably every single one of them, some given more weight than others. Natalie Portman, with no lines, gets seen for about three seconds. Our heroes deposit themselves into the action of several of the previous movies, several of which had been terrible. The effect of retreading previous installments of the franchise very much has the effect of . . . you guessed it! Back to the Future Part II.

Sadly, that movie came out in 1989, which means a great many in Endgame’s audience is far too young to have any idea how unoriginal these Marvel movies really are. And I am not averse to superhero movies based on their very idea — I am averse to them based on recent history. I make exceptions for the exceptional: Black Panther, or even Captain Marvel. Those movies find new things to say, new ways of looking at this universe and new kinds of heroes to feature. They have a new take that is worthy of attention. Avengers: Endgame is the same shit, different movie — with an extra hour of it!

Speaking of Captain Marvel, she is criminally under-utilized, brought in intermittently as a secret weapon only to get outshone by other characters with longer histories even though she is more compelling. The same thing happened with Black Panther in the last Avengers movie. A successful ensemble piece is one thing; tokenism is another.

What about the special effects in this one, then? Maybe that is worth a look? Arguably, yes — I have never seen motion capture this nuanced, particularly on the faces of Mark Ruffalo as The Hulk and Josh Brolin as Thanos. But if you take your eyes away from the astonishing detail of their facial expressions and look at their entire bodies, you’ll see that they still just look like cartoons. As usual, this is technology very much still in development, and unlike practical effects rendered with truly skilled precision, this is all going to look dated before you know it. No movie top-heavy with CGI effects in the first couple decades of this century is going to have a very long visual shelf life.

If there is anything that sets Endgame apart, it is merely its position as a marker of the end of an era. if you have been deeply invested in all these movies since the first Iron Man in 2008, then I can see how affecting Endgame can be for you. I get that, I really do. But just imagine how much more affecting it could have been as something better! Because trust me, this could have been better. Instead, with all the callbacks and cameos, we get a movie franchise that basically sees its own life flash before its eyes. And that “Marvel Cinematic Universe” life, on the whole, was not a great one.

Marching off to a destiny of oblivion.

Marching off to a destiny of oblivion.

Overall: C+

SHAZAM!

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

Let’s get real: if you’re the type who is interested in any and all of the countless superhero/comic book movies now in existence, and you have an affinity for the lighter-hearted ones, you’re going to have a great time watching Shazam! You have no reason to read any more of this review. I mean really, why are you even here?

But, for the rest of us? Shazam! is still a pretty great time — for the last three quarters of its run time. Otherwise, it’s tonally inconsistent, has an under cooked plot, and would have benefited from greater depth.

I say all this with the full understanding that most of this movie’s fans won’t give a shit about such things. So what if I’d say I found it a worthy matinee, but feel no need to recommend anyone else rush out and see it? No one’s going to decided not to see it based on my recommendation.

I still have to pick it apart a bit anyway. Isn’t that what we’re all here for?

It could easily be said that Shazam! is one of, say, the two best DC Comics films of the modern era — the other being, of course, Wonder Woman. The two movies are of roughly the same level of quality, but for different reasons. It is, of course, easy to call them the best of recent DC output because, well, that’s a pretty low bar.

Shazam!’s biggest problem is a pretty big one: the first quarter of it unfolds in a strangely inorganic way, never quite achieving the tone of wide-eyed delight that the rest of the movie manages. This is kid of a long way to get to that point, especially when we’re introduced to 14-year-old Billy Batson (16-year-old Asher Angel) as a foster kid who, while he amuses himself with pranks involving the theft of police cars, is perpetually sullen and resentful, consumed with finding the mother who abandoned him as a small child.

So, when Billy suddenly finds himself randomly given the superpowers of an ancient order of wizards (and to say the backstory with the wizards has no meat to it is an understatement), it doesn’t naturally follow through that the grown-man superhero he becomes (played by Zachary Levi) would be more giddy about it than anything else.

That said, it is that giddiness that makes Shazam! so fun to watch, as Billy figures out through trial and error what his superpowers are, with the help of his foster brother Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer, giving the best performance in the movie). Billy has been re-homed into a large host family with a group of kids that are diverse in both age and ethnicity. One of the great running gags is the brain of a child — or teenager — inside the body of an adult. It’s kind of the superhero movie of the old Tom Hanks movie Big, where you find adults behaving like kids, but in funny and charmingly innocent ways.

This being a superhero movie, though, there must always be a supervillain, here in the form of Mark Strong playing Thaddeus, who we meet as a child in the movie’s oddly uncompelling opening sequence. He meets the wizard who is waiting for the person who is “pure of heart” who can take on his powers and guard against the demon monsters who represent the seven deadly sins (why? you got me!). He is deemed not pure enough of heart; the rejection becomes a lifelong obsession; he finds a way to become possessed by said seven “sin demons,” who represent one of the several plot points of the movie that don’t really work.

When Shazam! focuses on Billy, his delight at suddenly being superhuman, and his totally realistic 14-uear-old way of handling it, the movie works quite well, and makes for a lot of witty entertainment. Asher Angel and Zachary Levi both pair well with Jack Dylan Grazer as the foster brother, and the evolution of their familial friendship makes for good storytelling. The same cannot quite be said of the subplot of Billy’s search for his birth mother, or certainly of the ancient wizard with no particularly clear backstory, or smoky sin-demons terrorizing a Philadelphia holiday carnival. Who has a full scale carnival at Christmastime, anyway? That’s weird.

Much of the movie is well shot, though. The superhero and the supervillain can both fly, and there are some battle scenes both far above the city of Philadelphia and following them as they fly past downtown skyscrapers which are pretty cool to look at. Incidentally, this movie exists in the “DC universe,” which means the characters are aware of both Superman and Batman, the latter of who gets a couple nice references and punch lines. Apparently in the DC universe, there is no New York City, only Metropolis for Superman; Gotham City for Batman; and for Shazam . . . Philadelphia.

In short, Shazam! is not as good as it could have been or as I wanted it to be, but enough of it is uniquely entertaining to keep it from being a waste of time.

Also known as “Captain Sparkle Fingers!”

Also known as “Captain Sparkle Fingers!”

Overall: B

THE HOUSE WITH A CLOCK IN ITS WALLS

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

Fantasy stories about witches and warlocks aren’t exactly new, so it would be unfair to call The House with a Clock in Its Walls a retread of, say, the Harry Potter series. But in a world where Harry Potter exists, a movie like The House with a Clock in Its Walls still feels decidedly low-rent. It doesn’t have anything particularly new to offer; it’s also about an orphaned kid who realizes previously unknown magical potential; it feels like the start of an intended franchise.

One might wonder if the John Bellairs novel on which the movie is based feels low-rent. I never read it. But, it could hardly owe any debt to Harry Potter — which, it must be noted, was technically derivative itself, throughout the series; it was just better at adding a new, modern spin — as it was first published in 1973. This movie, though, as directed by Eli Roth, is the first-ever film adaptation, and having waited all this time, it does feel a bit like a cash-grab so late to the party that even the peak of early-21st-century movies with fantasy and magic has passed.

Roth is the director behind the first couple of films in the Hostel franchise, and he does bring a subtle undercurrent of horror in The House with a Clock in Its Walls. It’s a rated-PG kind of horror, clearly meant for kids but kids old enough to handle a few jump-scares. I jumped pretty hard at least once. And that seems to be the niche Eli Roth is attempting to carve here: Harry Potter dipping his toes in the horror genre.

Alas, the story, at least as presented here, just isn’t that compelling. Young Lewis (Owen Vaccaro) has lost his parents to a car crash at the age of ten and is being sent to live with his next of kin, a heretofore estranged Uncle Jonathan (Jack Black), who has a close but platonic relationship with his neighbor, Florence (Cate Blanchett). Lewis learns quickly that Jonathan’s house is alive with its very own magical personality, and is also afflicted with a hexed clock in its walls left by Jonathan’s late magician partner Isaac Izard (Kyle MacLachlan). Trouble brews when Lewis succumbs to peer pressure from a new friend at school and opens the locked cabinet he’s forbidden from opening. This is literally the single rule Unlce Jonathan imposes on him, but of course Lewis breaks it.

Much of what happens in this movie is due to characters refusing to be fully honest with each other about things. The story never gives any particularly plausible motivation for this caginess, except to contrive a story that winds up not being quite as exciting as it wants to be.

It doesn’t help that Jack Black and Cate Blanchett are so mismatched, have such little chemistry, that they almost seem like people from different movies. Blanchett is as great as ever, as it happens; she has a knack for intensifying her own charisma by being restrained. Jack Black is a different story, always just slightly over-acting and never quite believable in his delivery. This is surprising indeed, given how fantastically he played a teenage girl trapped in the video game avatar of a middle-aged mad in last year’s Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle. He clearly can be a great actor, and has demonstrated as much many times over the past couple of decades. He just doesn’t manage it here.

There are also running gags in this movie which are simply dumb, such as the “topiary griffin” that power-poops leaves out of its ass. It’s well-rendered CGI whose impact is neutered by playing for easy, silly scatalogical laughs. Jonathan looks upon the collection of mechanical dummies in his house, which eventually come to life, and says “So creepy!” — several times. Duh? On the other hand, I’ll give this movie credit for its brief forays into memorable weirdness: it’s not every day you see Jack Black’s head on the body of a baby, which even pees. Such an example is the exception that proves the rule, though: this movie hints at a direction that could truly set itself apart, but then never truly commits to it. A scene in which our heroes battle a yard full of living jack-o-lanterns could have been something far better executed than the silly farce of a scene Eli Roth makes it here.

The special effects are arguably the best thing about The House with a Clock in Its Walls, and it’s never showy. There’s a pretty fantastic scene in which celestial bodies and stars are conjured into the air over the house’s large backyard, complete with the topiary griffin batting at the stars like any cat would, and it is all too brief. So here we end up with a movie not great enough to sing its praises; not bad enough to complain much about. It’s just . . . fine. But unless you’re a fanatic for all-things magic, then why bother?

A trio with great skill at magic but not so much at chemistry.

A trio with great skill at magic but not so much at chemistry.

Overall: B-

CHRISTOPHER ROBIN

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

I wonder what the crossover audience is between one movie and the other that clearly inspired it, from 27 years before? How many people watching Christopher Robin had the experience I had, where it consistently reminded me of Spielberg's 1991 blockbuster Hook? In that movie, the question was, "What if Peter Pan grew up?" In this one, it was "What happened when Christopher Robin grew up?"

What happens is arguably a mixed bag, but I opened up to it, and allowed myself to be charmed. Christopher Robin is getting very mixed reviews, and if you look at it with even a moderately critical eye, it's easy to see why. But here is a movie in which paying attention to such things misses the point. Audience scores are far higher than critical reviews, and if we're being totally honest, that's a far better barometer of what the likelihood is that you'll enjoy it.

Do you love Winnie the Pooh? The old books, the old Disney cartoons? Christopher Robin won't equal them, and I don't think any Pooh fan will say that it does. But pretty much any Pooh fan will still be endeared by it.

I certainly was. Granted, I am also a Ewan McGregor fan, and he plays the grown up Christopher Robin. Directed by Mike Forster, who also gave us 2004's Finding Neverland -- another Peter Pan connection -- Christopher Robin has an odd through line of wistfulness, bordering on melancholy, even as it has a clear message of appreciating the simple pleasures of childhood.

The broad beats of the story are very familiar. Christopher Robin works for a luggage company in post-World War II London and is so consumed by his workaholism that he neglects his wife Evelyn (Hayley Atwell) and his daughter Madeline (Bronte Carmichael). It's slightly anachronistic that this child of the forties should be a young girl, being groomed by her father to emphasize the value of career. The choice not to make her a little boy feels less organic than focused grouped to appeal to 21st century audiences. Christopher's workplace is also surprisingly racially integrated, but, I suppose, so what? This is clearly a fantasy, after all.

And: it works. It did for me, anyway, in spite of the fact that in this stage of Christopher Robin's life, he's not the only person who can see and hear his walking and talking stuffed animals. Wherever Pooh and his friends go, which includes two different trips into the hustle and bustle of London, their personalities are not just a product of Christopher's imagination. Everyone can see and hear them, and they are at one point taught to "play nap time" just to keep people from freaking out.

In any case, a lot of Christopher Robin is . . . odd. What truly rises above it all is the cuddly, pure of heart personality of Winnie the Pooh (voiced by Jim Cummings, who also voices Tigger, in both cases having also done so for the cartoons since the late eighties). Pooh gets occasionally confused, but never hurt or angry. He takes nothing personally. He goes with the flow, and is thus a font of simple wisdom. He finds joy in a red balloon.

He reappears in Christopher Robin's life after thirty years, literally out of thin air outside his London flat, evidently just to snap him out of the distracted state of being a grown-up. When he converses with Christopher, even in this complex adult world, he is only capable of processing it in the simplest terms, often to hilarious effect. I laughed pretty hard several times. The same can be said of Tigger and Piglet (Nick Mohammed) and especially Eeyore (Brad Garrett, fantastic), and the rest of the gang. But Pooh is the heart of this movie, as is to be expected.

There is something slightly jarring about this being a live action film rather than animation, the stuffed animals all CGI effects as opposed to drawings. They look very much like real stuffed animals, in ways the cartoons and drawings we're all used to never quite did. But still they move and talk, and have unique personalities with which we've long been familiar.

The lesson, as always, is the importance of play, and how gloomy life becomes when deprived of it. None of this is new. But I was taken by the fish-out-of-water story of Pooh and his stuffed buddies navigating the big city with a little girl eager to please her father. The script remains the weakest link in Christopher Robin, which is unfortunate given that's the most important part, but here the performances make up for a lot. The charms offered by these stuffed animal characters are plentiful enough to render the wildly overdone plot inessential. Spending a couple of hours just hanging out with these guys is enough.

Hey Pooh, I think I'm tripping.

Hey Pooh, I think I'm tripping.

Overall: B

A WRINKLE IN TIME

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

If the original Madeleine L'Engle novel A Wrinkle in Time was any good -- and I'll just have to take your word for it on that -- then you're probably best just sticking with that. It seems to have been fans of the novel who were truly excited for the film adaptation, and maybe the memory of the book fills in the many broad gaps in the film. Taken on its own, the movie really doesn't work.

Watching this film, I kept thinking it was like The Never-Ending Story as seen through the prism of the world of Pandora in Avatar. The strikingly colorful visual palate is one of its enduring redeeming qualities, a feast for the eyes as a backdrop for a story that makes little sense. The effects are, with a few exceptions, very well rendered, and the cast seems to be having a great time as they move through them.

That said, A Wrinkle in Time is wildly imaginative in terms of its visuals, but fatally dull in content. It's rather a downer through much of it, contributing to an inconsistency of tone. Meg (Storm Reid) is a bullied teenager with no self-esteem, and this aspect of her character is the one plot point that ever proves truly affecting. The rest of the time, she and her adopted little brother Charles Wallace -- and for some reason he's always referred to as both names, "Charles Wallace" -- move through one fantastical world after another, with no concrete sense of why it's happening.

Three strange women show up: Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon), Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling), and Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey), turning Meg's bummer of an existence into one of mystery and fantasy. These three women, to their credit, are fun to watch, although making Oprah Winfrey of a size so giant as to make her seem like a god is a little on the nose.

The great flaw of A Wrinkle in Time is the script, which is clearly written with deep intent, but packed with dialogue that falls flat, filling characters' mouths with lines that are slightly off, never sounding like the natural way anyone talks in the real world. This approach might work better if the only world they ever inhabit were a fantastical one, but it's applied even more in the "real world" in which the film begins. Charles Wallace overhearing two teachers gossiping about his sister -- the way they talk to each other, which they believe is in confidence, has no sense of authenticity.

Perhaps in keeping with the whole fantasy aspect -- fantasy disguised as "science," mind you -- all of the kids cast are impossibly beautiful, and Deric McCabe as little Charles Wallace is exceedingly precocious, almost creepily so. Levi Miller as Meg's schoolmate and ultimate friend Calvin is a particularly handsome young man, and Storm Reid as Meg seems as carefully curated as any of them, although as a performer Reid seems to have the best handle on nuance. Otherwise the kids all seem straight out of central casting for a sort of generic perfection, giving them all a veneer of flawlessness that strips them of character.

So what of the story? This is the greatest challenge of the movie, since we're meant to believe Whatsit, Who and Which are assisting the kids in finding Meg and Charles Wallace's scientist father (Chris Pine), who has been missing for four years, but it's never made clear why. It's nice to see Meg develop into a more fully realized version of herself and gain some confidence, but that's a story that can be done a lot more effectively without the fantastical trappings thrown at us here -- and yet, those trappings are the only interesting things about the movie. I literally nodded off six or seven times, I found the story so dull.

I'd say that A Wrinkle in Time had great potential that it failed to realize, except I can't even figure out what its potential was. I left the movie just wondering what was the point.

I've gathered you all here today to ask what the hell the point of all this is.

I've gathered you all here today to ask what the hell the point of all this is.

Overall: C+

THE DARK TOWER

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

I'm trying to figure out who exactly this movie is for. By all accounts, it bears only vague reference to the source material, Stephen King's Dark Tower series of novels. Not that I ever think a movie is particularly beholden to its supposed source material -- I have long advocated judging a movie on its own merits. The thing is, this Dark Tower has hardly any merit of its own. It's incomprehensible, its premise is flawed at best, and it dialogue -- by a team of four writers -- ranges from abysmal to forgettable.

If this movie has any merit, it is its star, Idris Elba, who delivers a performance unworthy of the film itself. Here is an exemplary actor, someone who commands the screen, who gives life to otherwise clunky dialogue. It hardly matters who the director is, Elba shows up to elevate the material.

This material still isn't very high even after being elevated, though. At least Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets had spellbinding special effects. Then again, it was also way too long. The Dark Tower, conversely, is a mercifully short 95 minutes and has merely serviceable special effects. There's a sequence with an impressively rendered monster. The main issue with that sequence is it lacks clarity regarding where the monster comes from and why it's here.

The Dark Tower wants to have it both ways, presenting a story meant to be epic but truncating what should be a complex story to the point of incoherence. Trying to explain it here would just be a waste of time, except to say that it features rat-people who wear human faces as masks. Huh? The Dark Tower of the title apparently protects the universe from monsters that live outside of it, and the Man in Black is using children's minds to destroy it. There's this one boy from "Keystone Earth" whose mind is the most powerful and therefore the most sought after. Are you following this?

Matthew McConaughey is the Man in Black, and he proves not to be the best choice as the villain in a would-be blockbuster fantasy thriller. He's not particularly believable as a big, bad, evil dude, and as such, he lowers the same material Edris Elba heightens. McConaughey never quite comfortably fits into the role. Tom Taylor, as the boy who "shines" (meaning he has telepathic ability; when did this become a mashup with The Shining?), is somewhat inconsistent but fine in the context of the mess that surrounds him.

I might have enjoyed The Dark Tower slightly more if it didn't take itself quite so seriously. Instead, it's so misguided in its attempts at gravitas that it can't even manage to be enjoyable as a bad movie. It just gets lost in its own hodgepodge blandness. There are subtle attempts at humor when Elba's Gunslinger leaves his own dimension and navigates the boy's world in New York City, but it never quite works. A clear tone is never settled upon: is this movie confusingly dumb, or is it forgettably chaotic? I'd suggest you be the judge, but I can't suggest you see this movie.

Idris Elba and Tom Taylor search in vain for meaning in the lives they lead in this movie.

Idris Elba and Tom Taylor search in vain for meaning in the lives they lead in this movie.

Overall: C+