Booksmart – 3

Bookstupid is more like it. Every line tries hard to be funny, but very few are. The characters and situations are absurd, from the initial premise to every scene I saw before I walked out.

The Biggest Little Farm – 6.5

A sweet, family-friendly parable of doing well by doing good, as natural, organic farming methods restore barren earth and, fertilized by patience and love, make it bountiful. Coyotes a problem? Redirect them from your chickens – bad – to your gophers – good! Throw in a baleful-eyed dog and an Earth Mother pig and the story becomes even more personal (or anthropomorphic). If this movie were a fiction, I’d dismiss it as unbelievable. As it is, I couldn’t get over the logistical hurdles that simply disappear – starting with where the money is coming from (selling eggs only gets you so far) and then the time and manpower. The chronology also threw me for a loop, a la Rocketman. The nature photography is lovely (if a bit hokey), and who can’t appreciate the message and admire this couple for embarking on such a project and sharing it with us.

Gloria Bell – 7

Smartly edited small movie about not much: Gloria has a job, goes dancing, meets a guy, deals with her grown-up kids and her ex-husband; then things are resolved, in not terribly satisfactory or exciting fashion, and life goes on. The movie is all about Julianne Moore’s performance, which is fine, except she is much too pretty for the plain-Jane role. The music is good, especially the final, full-length rendition of Laura Branigan’s title song.

Rocketman – 6

Disappointing. There’s no attempt at rock history, as Elton John’s songs are shoehorned into the plot wherever a lyric suggests relevance, regardless of chronology. OK, so it’s a fantasy (a la Baz Luhrmann), not a biopic. But there’s not much of a plot, either; it’s a therapy session in which Elton relives his unhappy childhood, lack of love and addiction to drugs and alcohol. It would be nice if there were a cathartic denouement, in which rock’n’roll triumphs, Elton discovers himself and becomes a star. But no, he’s a star from the start; his performances seem more forced than euphoric; and the big finale number is “I’m Still Standing” – probably the 53rd best song in his catalogue. By that point, we are fully tired of the Busby Berkeley dance numbers, which are repetitive, uninventive and not always appropriate. Do we really need a choreographed dance sequence in the hospital following a suicide attempt? Taron Egerton’s singing is fine, but the songs carry surprisingly little emotional heft: I couldn’t help but compare how I felt hearing “Tiny Dancer” here, with semi-naked bodies gyrating a la Woodstock at Mama Cass’s Laurel Canyon retreat, to the scene on the touring bus in Almost Famous. I was never a fan of Queen, while I purchased four of Elton’s first five albums on release; but Rocketman can’t hold a candle, in the wind or otherwise, to Bohemian Rhapsody.

 

The Souvenir – 5; Photograph – 7.5

Both these movies, which we saw back-to-back one afternoon, are primarily about a relationship: a callow and sneakily beautiful young woman falls in love with an older, more experienced and perhaps inappropriate man. Except one relationship is toxic, while the other is sweet. Needless to say, the latter movie, Photograph, is the enjoyable one.

The Souvenir moved with the pace and misdirection of Last Year at Marienbad. Maybe there weren’t dream sequences or movies-within-the-movie, but I never knew for sure what was going on. All I knew for sure was that the male love interest, “Anthony,” was thoroughly despicable, on the surface and below. Yes, we know love may be blind, but we still won’t enjoy its making a fool of someone, in this case the wonderful Honor Swinton Byrne. Hearing he had died of an overdose was the only happy moment of the two-hour slog.

By contrast – restoring our faith in movie-going – Photograph was easy to follow, with a plot you’ve seen many times before. The film admits as much when, in the last scene, the lovers walk out in the middle of a movie and the man says he knows how the story ends, even though he hasn’t seen that particular film before. We are left to wonder whether this story, against all odds, will have that predictable happy ending, but ultimately we don’t care. We like the characters so much – they are both so thoughtful, with just the right amount of spunk and a palpable connection – that if this flirtation turns out to be just one bright, shining moment in otherwise humdrum lives we are grateful to have shared it with them. Even India, for the moment, doesn’t seem quite so grim.

Non-Fiction – 7

If your idea of a good French movie is lots of intellectual conversation, some red wine and multiple affairs, then Non-Fiction (or more to the point, Doubles Vies, its French title) is up your alley. And if, like me, you think anything Juliette Binoche does is worth watching, then this is time well spent. It does goes slowly, though. The characters are convincingly real, and the issues they bring up – mostly about the future of publishing – are good teases.

Long Shot – 8

Charlize Theron is a 10, Seth Rogen a 6, the funny-smart dialogue an 8, hence the final average. The movie manipulates in all the time-worn rom-com ways, which meant my cheeks were wet for the final 15 minutes. This was pure escapist entertainment, with topical jabs at Trump, Murdoch, Fox News and politics in general, to compensate for the gross-out element that comes with Rogen. (As the New Yorker put it, “a film for adolescents of all ages.”) I’m not sure that making Theron’s love interest be so clueless, untalented and unattractive was necessary for the film to work, but it was a small price to pay for the privilege of watching her for two hours.

Amazing Grace – 5

An unfinished documentary from 1972 about the making of Aretha Franklin’s gospel record, Amazing Grace. The songs weren’t much, at least to my taste, and Aretha’s performance was so charisma-free, you kept wanting the camera to look at someone else, maybe choir leader Alexander Hamilton. The commentary was similarly lackluster. For me, the only positive was seeing the all-black congregation for Day One, with women dressed in their best, and thinking about that community at that time in history in L.A.

Mustang – 5

Wonderful acting – by the horses. The opening scene of wild mustangs being herded by helicopter over a Nevada plain is the movie’s high point. The main story – horse tamed by man, while man is tamed by horse – is predictable to the point of cliche, although it may not have seemed so to the Belgian/French filmmakers. The two subplots – drug dealing among the convicts and the family relations of the hero – are too confusing to gain traction. Matthias Schoenaerts is the same bullheaded tough he played in Rust and Bone and Bullhead, but is less convincing when he moves out of character.

Brink – 4

A narrow-scope documentary, showing Steve Bannon at work and at rest, not much else. He can be charming, which is interesting to see, but the film offers little insight into his thinking or relationships (if he has any). The camera is always there when he meets foreign leaders, but pulls away before anything really happens. In trying hard not to editorialize, director Alison Klayman gives us little more than this week’s TIME cover story.