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+

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

BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE

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

Here is yet another film that isn’t quite the one you expect based on the trailer — Bad Times at the El Royale isn’t quite as good as it looks in that window dressing. On the other hand, it’s not quite as bad as the mixed reviews would suggest, either. At least, not if you can appreciate what it has to offer, and it has a lot.

It as a lot to offer those who appreciate the cinematic, and clever storytelling — if a bit overlong: this movie did not need to run 141 minutes. It sure is pretty to look at, though, each set piece a carefully laid out diorama of consciously detailed lines and colors. Bad Times at the El Royale might be worth seeing just for its production design.

Hell, it might be worth seeing just for Chris Hemsworth. He plays a very bad man indeed here, albeit one not particularly well fleshed out — although that could be said of any one of this ensemble cast, really. Character dimension in this case is kind of beside the point. They way these people’s thinly drawn stories fit together as they all converge into this one hotel might be called “Tarantino Lite.” The same could be said of the violence, which — and in a way it deserves credit for this — is shocking in consistently fun ways. More than once I jumped out of my seat, and laughed almost as quickly.

But let’s get back to Chris Hemsworth. He doesn’t even show up until maybe halfway through the film. It’s worth the wait, just for his V-cut abs. If you thought Chris Hemsworth was hot before, just wait until you see this. I don’t think there’s a single scene here where his shirt isn’t hanging open. In one scene, he dances toward the camera with his arms outstretched, and all I could think was, Holy shit. If he’s the cult leader, I might happily join. Anyway, I’m getting distracted.

To be fair, Bad Times at the El Royale Hotel is much more than the meat on display. The plot is too labyrinthine to explain adequately here, and watching it unfold is really the fun of this movie — so long as you have the patience for its measured pacing, particularly in the beginning. An early sequence in which the four main hotel patrons arrive in the lobby (played by Jeff Bridges, Cynthia Erivo, John Hamm and Dakota Johnson) lasts quite some time. It’s probably not until halfway through the sequence before the concierge (Lewis Pullman) even appears.

There’s a nice little gimmick to this hotel: it has two branches, each on either side of the state line between California and Nevada. The line runs right through the center of the fantastically designed lobby, which has a separate and distinct look on either side. The place lost its gambling license a year ago, which explains why only four people are checking in on this particular day. It’s quite the coincidence that all four show up within minutes of each other but whatever. There is also, it turns out, a corridor that runs along the back of each of these rooms, with a two-way mirror through which “management” can look on undetected. We never find out quite enough about how or why this came to be, but provides plenty of fodder for many of this movie’s fun twists.

I found myself plenty engaged in this story despite its shortcomings. Things keep happening that are impossible to see coming, even if each person not being what they appear to be is itself predictable. Writer-director Drew Goddard (The Cabin in the Woods) is clearly plenty pleased with himself here, maybe a tad too much so. This movie isn’t going to work for everybody — but it works for me, even if it does have a certain potential it doesn’t quite realize. The storytelling skims close to thrilling, and then takes certain turns that seem a bit like an easy out.

But the great stuff in it — it’s really great. And not just the production design. This is not at all a musical, but since Cynthia Erivo plays a lounge singer, she spends a lot of time practicing, and we are treated to a surprising lot of songs through her spectacular voice. It’s another thing that makes this movie worth seeing. Chris Hemsworth’s abs, Cynthia Erivo’s voice. A sprinkling of deliciously dark humor. A unique tone. This movie has its flaws, but it also very much stands apart, in a host of memorable ways.

Just waiting around for Chris Hemsworth’s abs to show up.

Just waiting around for Chris Hemsworth’s abs to show up.

Overall: B

LIZZIE

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

It’s quite an experience seeing Assassination Nation and Lizzie over the course of only two days. I called the former an ultra-violent feminist revenge fantasy, and the same could just as easily be said of the latter. The difference is that Lizzie is a speculative look at real-life character Lizzie Borden and her motivations, a period drama easing into palpable horror offered up for the #MeToo era.

After several depictions of the Borden murders over the years — including one in 2014 for Lifetime starring Christina Ricci — this one puts a lesbian spin on the story, with Lizzie (Chlöe Sevigny) developing feelings for their live-in Irish maid, Bridget (Kristen Stewart). Bridget is being molested at night by Lizzie’s father, Andrew (Jamey Sheridan), while Lizzie and her sister Emma (Kim Dickens) have a brother of their late mother conspiring to get the Borden will changed so he will be guardian of the daughters’ inheritance.

All of these are the names of real people involved in this 1892 murder in Fall River, Massachusetts, and it was suspect, to say the least, that the Borden daughters stood to inherit the sizable estate. Director Craig William MacNeill and writer Bryce Kass infuse the story with the suggestion of understandable motives — both that of Andrew as a sexual predator, and a semi-pointed reflection of men’s control over women’s fortunes, in every sense of the word.

I found myself compelled by the older sister, Emma, perhaps more than the filmmakers intended. Kim Dickens, perhaps most recognizable as Joanie Stubbs in the HBO series Deadwood, is a lovely actor, and she is given curiously little screen time, as we are guided to focus on Lizzie and Bridget’s budding mutual attraction. I wished there were more of her.

That’s not to say Chlöe Sevigny isn’t plenty compelling as Lizzie herself. She is depicted here as defiant from the start, baldly going out to the theatre unescorted under her father’s objections. She is afflicted with occasional seizures of some sort, a character trait never fully fleshed out, and which curiously disappears without comment later in the story. There is talk of her being sent away, both for her ailment and after Andrew catches Lizzie in the throes of passion with Bridget in the barn. In an act of retaliation for her defiance, Andrew chops off the heads of her beloved pet pigeons and has them cooked and served for family dinner, a particularly horrible moment.

We are clearly meant to see Andrew as the unambiguous villain, Lizzie and Borden as women who are ending their own victimization, if not as outright feminist heroes. This is where Lizzie gets a little muddled. The notorious murders of Lizzie’s stepmother (Fiona Shaw), who shows no sympathy for Lizzie, and her father, are depicted in graphic, arguably belabored detail. It’s not gory, exactly, but falls just short of that — and boy, do we see a lot of swings of that hatchet. The odd thing is, with events playing out in this manner, if anyone has any motive, it’s Bridget. She and Lizzie conspire together, but given the enduring nature of the legend, Lizzie wouldn’t quite work if Bridget were claimed to be the murderer.

In a way, the Lizzie Borden trial that followed was a sort of O.J. Simpson trial of the late 19th century. The woman was acquitted, because no one could believe a woman of such social standing could possibly be capable of such heinous crimes — that’s how it’s put in the title cards just prior to the end credits. The supposedly feminist angle is to view Lizzie as an oppressed woman smashing the patriarchy, a woman who sacrificed everything — but to what end? She lived the rest of her life abandoned by both Bridget and the rest of her family, ostracized by her community. The idea of this woman in particular as a feminist hero is something I don’t quite buy.

As a story on its own merits, though, Lizzie is both unique and effective. Much of its run time is social commentary in the guise of costume drama, and a well-acted one. Then Lizzie demonstrates what she is capable of, not a woman who snapped but who was capable of methodical premeditation, and it moves into the genuinely disturbing. It may not quite achieve thematic coherence, but it sure offers up plenty to contemplate.

Wait, was that forty whacks? Or was it forty-one?

Wait, was that forty whacks? Or was it forty-one?

Overall: B

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+

A SIMPLE FAVOR

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

“From the darker side of Paul Feig,” or so the trailer promised: this is the director who brought us Bridesmaids and The Heat. What they don’t mention is that A Simple Favor has plenty of its lighter moments as well. It’s like a thriller-comedy — a bit more of an awkward combination, it turns out, than the numerous horror comedies now out there. It seems to have slightly loftier aims of sophistication. But then Anna Kendrick comes along with her winning goofiness.

And I don’t say that derisively; the actors in A Simple Favor make up for a lot of the script contrivances. And even those, I have to admit, are entertaining, even if they are increasingly ridiculous. This is a movie that really tows that line. It creeps right up to the precipice but remains consistently just this side of outright dumb.

Kendrick plays Stephanie, a widowed “mommy vlogger” who befriends Emily (Blake Lively), the mother of her son’s friend at school. Emily invites Stephanie over for drinks as their kids have a play date, dismissing how impressed Stephanie is with her elegant house with a huge kitchen she never uses, except to make stiff martinis. Much of the story is told in flashback, as Stephanie tells her vlog viewers about how Emily has been missing for five days.

Honestly, although Stephanie is supposed to be the “normal” one here, she comes across a little crazy herself. She mentions countless times that Emily is her best friend. Did I mention she’s only known her for five days?

Well anyway, the “simple favor” Emily asks is for Stephanie to pick up her son from school — and then she never shows up to pick him up. I won’t spoil the rest of the story, except to say that although I could never have predicted what the many twists and turns were, that there would be many twists and turns was wildly predictable. You can see a mile away that no one is as they appear to be, and to a degree that includes seemingly goody-two-shoes Stephanie herself. I must say, though, that her “dark secret” isn’t so much dark as taboo, and part of a backstory inadequately fleshed out.

Those twists and turns, though: they did keep me interested, ridiculous though they were. I won’t go out of my way to tell anyone else to see it, but I did have fun at this movie.

That said, the execution of a litany of recognizable faces in small roles is a mixed bag. The group of gossipy parents in Stephanie’s son’s class includes Aparna Noncherla and Andrew Rannells, two performers who are fantastically entertaining . . . in everything but this, apparently. It’s not their fault; they simply weren’t given very entertaining parts (although Rannells does get a pretty great moment at the end). They are criminally under-utilized talents here. On the other hand, it’s delightful to see Jean Smart nailing a small but key role.

That’s the crux of it, really: under any critical scrutiny, A Simple Favor is a mixed bag at best. But even a mixed bag can average out to a fun couple of hours — nothing that makes any deep and lasting impression, but not a waste of time either.

A toast to intermittent wit that barely elevates mediocrity!

A toast to intermittent wit that barely elevates mediocrity!

Overall: B

SEARCHING

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

I suppose it’s an exaggeration to say this movie blows. It’s telling, however, that although I was kind of into it as the story unfolded, once it was over, the more I thought about it, the less I liked it. So perhaps this is the best advice: if you want to enjoy this movie, go ahead and watch it, and then immediately move on to some other thing that makes you forget all about it. Because Searching seriously fails at standing up to any kind of scrutiny.

This movie is, however, dumb. That is not an exaggeration. I never actively set out to solve whatever mystery might be at hand; even in otherwise relatively predictable stories, I am happy just to go along for the ride and be surprised, even if no one else isn’t. And if even I saw the “twist” coming a mile away, that tells you a lot about Searching. As in, it’s predictable enough to insult your intelligence.

And this is no poor reflection on John Cho, for the record. He’s the best thing in this movie, the reason you want to keep watching, anguish etched across his face as his David Kim searches for his missing daughter, Margot (Michelle La). And kudos to this movie, if nothing else, for making it to #4 in box office its first weekend of wide release, thus making two movies with Asian American leads in the American top 5 (along with Crazy Rich Asians at #1), surely a first. Michelle La also makes a strong debut as Margot, very believably cast as a teenager still grieving the loss of her mother to cancer.

But these two people cannot overcome Searching’s insurmountable problems. Debra Messing as an investigator, frankly, comes across as Grace Adler pretending to be an investigator. It’s unfortunate that Messing cannot break free of her iconic role from Will & Grace, but it’s still the reality. Searching would have worked better with another actor in the part.

Not that her part, or any part, is particularly well written. Because I haven’t even gotten to the gimmick in Searching, and it’s a doozy of a gimmick, one the movie leans into hard: the entire movie is shown as computer screens or mobile device screens, all the live action seen as FaceTime video feeds or home movie clips being shown on a desktop, usually without the window being maximized, so we see bits of other open programs behind it, or even parts of the desktop image. Even when Morgot’s case gets into local news segments, these clips are shown as video being watched online by David, the point of view always being the screen he’s looking at, any sight of his face only the front-facing camera showing his reverse feed when he speaks to people.

It’s not exactly subtle, by the way, that every single computing device being used is an Apple product. And while I remain an Apple loyalist and will sing its praises as a superior brand over Windows, the idea that no screen ever freezes at any time, and page downloads or file uploads always finish instantaneously, is preposterous. Okay, I get it that it’s a movie and it has to be edited this way to give the story propulsion, but it’s still an idea ripe for parody. Lots of things happen on these screens that never actually occur in the real world, such as that reverse camera activating to show David sleeping in bed while his daughter attempts to call him in the middle of the night. Hello, the camera doesn’t come on until you answer the FaceTime call! (In the Windows Version of Searching, all the video calls are done on Skype.)

It’s not always video feeds, incidentally. We get plenty of other action on these screens, showing email drafts and iMessage texts and browsing of files and so on. On the surface, it’s kind of a neat trick, this high concept that distracts the viewer from how dumb the story actually is. I suspect few of the many people who are into this movie (it’s getting a pretty positive consensus in its critical response) are thinking of how very much a snapshot of its time it is — maybe even slightly more behind the times than people realize. This is not a movie that will hold up well very far into the future. It’s going to look very dated very quickly. Like, next year. Maybe next week.

This “computer screens” framing device (literally!) also requires some pretty contrived scenarios for the presentation of key scenes. When David feels the need to confront his suddenly suspicious brother Peter (Joseph Lee), he sets up several devices around his living room and kitchen in an attempt to record “proof” of his guilt. This allows for a pivotal scene to unfold from multiple angles. It’s easy to call this clever. As a viewer, I call it distracting. Realistically, an anguished father like David would never be that successfully savvy. Peter even opens a kitchen cupboard right where one of the cameras is and never notices it.

I’ll give Searching this much credit: considering the conceit, and its presentation unlike that of any other conventional mainstream movie, I found myself pretty easily sucked into the store, in spite of all its predictable stupidity. I won’t deny that it held my attention. Does that mean the movie is good? Okay — it’s entertaining. What bugs me about it, though, is that it seems to have duped a great number of people into thinking it’s “smart.” I would fervently beg to differ on that point.

John Cho is  searching  for something in this movie to take seriously.

John Cho is searching for something in this movie to take seriously.

Overall: C+

SKYSCRAPER

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

I was never going to think Skyscraper was great, but this is the thing: I love skyscrapers. How could I not see this? So here's what I did. I went with a friend to Happy Hour beforehand, and had three margaritas.

I didn't get drunk enough.

I was big on disaster movies as a kid. As a lover of skyscrapers, I particularly loved The Towering Inferno (1974). Kids seeing Skyscraper now at the age I first watched The Towering Inferno on VHS probably have no idea the latter movie ever even existed. That one was set in San Francisco and featured a fictional tower that had 138 floors -- only slightly far fetched for its time, as then the tallest building in the world in real life was the World Trade Center in New York City, which stood at 110 floors.

We now live in a world in which Dubai's Burj Khalifa stands with 163 floors, 2,717 feet. Any fictional "tallest building in the world" in 2018 has to up the ante yet again, so Skyscraper's The Pearl stands in Hong Kong at 220 stories. A brief media clip at the beginning of the film even gives height comparisons in a graphic: it "dwarfs the Burj Khalifa and triple the height of the Empire State Building." The Empire State Building has 102 floors, by the way. If The Pearl's 220 floors are tripe that height, those most be some seriously high individual floor ceilings. Maybe it's that 30-story "park" in the middle of the building.

The Pearl's design makes it look like a giant Twizzler stick with a gargantuan baseball wedged into the opening at the top. Or, you know, a pearl. Every single level has protruding ledges under the window panels that would never be part of any real-world skyscraper design, but hey, they sure are convenient for Dwayne Johnson to step on!

And what director Rawson Marshall Thurber does with this movie is no more than rip of equal parts of The Towering Inferno and Die Hard. The former movie was about hubris and greed resulting in a disastrous skyscraper fire; the latter about a terrorist hostage situation in a Los Angeles skyscraper (that one all of 40 floors) -- they both stand the test of time incredibly well. Skyscraper is about a criminal syndicate attacking a building, disabling its fire safety system, and setting it on fie; it was dated before it even got released.

I mean, I won't lie -- I had some fun watching it. "Some" being the telling, key word. Dwayne Johnson is watchable enough; Neve Campbell in the role of his wife is given far more agency than women ever are in these movie -- so, props for that. Johnson's ex-cop security analyst, in fact, only survives thanks to her. That part's pretty cool. Having one of their twin kids have asthma in a movie about being stuck in a burning building is a little on the nose.

All of the setup at the beginning of the movie, establishing the characters and the story, is so dull we might as well be looking at a live feed of a freshly painted wall. For the first half hour or so, Skyscraper redefines blandness. Once Johnson's Will Sawyer realizes his family is trapped in the otherwise not-yet filled residential portion of the tower, he finds his way inside -- via a construction crane. Here we get a couple sequences on par with the Mission: Impossible movies, as in ridiculously improbable. The difference is in sophistication of execution. Mission: Impossible movies are preposterous but have finesse. Skyscraper is preposterous and . . . dumb.

Too much of Skyscraper winds up devolving into unnecessary shootouts, which themselves have zero style. It's repetitive and monotonous enough to put you to sleep. At least until Neve Campbell starts kicking some ass. She's the best thing in this movie. Still, you can see that shit in any action movie. Get back to the death-defying stunts a thousand feet above the ground!

There's a maybe twenty minute stretch in the middle when Skyscraper transcends its eminent mediocrity and becomes truly gripping, in spite of its rampant idiocies. Even there, every single thing seen onscreen is executed far better in the jaw-dropping Burj Khalifa sequence in Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol (2011). That movie's available from Netflix right now and has been for several years. Honestly you should skip Skyscraper and just watch that.

Strike the pose: Dwayne Johnson flies over Hong Kong.

Strike the pose: Dwayne Johnson flies over Hong Kong.

Overall: C+

SICARIO: DAY OF THE SOLDADO

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

Believe it or not, Ocean's 8 and Sicario: Day of the Soldado have something in common. They are both relatively solid, competent and compelling films on their own terms, which suffer needlessly by insisting on tying themselves to earlier, far superior work.

I keep thinking of one of the few lines in Day of the Soldado that really stuck with me. When Josh Brolin's CIA agent Matt Graver says, "Doesn't change anything," Catherine Keener's Cynthia Foards from the Department of Defense replies, "It changes the fucking narrative!"

Indeed, changing the fucking narrative is something Day of the Soldado does in multiple ways -- some not quite to its benefit, such as the broader implications of the narrative in its own film series.

And then there's its political and social context within the real world. As far as I'm concerned, Day of the Saldado begins with a misstep. These movies are supposed to be about the unrelentingly messy nature of Mexican drug cartels and how they affect life at the border, yet for some reason director Stefano Sollima and writer Taylor Sheridan kick things off with suicide bombers at the border who are not necessarily Mexican, but more importantly, Muslim. Prayer rugs left behind at the scene of a bombing. Another set of suicide bombers inside a grocery store in Kansas City.

So, not only does this movie conflate Mexican drug criminals and radical Muslim terrorists, but plenty of conservatives are going to see this movie as a grand advertisement for the president's border wall. Day of the Soldado doesn't bother to offer the well-worn statistics showing that more Mexicans are actually leaving the U.S. than entering it -- why? Because it changes the fucking narrative.

To be fair, it's also well known that Mexican drug cartels are an enduring and lethally dangerous problem. And when it comes to those suicide bombers, most of them are later revealed to have been not from some Middle Eastern country, but from New Jersey. That's not so much a spoiler as vital information that too many in this film's audience -- having been marketed to as though this is a cool action flick rather than a contemplation of thorny moral issues -- are likely to glean over. In that sense, Day of the Soldado is too nuanced for its own good.

It's entirely possible I'm not giving this film's audience enough credit. I'm open to that possibility. Either way, the fucking narrative is still changed. Frankly, I feel bad for some of the nonwhite actors in this movie, who just want an acting career and are forced yet again to utter the lines "Allahu Akbar!" before blowing themselves up. I suppose the same could be said of countless Mexican characters reduced to drug criminals, but at least they are given some comparative humanity and gravitas here.

In 2015, the original Sicario was a far superior film, one of the year's very best -- if not for Inside Out having been released the same year, I would have said it was the very best. Director Denis Villeneuve had a stunning visual flair that Stefano Sollima here lacks, although he hints at it with clear attempts at replication. The tense musical score is similar, and similarly effective. Perhaps most curiously, Taylor Sheridan, who also wrote a masterful script for Hell or High Water in 2016, wrote both of these movies. What that really means is . . . Taylor Sheridan is better than this.

Because although Day of the Soldado is far less contrived than most movies -- and that honestly makes it still a better bet than most other movies in theatres right now -- it's far more contrived than its nearly flawless predecessor, and of Sheridan's other work. Sicario was a clear commentary on a woman navigating spaces run with testosterone on overdrive, with the great Emily Blunt absent, we're just left with more of that testosterone.

We also, however, get more of Benicio Del Toro's Alejandro -- he being the Sicario ("Hitman") of both titles. Del Toro can always be relied upon to elevate material, and to mesmerize with even understated performance. He's even well matched with Isabela Moner as Isanel Reyes, the young teen daughter of a Mexican cartel leader. The CIA orchestrates her kidnapping in an attempt to pit a war between cartels, and her time with Alejandro reveals a capacity for empathy in him that the previous film never betrayed.

Then, by the very end, Sheridan's script is nearly shocking in how it veers into the genuinely hokey with its final lines, and some genuine disappointment sets it. It's a disappointment only in context, though: Day of the Soldado has much to redeem it, including battle sequences well enough choreographed and orchestrated to rival those of the original Sicario. It offers plenty of its own provocative food for thought, if you're looking to dig deep enough for it. This is the kind of movie that should force such contemplation on its audience, though, instead of giving it an option to be let off the hook and just be "entertained." We have movies like Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom for that nonsense.

"Day of the Soldier,"   huh? We'll see about that!

"Day of the Soldier," huh? We'll see about that!

Overall: B