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

THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER

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

Yorgos Lanthimos's follow-up to 2015's truly fantastic -- and weird and disturbing -- The Lobster, leans much more into the uniquely horrifying. The Killing of a Sacred Deer is similarly odd in tone, but less like an alternate reality, even though all the characters have this largely static, deadpan delivery.

This is more like a Sophie's Choice for the 21st century, repackaged as vengeance rather than spite. The thing is, young Martin (a brilliantly unsettling Barry Keoghan) thinks of it not as vengeance, but as justice. It's easy to endure the tensions of this movie and wonder what the point of it was. What masochist would put themselves through a story like this? Well, I did. And it does bring to light how thin the line between vengeance and justice can really be.

Still, it can be difficult to decide how to feel about The Killing of a Sacred Deer. Martin has been hanging out with surgeon Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell), who we eventually learn was the surgeon working on Martin's father when he died on the operating table. We never get any explanation of how Martin has this power -- apparently it's beside the point -- but when Steven's youngest child, Bob (Sunny Suljic), suddenly loses all feeling in his legs, Martin takes responsibility. Not only that, but he tells Steven that since he killed a member of his family, he must kill a member of his own family as well. If he does not, then one by one, his two children, as well as his wife Anna (Nicole Kidman), will in turn suffer the same paralysis, then be incapable of eating, and then as soon as their eyes start bleeding, that will mean they are hours from death. The only way this can be prevented is by killing one of them outright -- hence, of course, the film's title.

And that's just the premise. The script is the weakest element here, but to its credit, over and over it moves beyond where other movies would go with its mysteries. This is not a movie where what's going on is kept secret from its characters until the very end. Surprisingly early on, Anna, Bob and teenage Kim (Raffey Cassidy) are all fully aware of what's going on. Like The Lobster, this film has some dark humor, although it doesn't indulge in it nearly as much. Ther's a darkly funny scene in which the siblings sadistically needle each other about which of them will be chosen to be killed.

It's difficult to describe this movie without making it seem just pointlessly weird. It has a deeply unsettling tone to it, camera shots slowly pulling out of or tightening in to images of beautiful composition. This happens whether it's near a large tree in a yard at sunset or in the corridors of a hospital. And here we have a middle-aged, married couple, grappling with the choice between choosing death for just one of them, or certain death for all of them. All except for Steven, who is assured he must live with the consequences either way.

The performances, the often oddly deadpan delivery notwithstanding, are solid all around. Nicole Kidman can convey an astonishing amount with just a sustained shot of her face with no dialogue. And Alicia Silverstone appears briefly as Martin's mother, quite literally unrecognizable: I saw her name in the credits and was taken aback: Wait, what? Where was Alicia Silverstone? She was in Martin's house, trying to seduce Steven by awkwardly sucking on his fingers.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer exists in a world much closer to our actual reality than did The Lobster, but still consistently feels vaguely otherworldly, even when characters are not getting ailments that local medical professionals are incapable of explaining. Yorgos Lanthimos has a knack for injecting just a dash of the supernatural, giving his world a sense of subtle yet disturbing wonder. He is a truly singular writer and director.

Perhaps he's singular to an excessively stark degree, for some. This is a film that will stick with you, but depending on who you are and what kind of tolerance you have for the specific, genuine psychological horrors it has to offer, it could stick with you in unwanted ways. And the end is slightly disappointing, having left me thinking, Um . . . okay? This movie left me incapable of being any more precise than that.

Martin wants to play the worst game ever.

Martin wants to play the worst game ever.

Overall: B

MOTHER!

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

The pretension seeping through every surface of Mother! begins with its very title. What's with that exclamation point? To me, it punctuates the contempt I feel for this movie.

From the very first frame, the reaction is What the fuck? It ends with a bit of a What now? Everything in between makes absolutely zero things about it clear. Darren Aronofsky is a truly accomplished director, but I guess in his middle age he's more interested in offering a cinematic version of a stroke. He clearly wants his audience to understand Mother! is about something. What is it about, then? Someone explain it to me. No, I take that back. I wasted two hours of my life on this movie already.

I don't even know how I could offer any spoilers. Mother! is rotten as soon as it starts. But it's a sneaky kind of rotten, like when you chew a bite of food a few times, pleasantly oblivious until you realize there are maggots in your mouth. Too disgusting for you? Well . . . spoiler alert! There's a point in Mother! where a rabid crowd of zealots eat the main character's baby. Why that happens, I couldn't tell you. Darren Aronofsky should have a chat with Cormack McCarthy. Now there's a guy who knows how to make effective use of baby eating.

I couldn't provide a logical reason behind a single one of the choices Aronofsky makes in Mother! Well, except maybe for his decision to cast Michelle Pfeiffer, in one of the countless mystifying and/or pointless supporting roles. Pfeiffer is legitimately hilarious in this movie, which is weird because of how dark and disturbing it is. For a while, anyway. Then it's just oppressively chaotic. By then, Pfeiffer has disappeared. But when she's on screen, she plays the wife of a surprise house guest (a cigarette-hacking Ed Harris) as a deliciously cold bitch. We need to see more of Michelle Pfeiffer.

The point of view is from Jennifer Lawrence's nameless protagonist. Or is it? It would sure seem so, with Matthew Libatique's cinematography incessantly following her around this gigantic house she never leaves, right behind her head. She's consistently bewildered. It's her one emotion during this story that I could relate to.

It doesn't take long to realize time isn't quite linear. Things switch around too quickly. We learn that she helped restore this entire house, a massive house with countless rooms that evidently stands in the middle of a field with no roads to it, after it burned to the ground. "I lost everything," says her husband, played by Javier Bardem. These are two excellent actors who, in this instance, occasionally don't seem so excellent thanks to some clunky or subtly bizarre dialogue. By the end, there's an endless sequence in which reality gets so distorted that I couldn't tell if this was all an echo of a literal apocalypse (a word Jennifer Lawrence actually utters at one point), or maybe her character was nuts and having hallucinations so elaboriate that at one point the house literally turns into a war zone. I'm talking graphically shot soldiers, bullets through the face.

Weirdly -- I mean, this whole movie is weird -- Mother! startled me several times, like it was trying to be a horror movie, but each of them occurs within the first half. I even jumped when the heart that appears in the toilet squirts blood. Oh, and the toad in the basement.

I'm sure film snobs will insist this movie's "deeper meaning" is clear and anyone who can't figure out what the fuck it was about or what literally any of it means is a moron. There's a strong sense of allegory, just nothing even approaching clarity.

I found the massive marketing push over the past couple of weeks to be suspect, and I was right. Someone saw this movie and said, "Let's bombard the public with so much advertising that they give in before they knew what hit them!" I, on the other hand, put my trust in a proven director. But, even the greats typically make one or two steaming piles of shit movies.

Could this have been better if it were edited differently, maybe? Surely? Did all these great actors really read this script and say, "I have to be a part of this!" Did Darren Aronofsky roofie them all? Seriously, I don't understand. I can't remember the last movie I willingly sat through that had so few genuinely redeeming qualities. We're meant to ask, Is any of this real? By the last quarter of this movie I was just thinking, Get on with it! At least give us the detail that ties this mess together. And then the so-called twist comes in the closing scene and it's simultaneously dumb, disappointing, and more confusing the more you consider everything that preceded it. All that's left is the compulsion to warn the world not to waste their time and money on this movie.

Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem are like  whaaat  and so is everyone in the audience all day forever.

Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem are like whaaat and so is everyone in the audience all day forever.

Overall: C-