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.

CRAWL

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

How much can be said about Crawl, really? It’s so straightforward, such a to-the-point thriller, really all you need to know to decide whether it’s worth watching is the premise: a young adult woman (Kaya Scodelario) and her dad (Barry Pepper) are stranded by giant alligators in the crawlspace under a house during a Florida hurricane. And even though I usually avoid cornball thrillers, I saw that and I was like, “Sold!”

Well, okay, I didn’t exactly put it at the top of my priority list — this movie opened a month ago and I only saw it this week due to a lack of better options. But hey, when there’s nothing better around to see, it works great! Also, to be perfectly honest, I would absolutely recommend it to any person I know with lowbrow tastes. I don’t even say that derisively — plenty of lowbrow entertainment is worthy. And this director, Alexandre Aja, does it well. At least he did this one well; I haven’t seen anything else he’s done. The Hills Have Eyes? Piranha 3D? Don’t waste my time!

You might think I’m being a little inconsistent here. You might be right. But! As it happens, Jaws is among my all-time favorite movies, and this is essentially Jaws with alligators. Of course, Jaws is a masterpiece and Crawl is . . . not. The impressive thing about Crawl is how it manages not to be total trash either. Perhaps it needs to be seen to be believed, considering it basically mashes up the killer-animal-thriller genre with the natural disaster genre. Why didn’t they call this Hurrigator, anyway? I’ll tell you why: because it actually isn’t trash!

Sure, the script, by Michael Rasmussen and Shawn Rasmussen, is slightly corny at times. For a movie of this sort, the corniness being only slight is a massive compliment, considering how very much worse it could have been. The story beats are well polished, and clocking in at a tight 87 minutes with impressively paced suspense throughout, this movie never even flirts with being boring. A $13.5 million budget is not exactly huge, and they spend it well, with special effects that won’t blow you away but are still impressive given their clear limitations.

For what it is and what it promises to be, Crawl has few particular flaws, and whatever flaws it has are minor. It’s a thriller that delivers on the thrills. I suppose it’s easy to have a “take it or leave it” approach to the subplot regarding the estrangement of this father and daughter due to his being an overbearing swim coach. But can you guess whether that swimming skill winds up coming in handy?

A good majority of the film features only these two characters — the names of the two actors who play them being the only ones above the title in the opening credits. Sporadically other characters come into play — most notably local law enforcement directing traffic or doing rescue work, and a trio of looters in a convenience store across the flooded street. You can go ahead and just regard all of these characters as expendable. A few of them meet some quite entertainingly gruesome fates. There’s a dog too, of course, and just don’t worry your pretty little head over him. That said, I did kind of wish this movie would buck convention and just end with the gators having actually eaten everyone. I would have loved that.

Instead, of course, Crawl follows a pretty tried and true formula. A movie can still be good while following a formula, though. With something like this, it’s basically the trappings that matter. How realistic it is doesn’t even matter. What matters is how well executed the story is onscreen, and that’s where Crawl surprises. I spent half this movie with my fingers over my eyes, and I also had a blast. What more do you need?

Every horror movie needs a shower scene.

Every horror movie needs a shower scene.

Overall: B+

MIDSOMMAR

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

Here is a truly unusual movie, a story bathed in light, smothered in flowers, packed with imagery associated with the joyous rebirth of spring — and filled with horrors. That alone makes Midsommar, writer-director Ari Aster’s follow-up to Hereditary (which I did not see, because I did not want to be terrified), stand apart.

And although there is a shockingly gruesome sequence about halfway through, Midsommar is not especially terrifying. I know that going in, which was why I was open to seeing it — I generally avoid horror movies. I don’t particularly like being scared. Deeply disturbed? Well, I guess that’s another story! In the case of this particular movie, it’s just . . . unsettling. The horrors on display in the bright, long, early summer days of Sweden are a bit part of that.

In a relatively transparent narrative device, Midsommar starts in the dead of dark winter in the U.S., a fairly long pre-credits sequence revealing the source of massive grief for the protagonist, Dani (Florence Pugh). To say it’s a tragic loss for Dani in a seriously fucked up way would be an understatement.

Curiously, understatement seems to be Ari Aster’s M.O. This story unfolds at a uniquely leisurely pace, as though taking to heart the idea of relaxing in the summer sun in a hilly meadow. But this is a meadow concealing something unnervingly sinister. All Dani and her boyfriend Christian (Jack Raynor) know, however, is that they are tagging along with several other friends as guests of their friend Pelle (Wilhelm Blomgren) to his native Swedish town to witness a Pagan ritual they are told only occurs every ninety years.

Aster quite effectively gets his audience to let their guard down, particularly through humor, of which Midsommar has more than you might expect. This is especially the case with the most endearingly clueless-American of the group, Mark (Will Poulter), who spends a lot of time oblivious to his own cultural insensitivities.

This is one of many ways Midsommar effectively walks a fine line: it could easily become a commentary on the typical cluelessness of American culture. But for Ari Aster, it seems that would just be too obvious. When individuals of the visiting groups — including another couple from Britain — begin to disappear one by one, it’s tempting to read it as potential retribution. Josh (William Jackson Harper), for instance, defies the Swedish group’s wishes by returning to a ritual room in the middle of the night.

But any thoughts of moral standing of specific incidents are only a distraction. Something far deeper is going on here, with increasing levels of complexity. The group is given hallucinogenics the moment they arrive — it’s why Mark immediately freaks out a little when he learns it’s 9 p.m. even though the sky is still blue. Most of them remain under the influence of one thing or another for the rest of the film.

And then, horrific spins of varying degree are given to several Pagan rituals associated with the summer solstice or things like May Day, such as a maypole dance competition. One scene containing equal parts horror and hilarity involves a sex ritual. Indeed, these rituals run the gamut, from death to birth.

In a way, Midsommar is also a mystery movie, albeit one in which the mystery getting solved is not a relief to anyone. There is a kind of cognitive dissonance between the ample beauty of choreography and the darkness of the sentiments ultimately revealed to be behind them. It’s almost as though Ari Aster set out to prove that it doesn’t have to be cold and dark for truly frightening things to be happening.

And he does it with the help of Pawel Pogorzelski’s fantastic cinematography, and Andea Flesch’s incredible costume design. I’m not sure I will ever forget the indelible image of Dani, weighed down by both a massive dress of flowers and her own grief, lurching to nowhere through the fields with a burning barn behind her. I tried in vain to find a still shot of that stunning flower dress online. Perhaps it’s by design that, at least for now, it can’t be seen unless you watch the movie.

I hesitate to say I “enjoyed” Midsommar — although certainly some elements (like the humor) were enjoyable. Conversely, I certainly don’t regret seeing it. There’s really something to be said for a genuinely unique vision in film in 2019. That is this film’s true achievement, making it an unusually memorable experience, and for that reason alone I would recommend it.

Sometimes you’re just along for the ride until you realize you can’t get off.

Sometimes you’re just along for the ride until you realize you can’t get off.

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+

Us

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

There is a lot riding on Us. A great deal of expectations have been heaped upon Us. It may be a challenge to fully understand Us. We must try to make sense of Us! Wait, what?

Here Jordan Peele offers the promising-if-flawed movie that should have been his debut, before he demonstrated with Get Out how ingenious he really can be. Instead, he wowed the world straight out of the gate two years ago, guaranteeing that no follow-up could ever quite stack up to it. And the thing is, had Us actually been his debut, Peele still would have established himself as a filmmaker to be reckoned with, who commanded attention.

It’s only because Get Out became a cultural touchstone, became part of the American zeitgeist, that comparisons are inevitable. The substance of that film went far deeper than Us, although this film has plenty of its own subtext. It just doesn’t make as much sense.

To put it plainly, both movies have stories that hinge on preposterous concepts. At the very least, ridiculous though it was, the revelation of “what’s going on” in Get Out made some sense. I left Us feeling like I didn’t quite get it. But, I sure did like the journey getting there. This is an unusual experience.

One of the many fascinating things about Us is its almost pointed avoidance of any kind of racial issues. There is not so much as an acknowledgment of the very existence of racism in the entire movie. This is a glaring departure from Get Out. Clearly, though, in the Us universe, people of different races exist. It just happens that the family of the protagonist is black. Jordan Peele’s metaphors, which get a little more obtuse here, are aimed far more broadly. When the “evil twin” counterparts of this four-member family is asked who they are, the response is simply, “We’re Americans.”

Until a period of exposition near the end, a monologue meant to explain where these people come from and why they exist that can best be described as, “Huh?”, Us as a movie is uniquely compelling. We first meet the lead character, Adelaide, as a little girl who wanders off and into a carnival fun house mirror attraction. Even before that, our first glimpse of her is a bit of clever camera work: 1986 television commercials on a TV screen, one of them for the “Hands Across America” benefit (this later becomes a key plot point), fade to black for a moment — and we see young Adelaide’s reflection.

Moving to the present day, Adelaide has grown up into a woman played incredibly by Lupita Nyong’o; she has a husband, Gabe (Black Panther’s Winston Duke); they have two children, Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex). They have come to a vacation house near the Santa Cruz beach of Adelaide’s youth, and after some establishing scenes to get to know this family, it’s not long at all before they are all under siege in their own house, by each of their doppelgangers, in an extended sequence that is uniquely creepy, if not outright terrifying. Given long sequences like this, Jordan Peele spends a lot of time in Us doing a lot with very few characters and actors — although a large amount of screen time does feature the same actors playing two parts in the same shot.

And this ultimately involves Adelaide and Gabe’s miserably married friends, played by Elisabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker, who have a couple teenage daughters of their own. The action moves over to their house, where new surprises present themselves, and things get really bloody.

The performances, to a person, are excellent. In countless cases, this includes wildly different performances by the same actor — particularly the case with Lupita Nyong’o, who gets the most screen time. It was not too long ago that any movie with this very same story would have featured a white family by default, and the protagonist absolutely would have been the dad. One great thing about Us is how casually it changes those trends. There is no particular political statement being made about it; this just happens to be a genre film — that being horror — in which, for instance, the protagonist just happens to be a woman. In fact, Gabe is kind of just a lovable dufus, a guy so square his teen daughter still rolls her eyes at him even in the midst of fighting off a murderous rampage.

That said, even as a much more straightforward genre film than Jordan Peel’s previous offering, Us is still more than just another horror movie. Its concept makes for some clever tag lines (“watch yourself”; “you are your own worst enemy”), and there are hints at something provocative under the surface. If Us has any real problem, it’s that its subtext never feels fully fleshed out. The intent there is always a bit cloudy.

Still, this is just a fantasy — albeit an especially dark fantasy, and an undeniably entertaining one. I tend to avoid horror films as a general rule, only occasionally making exceptions. In spite of what remains mystifying about it in the end, whatever exception anyone needs to make to see this movie, it’s worth doing. And if you’re already a horror fan? Frankly most horror films are so terrible that this one will shine as a beacon of high art.

Maybe not the most comforting mirror image.

Maybe not the most comforting mirror image.

Overall: B+

SUSPIRIA

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

Spoiler alert: I don’t know what the fuck is going on in Suspiria, and I’m not convinced you will either. Or if you do, maybe you can get back to me and fill me in? Because I am at a loss.

More specifically: what, exactly, are all the witches led by Madame Blanc (a truly fantastic Tilda Swinton, the only great thing about this movie) preparing to do with this new talented dancer arriving at a 1970s Berlin ballet school, Susie (Dakota Johnson)? This is the central conceit through most of this far too long, 152-minute film, culminating in a bloody climax bewildering in its excess, and I could not tell you what was supposed to have happened to Susie in the process. Is she possessed by one of the “three mothers” in the end? Was she actually one of them all along? Susie possesses a curious confidence throughout this story, no matter how truly bizarre and incomprehensible things get.

Swinton, by the way, plays multiple parts. In addition to Madame Blanc, she is also plays the one significant male part, a German psychiatrist by the name of Dr. Josef Klemperer. If this is some abstract feminist statement, it is neutralized a bit by the fact that both the director (Call Me By Your Name’s Luca Guadagnino, whose previous film, A Bigger Splash, also starred both Dakota Johnson and Tilda Swinton — and was much better than this) and the script writer (David Kajganich, also of A Bigger Splash) are men. The original, Italian 1977 version of Suspiria was at least co-written by a woman; in this largely incoherent remake — still set in the seventies — one is left to wonder whether a woman director and/or writer would have made the same choices. By the end, it seems to indulge in blood and gore just for the sake of blood and gore.

To put it more succinctly: at the beginning of this Suspiria, I didn’t know what the fuck was going on. Then Susie arrives at this ballet school, and a comprehensible story seems to be taking form. And by the end . . . I didn’t know what the fuck was going on.

With that in mind, what else can I tell you about it, really? There is a sequence relatively early on in which a spell put on Susie during a rehearsal performance is translated into an instantaneous curse on one of her classmates (Elena Fokina), forcing her into mimicked dance moves to such an exaggerated degree that her limbs are twisted to the point of breaking countless bones in her body. It is effectively horrifying, and the one moment in the film that makes it feel like things are going somewhere.

Later — much, much later; this movie is way too long — the dance troupe puts on a fantastically choreographed performance, shot with equal parts beauty and tension, itself a sequence that could have had far greater impact if it had not occurred far past the point of losing interest in whatever the hell is going on. It’s directly after this great dance, swirling around Dakota Johnson as its star, when witchy rivalries come to a head, more ritualistic, dark dances of the sort that would certainly horrify your conservative aunt take place, and virtually everyone onscreen gets drenched in blood. It’s perhaps what Stephen King’s Carrie would have presided over had she gone on to become a Satanic cult leader.

Suspiria is the sort of movie that prides itself on being simultaneously impenetrable and obtuse, far more enamored with itself as “art” than as storytelling. I can see Film Theory students gleefully intellectualizing its countless contradictions, debating its themes, whatever the hell they are. Some say this movie exists in a theoretical region where any viewer can ascribe any label they like to it, and perhaps that is true. So I’ll take my own stab at it: this is a movie with literally nothing to say.

That is, not even as an example of the horror genre. Sure it has its disturbing moments, but I generally avoid horror films because I don’t like being startled or scared. The very opening sequence, the only scene in which we see Chloë Grace Moretz as the running-hysterical ballet student Susie has come to replace, seems designed to set us up for that very expectation: the horrors she runs from are what we are in for. This movie is more interesting in being confusing, to the point of nullifying any potential horrors.

I would have been better off just taking a nap.

Maybe just find this dance on YouTube in a month.

Maybe just find this dance on YouTube in a month.

Overall: C+

ASSASSINATION NATION

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

Assassination Nation is basically an ultra-violent feminist revenge fantasy. Full disclosure: that kind of makes it my jam.

It’s far from perfect. But when a quartet of teenage girls are turning this country’s love of guns on its head, annihilating their mid-sized town’s institutionalized misogyny, basically in justifiable self-defense, who gives a shit? This is the kind of movie Quentin Tarantino might have made if he weren’t a willfully ignorant shit bag. Writer-director Sam Levinson knows what’s up.

Granted, it took me a minute to come around to this movie. Taking a hard look at our social media, tech-obsessed culture isn’t exactly novel, and near the beginning, as we meet Lily (Odessa Young) and her three best friends, there’s a fairly chaotic sequence with an extended period of split screen with three panels of action to follow. I found myself thinking, if the whole movie is like this, I’m not going to like it nearly as much as I wanted to.

I suppose you could call this a satire, except the satirical elements veer between lacking clarity and being far too obvious. The story, in which an entire town goes wild after an unidentified hacker leaks half of their entire digital histories for public consumption, is wildly contrived — the time it takes for any effective law enforcement to arrive strains credibility. Then again, to over-focus on that misses the point.

Levinson has much to say about our culture’s double standards, pretty much none of it new. The key is how he says it — and to his credit, that does set this movie apart. And once those nearly incomprehensible early scenes level off, the story propels forward with a kinetic energy aided by a propulsive soundtrack and exceptional editing.

One scene in particular stands out. Lily and her friends Bex, Em and Sarah (Hari Nef, Abra and Suki Waterhouse, respectively) have been falsely accused of perpetrating these leaks, and a mob of self-appointed town vigilantes have secretly descended upon the house in which they hang out. The camera steadily swoops from one side of the house to the other and back, gazing in through windows and sliding glass doors, observing attackers as they make their way inside and capture them. It’s a sequence as suspenseful as those in the best thrillers.

It devolves into a shootout, as does a whole lot of the rest of the movie. Characters you’re rooting for die, and it gets very bloody very quickly. The flip side is that these young women are given agency not often seen in movies at all, let alone in movies of this sort.

Bex, by the way, is a young trans woman, played by — wait for it! — a young trans woman. Specifically, model Hari Nef. This should be incidental, but we still live in a world where this is important. For a while I wondered if she was playing a cisgender woman, which would have been a forward-thinking choice in its own right. But then Bex identifies herself as trans, as she declares no empathy whatsoever for the town’s mayor, the first victim of a hack — because he was a conservative politician working against queer equality. Actually, more than once, the way Bex puts it is “LGBTQIAA people,” and it’s delivered with no resentment whatsoever at having to rattle off all those letters. (It took me a while to figure out why the two A’s — oh, right: asexual and allies.) And while that mayor’s hypocrisy brings him down, his proclivities are treated with unusual respect: when photos of him cross-dressing are made public, these kids only zero in on his terrible taste in lingerie.

Lily and her other friends are generally indifferent to all this, except when Lily suggests empathy even for those who might be their enemy. By and large, all three girls are preoccupied with typical stuff, albeit with some vaguely dark undertones — such as Lily’ predictably problematic sexting relationship with her much-older neighbor (Joel McHale). Lily gets some threatening online messages early on from the unknown hacker, and she’s smart enough to look up the IP address at their source. Of course, this digital meddling clearly designed to pitch everyone in this town against each other comes from . . . Moscow, Russia. You can’t get much more on the nose than that but whatever.

The crux of it all, really, comes down to Lily being slut shamed, thanks to the hundreds of selfies taken in various states of undress texted to her neighbor, now open for the entire pubic to see. But Assassination Nation also takes aim at mob mentality and knee-jerk reactions in public shaming, such as when the local high school principal gets hacked, and the town goes apeshit and accuses him of being a pedophile because he happens to have naked photos of his daughter when she was six. They all live in world where everything is sexualized, and then sexuality is demonized.

After the bloodbath that is the movie’s final twenty minutes or so, sort of John Wick meets Carrie for the 21st century, the central mystery of who was really behind the leaks is revealed. It includes a kicker of a last line that evokes the notion that “some people just want to watch the world burn” — filtered through the stereotypical vapidity of Generation Z. Honestly the gun fighting gets a little tedious well before we get to that point, but again, maybe that’s also the point.

A fair amount of Assassination Nation is overstuffed, overdone and overblown. That didn’t stop me from having a blast watching these young women turn the tables and kick some ass of their own — even if it looks increasingly like their defiance is simply an act of taking their adversaries down with them. The movie’s opening title sequence includes a litany of “trigger warnings” — all the sex and violence and abuse and assault and attempted assault you’re about to see. It’s about a town that makes a mess of things, and the movie itself is a bit of a mess at times. But it’s an exhilarating mess.

Who’s the bitch whore now?

Who’s the bitch whore now?

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-

THE LITTLE STRANGER

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

The genre of The Little Stranger is perhaps up for debate. iMDB.com lists several genres for it: "Drama | Horror | Mystery | Thriller." I would agree with three of those, in that order. I wouldn't call it particularly thrilling.

And I knew nothing of this movie until mere hours before seeing it. I felt like going to see a movie, and did something I very, very rarely do: just looked up what was playing at the theatre I wanted to go to, and made a choice. Okay, I did look it up on the critical aggregate websites, and was satisfied to see it getting generally good reviews. I do rather like Domhnall Gleeson. I don't generally go for horror, but what few things I found online seemed to stress this movie opts more for a mood of impending dread than jump scares. I can go for that.

I did not realize until she showed up in the movie that it also stars Charlotte Rampling, as the mother living in the post-World War I British mansion in which most of it is set. Here is a woman with a bit of dipshittery in interview comments in recent years -- but a great actor. She has a knack for conveying warmth that has a tinge of something sinister just beneath the surface.

Her grown children, Caroline and Roderick (Ruth Wilson and Will Poulter), live with her, along with only one young maid (Liv Hill), in a giant house long since past its prime and now falling into disrepair. Gleeson is Faraday, the son of a former maid in the same house, now a local doctor who comes to meet the Ayres family when called upon to treat Betty the house maid.

The story is told entirely through the eyes of Faraday, who has a vivid memory of once getting inside the house as a child, and how it basically became a mythological place in his mind. As he gets to know the Ayers family, they seem in turn to be going mad. It's well into the film, maybe more than halfway, before it even becomes clear the family lost a young child many years ago, and after a terrible incident with another visiting little girl and the family dog, they become increasingly convinced the deceased daughter is haunting the house.

There is a curious way this story, directed by Lenny Abrahamson (Room) and written by Lucinda Coxon (The Danish Girl) based on a novel of the same name by Sarah Waters, moves from what seems a straightforward drama tinged with mystery to something closer to mystery-horror. It's fairly gradual. No sudden plot turns. As Faraday holds onto his skepticism, however, we the viewer come to know that certainly something mysteriously horrible is going on, especially in a pivotal scene when the older Mrs. Ayers appears to be attacked by unknown forces in a empty upstairs bedroom. Things get subtly weird.

--Too subtle, arguably. I can get into slow-moving stories when a palpable sense of mood and atmosphere is conjured. The Little Stranger offers some real tension and a certain dread, but none of it as palpable as it could be. Then it ends with a shot ambiguous to the point of being baffling. I basically left the theater thinking, What's that supposed to mean? It seems I was supposed to. Ambiguity can be satisfying, but it isn't particularly here. At least the story still kept me interested the entire time.

Wait, what?

Wait, what?

Overall: B

THE ENDLESS

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

Well, you should be relieved to know that, counter-intuitively, The Endless clocks in at just under two hours. In the wrong hands, even at that length, a title like that could be dangerously provocative. In this case, even after the premise proves a little contrived, the story is consistently compelling.

It's easy to say essentially the same words about a whole bunch of different movies, after you've seen and discussed enough of them. It can take a lot for a movie to stand out. The odd thing about The Endless is that it certainly sets itself apart, but struggles to be especially memorable in the vast ocean of cinema history. Should you rush out and see this in the theatre? "Rush" is a strong word. I mean, I don't regret seeing it.

The best thing with The Endless is not to think too much about the details. It's better if you just go with it. I get hung up on strange details after the fact, like co-directors Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead playing the lead characters, brothers named . . . Justin and Aaron. According to the credits, in the movie their last name is Smith. Justin Benson, incidentally, wrote the script. This is the third feature film they have made together.

These brothers, as the story begins, receive a camcorder videocassette in the mail. On the tape is a recording of a young woman who was at the "death cult," as they have convinced themselves it was, they left nearly ten years before. Their lives are tedious and teetering on poverty and friendless and without romance, and Aaron convinces Justin to go back to the "commune" for a visit.

It's hardly unpredictable that this cult, which never is given a specific name, is not quite what it seems. Not to us, and not to Justin and Aaron. This extends even to what turns out to be their quite extensive past with this group of people, with is curiously top-heavy with men as opposed to women. I kept wondering about this, whether it was a specific artistic choice or just the common byproduct of casting in most movies. Out of maybe ten key characters, only two of them are women. And antidote to this, particularly when it comes to stories with mystical mysteries, might be revisiting the films written by Brit Marling (Another Earth, Sound of My Voice; she also did the Netflix series The O.A.).

These brothers, anyway, are from San Diego, and presumably the location of the people in this "cult" or mysterious "commune" or whatever you want to call it, is not particularly far from there. The Endless was clearly made on a small budget, and the filmmakers certainly make the most of what little they had. Things get weird in unexpected ways. To a degree, The Endless surprised me with elements of horror. It scared the shit out of me more than once.

What turns out actually to be going on, which is a stretch when it comes to plausibility, fascinates more than it horrifies. Benson and Moorhead use this construct as a device to tell the story of a close and complicated relationship between brothers. The more it focuses on that, the cornier it gets. Even more than when it focuses on the potentially supernatural.

Benson and Moorhead also served as co-producers and co-editors, and, while Benson wrote the script, Moorhead served as cinematographer. Taking on so many more roles than any individual usually does on a given movie production is indeed impressive, and The Endless comes across better in that context. These guys clearly have talent. Sure, it's the kind of talent that tends to stay in the realm of low-budget, independent film, but the stories they tell are well suited to such constraints.

Things aren't as obvious as they seem!

Things aren't as obvious as they seem!

Overall: B