AD ASTRA

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

I kind of lost my patience with the pretensions Ad Astra from the very start. That very title, in Latin, translates in English to To the Stars. There is no reason to use the Latin title other than to put on airs that it’s a higher-minded movie than it really is.

And even before that title card appears, we are informed this is the “near future.” in a “time of hope and conflict.” In other words, the story begins by oversimplifying global complexities with overused science fiction buzz words and platitudes. What follows is set in a universe that features lived-in settlements and stations by multiple nations on both the moon and Mars. There is no universe in which such things are in the “near future,” unless we’re considering what will be decades away, at best, the “near future.”

Okay, so I’m nitpicking. It’s just a movie. Except it never feels like Ad Astra regards itself as “just a movie.” It is technically very well executed, beautifully shot, with universally convincing special effects which serve the story rather than the other way around. It’s all done, though, as a sort of meditative exercise, Brad Pitt as the astronaut Roy McBride on a classified mission to save the world from mysterious power surges wreaking havoc around the globe. His destination is an outpost at the edge of the solar system, where Roy’s revered astronaut father H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones) has long been thought to have died.

And in the end, Ad Astra is far more concerned with this father-son relationship than it is with any clarity regarding these “surges” being traced from that outpost. I spent a lot of time wanting more information about that, and the final cut of the film is even less forthcoming than the trailer was. The trailer features a clip not actually in the movie, of Liv Tyler as Eve, talking to Roy in a hospital bed, about “the surge” and how crazy things are everywhere. Director and co-writer James Gray (The Lost City of Z) can’t be bothered to give any tangible sense of that apparent chaos, save for a couple brief news clips detailing the tens of thousands dead as a result.

Instead, the focus stays exclusively on Roy, and his unique ability to remain calm in any and all situations, and the shock of discovering his father is thought to be alive after all. Ad Astra then becomes a relatively quiet account of his journey, making his way from Earth to the moon, then on to Mars, then on to the research outpost by Jupiter. Nearly every other character exists only on part of his journey, such as Donald Sutherland as his escort to the moon, or Ruth Negga as the woman who assists him on Mars. Even Tommy Lee Jones’s screen time is surprisingly limited in the end, with very little opportunity for much in the way of acting. Liv Tyler is particularly underused, almost to the point of being wasted, existing almost exclusively in fleeting moments on things like saved video clips Eve once sent to Roy on his missions.

Broadly speaking, Ad Astra has nothing new to say, and not a whole lot new to show us. It does have a couple of memorable action set pieces for a movie in which not much else actually happens, including a dangerous chase scene on the surface of the moon, and another fairly frightening sequence with escaped lab monkeys. In the end, though, this movie is short of substance.

Damn is it beautiful to look at, though. If you can appreciate such things as well-executed visual effects and cinematography on their own merits, then those things will make up for a lot. In other words, I can only imagine recommending this movie to others based on conditional criteria. That would include perhaps the most noteworthy aspect of the movie: Brad Pitt. As an actor, Pitt has never turned in a more affecting, nuanced performance, and an Academy Award nomination would be well deserved. It is a tragedy that his personal towering achievement should get lost in something otherwise so forgettable and thematically muddled.

Ad Astra is all over the place, in terms of quality. Some viewers may find some of it dull, but I did not — I was engaged from start to finish, albeit with several moments that encourage a bit of eye-rolling. I did not find this movie particularly believable on the science fiction side of it, none of which is necessary for a story about an abandoned son searching for his father. Unless, I suppose, the expanse of the solar system is needed as a metaphor for the emotional distance between them.

Hey did anybody see Stanley Kubrick walk through here?

Hey did anybody see Stanley Kubrick walk through here?

Overall: B

POKÉMON DETECTIVE PIKACHU

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

Fairt warning right up top: I literally know nothing about Pokémon, aside from its immense global popularity, the fact that it features an array of adorable and ugly creature characters, and it was very much part of a zeitgeist-defining mobile game about four years ago, which I never played. I’ve never watched any show or any other motion picture based on the property. I didn’t even know there had been more than twenty animated feature films released before the current live action one until checking the list on Wikipedia. I do know that Pokémon Detective Pikachu is the first of them to be a live-action release, with American characters speaking English and featuring bona fide movie stars, most notably Ryan Reynolds as the voice of Pikachu.

The point is, I am about as far from an authority on anything Pokémon as I could possibly be, so I have no means of appreciating how well (or how poorly) the film reflects the world of the multimedia franchise, which, until now, I have effectively ignored. But that’s not stopping me from reviewing the movie anyway!

I guess, if you are well versed in this fictional world, and you have any interest in a critical take on it, maybe find a review by someone else who also knows it well. You’ll likely find little to no satisfaction here. That said, as I have always said, any movie should always work on its own merits. So, does Detective Pikachu work on its own merits? Generally speaking, yes it does.

I have heard it said that it doesn’t reflect the true nature of Pikachu as a character to have him voiced with a snarky personality. Well, in the end Detective Pikachu actually has a fairly clever means of simultaneously sidestepping and correcting that problem, if you really want to call it a problem. Based on what little I have seen of Pikachu in his genuinely original self and form, personally I prefer him as voiced by Ryan Reynolds. It’s kind of as though a family-friendly Deadpool found himself trapped inside the body of this little furry creature.

As for how he fits into the overall story, which here presents a planned “Rhyme City” where humans and Pokémon live together harmoniously and are disallowed from any kinds of battles, it should come as no surprise that it offers little in the way of depth. Why would anyone expect depth in a movie based on a video game property, anyway? No fan of Pokémon is going to care. Nor is any casual fan of fantasy-adventure movies.

And to give Detective Pikachu credit, it is fairly imaginative in its world building, with Easter eggs of all sorts peppered throughout the film’s run time, without ever everdoing it or overwhelming those of us who don’t have any familiarity with all these creatures. By and large, they’re all fun, in myriad ways specific to individual ones. There is nothing cutting edge about the special effects, but they are serviceable and do work to further the story, so far as there is one. Director Rob Letterman keeps the spectacle at a manageable level when it could otherwise easily get out of hand in a movie like this.

The human characters are on average pretty bland, starting with our hero, young Tim (Justice Smith), who learns of his estranged father’s mysterious death and heads into Rhyme City to investigate. It continues with Lucy (Kathryn Newton), the aspiring reporter Tim runs into there. One could argue the blandness stops with Ken Watanabe as Tim’s dad’s detective partner, or Bill Nighy as the mogul mastermind behind the very existence of Rhyme City — except those two in particular are phoning it in, playing parts as pat as any ever put into another movie even remotely like this.

The story arc is patently by the numbers, but the joy is in the details, and often with the many cameos of different Pokémon creatures. You don’t have to have any familiarity with this universe to find them entertaining — and, in many cases, cute.

Which brings me to the most salient point about Detective Pikachu: the title character himself, and more specifically, his design. He’s adorable! So much so that when a passing lady on the street said exactly that about him, I thought, Yes. Yes, he is. You would be hard pressed to find another character cuter than Pikachu, and Ryan Reynolds’s fun-loving banter is a natural fit. If any one thing makes this movie worth seeing at all, it’s him. And he’s in most of the scenes, thankfully — because, without him, the movie gets comparatively dull. Reynolds may not be the true essence of this creature who otherwise only squeaks “Pika pika!”, but I could watch that version of him all day. As such, whatever other imperfections Detective Pikachu might have, it does offer a pretty solid 104 minutes of fun.

Tim and Pikachu get to the bottom of their bland missio— OMG HE’S SO CUTE

Tim and Pikachu get to the bottom of their bland missio— OMG HE’S SO CUTE

Overall: B

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+

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+

CAPTIVE STATE

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

Usually when a movie is getting mixed reviews, I can pretty easily tell what it is the people who liked it saw in it. Not so with Captive State, which certainly made me feel like a captive, and that’s about as effective as I can call it. Is it possible half the people who saw this movie liked it on some level just because they have no taste? Or brains? Some people are happy to be entertained by anything that happens to move on a screen, after all.

This movie is all setup, and then . . . the end. Spoiler alert: after one hundred nine minutes, there is no payoff whatsoever. It’s the story of an insurgency of inner city human captives to an invading alien race, nine years after first contact, preparing to make their move. A move gets made, and then you find out that wasn’t really the move. Something much deeper and more intricate is going on! Before we get to see that, though — the credits roll.

I’d say that I have a lot of questions, except that I left this movie relieved that it was over and preferring not to keep thinking about it. It was just so boring. But, I suppose I have some space to fill here. I’ll share some of my questions.

What’s the point of this alien race only taking over all the major cities in the world? I mean, I know the global population is more and more urbanized as time goes on, but rural populations still exist. What are those people doing? Are they just living peaceful lives, but for an inability to contact family in the cities? Also, what about the farming infrastructure that feeds those in the cities? How do goods come and go?

Don’t get me wrong — plenty of movies are great even with massive plot holes. It’s rare that plot holes don’t exist. But the point of making the audience overlook them is to offer a story so compelling that you don’t care. Captive State is so tedious that I had no choice but to spend a lot of time thinking about these things.

During the opening credits, white text on black computer screen tells us what’s going on, the way society has been affected by this alien race taking over any and all government functions. “The gap between rich and poor has never been wider,” it says. How original.

Writer-director Rupert Wyatt, who brought us the objectively superior (but still just . . . fine) Rise of the Planet of the Apes in 2011, seems to be going for some kind of subtle social commentary here. He aims and misses. Hell, he barely aims. Only in very occasional moments does something relevant to such a concept get said or done. For instance, a detained teenager (Ashton Sanders, the best thing in this movie) tells a Chicago police officer (John Goodman, plainly just getting a paycheck) he wants a lawyer. The response is, “You and I both know those days are gone.” This exchange is in the trailer, clearly to suggest there is something more to this. Turns out there isn’t.

I went into Captive State knowing it woudn’t be great, but thinking I might still be entertained. I wanted it to have more thrills. It has none. It makes an extended attempt at suspense, which ultimately falls flat. I wanted to see more of the aliens, which have a pseudo-humanoid shape which can turn into countless spikes at will. The screen time of these creatures — or “roaches,” as the humans call them — clocks in easily under five minutes. The rare times they do appear onscreen, the lighting is always incredibly dim and the special effects are still noticeably substandard.

There’s a couple wide shots of downtown Chicago, downtown being the “zone” where humans aren’t allowed at all, only the aliens. No explanation for this is ever given, and it kind of defies logic. We are told humans are subjected to indentured servitude to help construct an “underground habitat” for them, but that’s it. The objective of the humans is always to “regroup” and “fight back.” It would be a lot easier to root for them if the impetus for this entire scenario actually made sense.

In short: I don’t get it. And I don’t care to.

This kid deserves to be in a better movie.

This kid deserves to be in a better movie.

Overall: C

CAPTAIN MARVEL

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

Original comic books are one thing — I can’t speak to those because I never read them. But in cinema, Captain Marvel is clearly Marvel’s answer to DC’s Wonder Womanand, honestly, the two films average out to being roughly equal quality. Where Wonder Woman faltered is in the areas where Captain Marvel excels, and vice versa. For instance: the opening sequence of Wonder Woman actually was wonderful, and made us all wish the entire story could have taken place on that island of Themyscira. Captain Marvel, on the other hand, is quite deliberately incomprehensible in its opening sequences, the puzzle pieces only coming together for the viewer at the same time they do for the title character.

But! Wonder Woman’s fatal flaw — and this is hardly specific to that movie; it’s a flaw of far too many superhero movies — is the so-called “climactic” battle between hero and villain causing untold collateral damage at the end. Humor, used consistently and effectively, is arguably Captain Marvel, and it very nearly turns that particular trope into a punch line.

Maybe it’s not fair to compare this to Wonder Woman so much, except for the unfortunate thing they both have in common that sets it apart from other films: not only is the superhero at its center a woman, but in both cases they were subject to ridiculously overt, sexist backlash. Well, I am happy to report that both movies are laughing all the way to the bank.

That said, Captain Marvel has less to say about so-called “girl power,” the character’s womanhood being comparatively incidental. Now, to be sure, there are feminist nods here and there: a brief scene in which some schmo on a motorcycle suggests our hero “give me a smile”; a supporting character bristling at being called “young lady”; the 90s-rock-heavy soundtrack featuring No Doubt’s “Just a Girl” during a pivotal fight scene. But nods is all they are, and they are seamlessly woven into the narrative.

Captain Marvel does have a bit of magic to it, in that it’s open to meaning whatever audiences want it to mean to them. Maybe I’m just a big softy, but I actually got slightly teary at a montage of Captain Marvel’s alter ego Carol Danvers (a well cast Brie Larson) getting up after being nearly defeated by challenges throughout her childhood and young adulthood. It was a rare moment for a superhero movie, in which it offers something truly inspiring. Few others outside of Wonder Woman or (the admittedly far superior) Black Panther have managed such a thing.

As for the actual story here — it’s . . . fine. There are no particularly huge faults within the context of what this movie is, but neither does it stand out from most vantage points. There is a fun bit of cleverness, with its setting in the mid-nineties, and thereby serving as a sort of prequel to everything we have seen so far in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. We get to find out how Nick Fury got that eye patch, for example.

Speaking of which, that brings us to the special effects, which are actually pretty impressive. Samuel L. Jackson and Clark Gregg are both digitally de-aged for this movie, and that particular effect is uncanny. Some have said too much so — getting into pseudo-creepy “uncanny valley” territory — but I kept paying close attention to Samuel L. Jackson’s face in particular, the texture of his skin and how it shone in different shades of life, and found myself consistently impressed. There are other moments when characters are clearly being animated by CGI, so the overall effects job is not exactly perfect. But it veers between serviceable to amazing at times.

The same goes for Goose the cat, by far my favorite character in this movie — in fact, I would say he’s worth the price of admission alone — given my doubts when I heard some shots of the animal are CGI and in some cases it’s even a “realistic” puppet cat. Well, guess what? I could not readily see when a puppet cat was being used. And when CGI is detectable, it’s understandable, and often in service of well-used humor. And just trust me on this one: that cat has brings some delightful surprises. Especially at the end of the credits.

Getting back to the Wonder Woman parallels, there is even one for the Robin Wright role: in this movie, the “mentor woman” role is filled by Annette Bening. She is always a delight to see, although she is given so little meat to chew on here that it’s clearly just a paycheck job for her. When it comes to true nuance in performance, that pretty much all falls to Larson, although a sliver of it also goes to another character with shifting position in her life, played by a buffed up Jude Law.

Fundamentally, as in all superhero moves, it’s all just completely ridiculous, and Captain Marvel could have gone for, but has only a fraction of the deliberate cultural import of Black Panther. We’re getting to a point where even the movies that five years ago would have truly stood out for their casting and storytelling choices, are now becoming routine and less exceptional. We shan’t forget Goose the cat, however! Captain Marvel would still have been fun without him, but nowhere near as much so.

Goose is  my  Captain Marvel!

Goose is my Captain Marvel!

Overall: B

THE WANDERING EARTH

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

I don’t usually have much interest in Chinese films, and The Wandering Earth did nothing to remedy that. This is basically China’s answer to Geostorm, a special effects extravaganza offering occasionally compelling imagery, featuring an incomprehensible story. (More like The Wandering Script, amirite??)

Had bad the editing is in this film can’t really be overstated. Not one thing that happens — and far too many things are happening — is given any time whatsoever to breathe. This is basically a 125-minute music video, except instead of pop music, we’re subjected to an action-movie score pretty typical of western blockbuster disaster movies.

I guess I’ll give The Wandering Earth this much: it is better than Geostorm — barely. Its broad plot, involving an expanding sun necessitating the construction of worldwide propulsive engines to relocate the planet to a new solar system, might have been sort of compelling if it made any sense. Instead, the script is packed with incomprehensible techno-babble that’s rendered even more meaningless as it gets lost in the nonstop action.

The central conflict doesn’t even involve getting the Earth removed from orbit. Most of this story takes place well after that, after half the world has been annihilated by tsunamis caused by stopping the Earth’s rotation (how does one do that, exactly? — this movie fails to offer any real explanation) and the other half is forced to live in underground cities through the generations it will take before reaching this new location in another solar system more than four light years away. People go to the surface in “thermal suits” to work on maintaining this hundreds of giant engines that effectively turned the world into a planet-sized space ship.

The real problem is the gravitational pull of Jupiter as Earth passes by. Can humanity’s “United Earth Government” find a way to pull away and keep the planet on course? The suspense is killing me! I’m kidding about that suspense part; The Wandering Earth couldn’t manage suspense if its life depended on it. Which, really, it kind of does. Anyway I was thinking about how dreadfully bored I was before this movie was half over.

It’s all just so jaw-droppingly preposterous, there’s no reason to be emotionally invested in anything going on — not even the inter-generational conflicts of a middle-aged widower (Jing Wu) stationed on the Space Station serving as Earth’s navigation system and his family still on earth: his father (Man-tat Ng) and his young adult son (Chuxiao Qu) and teenage daughter (Jin Mai Jaho). And although these actors all appear competent generally speaking, this movie demands nothing more of them than to phone in their uniformly ridiculous lines. Many of the lines are distractingly obvious in their post-production over-dubbing. The line readings not syncing up with lip movements is obvious even to those of us who don’t speak Mandarin.

The special effects are all over the place. Many of the exterior shots in outer space, showing the Space Station or the planets, are actually pretty impressively rendered. But, those don’t require as much detail as exterior shots of the frozen surface of the planet, the sweeping camera movements making the images strangely jerky, as though someone did a half-assed job in their computer program. Very few of these surface shots are visually convincing in any way.

Not that it would matter much even if they were, the very concepts of this movie being as dumb as they are. And to make matters worse, our heroes make narrow escapes over and over again, constantly getting missed by, say, gigantic debris falling from cliffs in a huge earthquake as techtonic plates shift. It’s like watching the old G.I. Joe cartoons, except instead of villains with terminally terrible aim, it’s giant hunks of earth with terrible aim.

I do like the idea of giant cities like Beijing or Shanghai buried in ice, the tips of their skyscrapers poking out of the surface. That made for some kind of cool images. Such things get overshadowed by a complete disregard for basic physics, like when brother and sister are falling through the air and brother somehow catches up with her by falling faster. That is not how gravity works!

I mean, really, that’s not how anything works in this movie, which has the distinction of being easily the stupidest thing I have watched in at least two years.

Not even this picture makes any sense.

Not even this picture makes any sense.

Overall: C-

SORRY TO BOTHER YOU

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

It's hard to decide what to make of Sorry to Bother You. This is a movie with something clear to say, although exploring the corrupting influence of money and power is hardly a new idea. What's very new here is the way first-time writer-director Boots Riley does it. To say that very late in the story, things take a hard turn for the fucking weird -- that's an understatement.

I wanted to love this movie, I really did, but I just couldn't. Most of it is technical issues. It so lacks polish and refinement that it feels much like a rough draft turned in as the final product.

Plenty of people are loving this movie, so I still won't spoil any of the major twists. I went in ready to be all in, and progressively lost my patience for it. Part of the concept is that when Cassius Green (Atlanta's Lakeith Stanfield) gets a job at a telemarketing company, he's advised by a coworker, Langston (Danny Glover, great to see), that he'll only make sales if he talks in his "white voice." When Langston demonstrates, we hear the voice of Steve Buscemi. When Cassius finds his "white voice," it's David Cross. When Cassius is promoted to "Power Caller" upstairs, his unnamed new boss (Omari Hardwick) is voiced by Patton Oswalt.

Part of the joke, of course, is that these three white actors couldn't be more white, at at least the sounds of their voices couldn't. Oswalt in particular is playing up how this is "his whitest moment" as he gleefully promotes the film. It's very much like voice talent being hired for an animated film, except here it's live action and the onscreen actors appear to be lip syncing. And honestly, this is executed with mixed results, very few of them including finesse. It's amusing, and the satirical point is clear, but it's also distracting. It nearly always seems as though they could have used a bit more rehearsing, as the lip movements barely succeed at matching. To be fair, I guess, that is likely far more the fault of the voice talent than the onscreen actors, given the likelihood that instead of lip syncing per se, the scenes were shot first and then the voices looped in later. But it's still up to the director to make sure it looks right.

As such, this entire production feels rushed. And that's not to say I have no issues with the script, either: A money-hungry Cassius being called "Cash" for short is just one of many things in this movie that are a bit too on the nose. That twist at the end is a "workhorse" metaphor just as obvious as it is bizarre.

The actors nearly across the board have undeniable charisma, at least, and Lakeith Stanfield gives Cassius a lot more dimension than the script does. He has great chemistry with Tessa Thompson, who plays his girlfriend. Armie Hammer is perfectly cast as the CEO of WorryFree, a company that gives workers "contracts for life." If you blink you might miss Forest Whitaker in a rather surprising context.

The thing is, I can understand someone loving this movie. I can even see credible arguments that I just didn't "get it." (Although I think I pretty much do.) Maybe everything I criticize here was done by Boots Riley pointedly and for a reason. Or maybe it was they were crunched for time and budget. This is Riley's debut feature film, though, and it feels very much like it -- the kind of film you might give a backhanded compliment by saying it's good for a debut. Boots Riley has clear talent, and a clear eye for talent. If nothing else, Sorry to Bother You certainly leaves me looking forward to what he might do next, with more time and a bigger budget that hopefully is the byproduct of this movie's success.

I'll give credit to the costume designer, at least.

I'll give credit to the costume designer, at least.

Overall: B-

JURASSIC WORLD: FALLEN KINGDOM

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

The days of being in awe of the technical achievement of photorealistic CG dinosaurs are long since passed. Back in the day, with both the original Jurassic Park (1993) and its thrilling-if-dippy sequel The Lost World (1997), Steven Spielberg perfected the art of the long game, the subtle tease, the jaw-dropping reveal.

Five movies and 25 years into this franchise, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom has none of that. Its plot machinations are not just stupid, but oppressively stupid -- this script, by Derek Connolly and Colin Trevorrow, both of whom also worked on 2015's Jurassic World, makes the bland contrivances of Jurassic Park III (2001) look like Shakespeare.

I can't say that Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom is any better or worse than its predecessor, on the whole. With its mind-numbingly preposterous story, and its many objectively thrilling action set pieces, it sort of evens out. It's both worse and better on those respective fronts.

In a sense, director J.A. Bayona understands something Colin Trevorrow kind of didn't: what audiences want from this franchise so many installments in. You could call Jurassic World a reboot, or you could call it a sequel -- one that basically ignored the previous two sequels. It was also overly enamored with direct references to and nostalgia for the very first Jurassic Park, something it could never live up to.

Fallen Kingdom doesn't even try. All this one wants to do is thrill, and once it gets its idiotically hyper-sped plot gynmastics out of the way, it does that spectacularly.

The first half could be called Jurassic Volcano. The second half Jurassic Monster House. Things start at a macro level, with the fabled Isla Nublar threatened by a long dormant volcano about to erupt -- which, naturally, it waits to do until our heroes are all there, in a grand attempt to relocate the animals. Special effects in this movie may be unable to break new ground, but they sure are put to memorable and invigorating use. It even offers up some haunting imagery, helpless animals left to suffer an extinction level event as the boat floats away. Of course none of the people drown and they all conveniently get missed by all the flying volcanic cinder debris, but, whatever.

The comparatively few animals saved from the island are taken to the estate of one Benjamin Lockwood (James Cromwell), an old business partner of John Hammond. Lest things get any less than totally ridiculous, a dino auction is staged. Can you guess whether things go wrong? Well, here's the cool part: it's where the macro turns into the micro, and we get dinosaurs loose inside a giant mansion. It becomes a bit of a haunted house movie, except instead of ghosts it's actual monsters.

Granted, one of them is a creature genetically cross bred between a Tyrannosaurus rex and a velociraptor -- one of the many things in this movie that make you think, Really? I mean, if we can actually grow a human ear on a rat, then, why not? Granted, I don't think a rat has ever been given a blood transfusion with human blood. And in this movie a velociraptor gets a blood transfusion with T-rex blood. While strapped to a gourney in the back of a truck.

Oh, just go with it! In the last movie we got a trained velociratpor, after all -- as if! -- and "Blue" returns this time around, offering one of several more callbacks to the original Jurassic Park -- they're just much more subtle this time around. There are also parallels to The Lost World: Jurassic Park (at least this one has greater logic in full titling), what with poachers on an island of free-range dinosaurs, and dinosaurs being transferred to a residential setting.

I think the advantage Fallen Kingdom has over its predecessor is its innate inability to disappoint. No one is coming to this movie expecting brilliance, or any of the provocative ideas given serious consideration upon this franchise's inception. At best we get a cameo by Jeff Goldblum as "chaotician" Ian Malcolm -- now in his third one of these movies -- offering the same basic concepts as rehashed platitudes to a Senate committee hearing. (Boring. Bring on the dinosaurs!)

No one with a working brain could in good conscience call Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom a "good movie." They could quite accurately, however, call it a hell of a lot of fun. I had a blast. Honestly, its ending is the freshest thing about it, ironically as a means of finally arriving at the inevitable with these movies. And, miracle of miracles, it makes me excited for the next one, as it ushers us into a new environment that finally lives up to the title Jurassic World.

A few things go bump in the night.

A few things go bump in the night.

Overall: B

SIFF Advance: PROSPECT

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

Prospect is a prime example of the joy in discovery that can come with attending film festivals. You know very little about these movies going in, and you find yourself delighted by the surprise of something you might not have had any idea you'd have any interest in.

And this film holds particular interest to Western Washingtonians: it was shot entirely locally, most of it in or around Seattle; interiors built in a warehouse in the Fremont neighborhood. Some of the exteriors were shot in a park in Shoreline. And for the purposes of the story, it works: a father and daughter are visiting a forest moon to do some prospecting (hence the title) for a certain type of valuable gem, which must be carefully harvested out of something that looks like a cross between a white radish and a stomach organ, which lives in the ground.

We really learn nothing about the time period otherwise -- the setting is either in rickety spaceships or, in the vast majority of the story, in these forests -- and that's okay. The script, co-written by Chris Caldwell and Zeek Earl, who both also co-directed, is by easily the best thing about this movie, and reveals its strengths with every turn of the plot.

The only predictable thing about it is that things go wrong: this father-daughter team finds themselves pressed for time in getting what they need and getting their ship back off this moon, but they encounter a couple of other people who have similar aims. From there on out, in their increasingly desperate endeavor not to get stranded, the story is both tense and unexpected.

They key players are Transparent's Jay Duplass as the father (he and his brother Mark have longstanding relationships with filmmakers in the Pacific Northwest, and have starred in several movies set here); Pedro Pascal (perhaps most recognizable as Oberyn Martell on Game of Thrones) as his would-be nemesis; and most notably, a fantastic newcomer Sophie Thatcher as Cee, the no-nonsense teenage daughter. There are a few other parts in the film, but probably three quarters of it is focused only on these three.

Now, the production design in Prospect can be a little . . . janky. I have mixed feelings about the look and feel of their small ship that takes them to the moon's surface, with its vague shades of Nostromo working-class griminess. That sort of design could fly a lot more easily in films from the seventies, but this decidedly analog means of both transport and communication, clearly a product of budget constraints, has more the feeling of an alternate dimension than a future we can actually expect.

But, the performances, and especially the story itself, make such things quite easily overlooked. Even the special effects, also clearly rendered under budget constraints, have that effect, as those are impressive given the limitations. The sight of a huge planet in the sky beyond the tops of Washington's forests makes for some memorable imagery. The air in these moon forests are also supposed to be toxic, so they are shot with bright lens filters and given an otherworldly look with white specks always slowly swishing through the air. It's only this toxicity that necessitates the suits the characters wear while they are outside, which make for several pertinent plot points.

Between the writing, the editing, and the setting, Prospect makes for a deceptively simple and eminently satisfying story. It's science fiction without the usual trappings of unnecessarily convoluted technological details. They basic story -- a young girl faced with odds stacked increasingly against her as she faces a need for escape -- could easily be taken out of this context and plopped into a present-day setting, but it wouldn't be as interesting.

This movie isn't at all concerned with real-life science, which potentially will annoy viewers with any such knowledge. The best science fiction tends to use real-world knowledge as a jumping-off point, and Prospect doesn't necessarily do that. It simply establishes its own world with its own rules. But it is also a well-constructed story that unfolds with a finesse all its own -- to such an extent that I have been very careful not to give to much away. Once you get a chance, just see this movie. You won't be disappointed.

We're not going in the direction you think we are.

We're not going in the direction you think we are.

Overall: B+