*** Gaspar Noé's latest journey into the depths of human depravity, Climax—in which a troupe of young dancers are unwittingly slipped LSD in sangria and then overcome by madness—unequivocally contains some of the filmmaker's finest work. Though at times the movie is hamstrung by some of Noé's usual preoccupations, namely his seemingly unquenchable desire to offend and shock. After some opening interviews introducing us to the film's racially and sexually diverse characters, we're brought to the story proper via a thrilling dance sequence that is quite possibly the best I've ever seen committed to film. When Noé gifts the audience with a second choreographed number—and "gift" is absolutely the word for these astonishing scenes—I found myself hoping he would focus on the joyous abandonment of dancing. He does not. As the performers begin to succumb to the acid now coursing through their bodies, Noé puts them through all manner of horrors. And that's the main issue with an otherwise enthralling work. The paranoia that slowly overcomes the group is masterfully presented—Benoît Debie's disorienting cinematography is stellar, and when combined with the nonstop pulsating electronic music, it provides the viewer with an otherworldly anxiety not unlike a bad trip. However, the characters are lesser for the illogical way they hasten themselves to incredible cruelty and violence. Noé is a captivating, unmistakably talented filmmaker, but one wishes he was a tad less hellbent on making his audiences stare the worst of humanity in the face. R. DONOVAN FARLEY. Cinema 21.
** Insisting on the literal interpretation of a religious text can be a shortcut to fanaticism. That's part of the pleasure in To Dust handling an orthodox view so sweetly and personally. Shawn Snyder directs this story of a Hasidic widower obsessing over his late wife physically returning to earth. Believing her spirit (but more likely his own) won't rest until the interred body evacuates this world, Shmuel (Géza Röhrig) enlists the help of a community college professor (Matthew Broderick) to study and quicken her decomposition. Even if the "why" is deep and bizarre, the "how" in To Dust is a little easy. Broderick slides too neatly into the role of the put-upon, burnout teacher (think his Election character 20 years later). And a hokey buddy dynamic develops around a series of morbid missions and some culture-clash chatter. The Broderick of it all is more like a selling point than a necessity to what's otherwise a Hasidic character study with scant handholding for the audience. When the movie prioritizes drama, Röhrig (who you might know from 2015's Son of Saul) carries the day as a sympathetic believer whose fixation drives him outside his church so he can honor his faith. R. CHANCE SOLEM-PFEIFER. Fox Tower.
Ruben Brandt, Collector
** Animator Milorad Krstic's weirdo art-heist movie, released in Europe last year and new to America through distribution by Sony, is by design a hodgepodge—both critically and graphically. The animation is an ambitious mixture of techniques and styles inspired by a myriad of fine artists—one woman, for example, is a three-eyed, two-mouthed Picasso painting. The plot contains wildly divergent threads spinning off in all kinds of directions: spy story, heist movie, pop-psychological portrait, dreamscape simulator, art critique—whatever you can think of, it's in here somewhere. The first half is entertaining, though at times the storyline can feel mushed together. But when the plot really locks in, Ruben Brandt becomes a surprisingly compelling film. A famous psychotherapist and his patients end up stealing artistic masterpieces to help him cure what he believes is the early stages of schizophrenia. Think of it as a messier Spiderman: Into the Spider-Verse for art snobs, with a collision of styles and themes that use the medium of digital animation to do the unexpected onscreen. R. CORBIN SMITH. Living Room.
Isn't It Romantic
** In an alternate universe, Rebel Wilson plays an architect who designs parking garages in a movie that is a lengthy meditation on process—a three-hour journey into the psyche of someone who devotes herself to tedious tasks for the sake of the craft itself. It would make film snobs the world over weep. Isn't It Romantic is not that movie. But that's fine; normal people would be bored to tears by such a project. Instead, our parking-garage architect—unlucky in love and career—hauls around a bag of hangups about her body and how people perceive her until she gets hit on the head and wakes up to find herself living in a real-life romcom. There's a cute stud, a gay best buddy, a female work enemy and Wilson, befuddled by it all, trying to get out of this contrivance by finding Mr. Right. The best moments come when the movie embraces the slanderous metafiction skewering the genre its parodying, but it's hard not to feel that sooner or later the plotline sags and becomes the very thing it's supposed to be savaging. Still, there are some good laughs and fun performances. Liam Hemsworth, in particular, as a handsome billionaire with whom Wilson becomes involved, does right by his family's honor in the realm of being funny in comedies. PG-13. CORBIN SMITH. Bridgeport, Cedar Hills, City Center, Clackamas, Division, Eastport, Fox Tower, Lloyd, Oak Grove, Scappoose, Studio One, Tigard, Vancouver.
Never Look Away
** The profile of this three-hour German epic spiked last month after it received Oscar nominations for Best Foreign Language Film and, far more surprisingly, Best Cinematography. If there's one facet of the muddled love story that does merit an accolade, it's Caleb Deschanel's work behind the camera. The cinematographer, who has been making great-looking movies as far back as Being There (1979), brings exquisite framing to tragedy in Never Look Away as well as kinetic humor to unexpected action. (Seriously, someone jumps buck naked from a window into a pine tree in this movie, and it's beautiful.) The storytelling, however, is a test of emotional, as much as moviegoing, endurance. Our protagonist Kurt (Tom Schilling) is an unfit epic hero in that he changes very little over 20 years. And an ex-SS officer (Sebastian Koch) survives the bulk of Never Look Away to little effect besides casting a disturbing, uninterrogated shadow. Director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck may have earned international acclaim with 2006's The Lives of Others, but his German-language follow-up is a reach in every sense—for prestige, for 12 different themes, for an extra hour of your time. R. CHANCE SOLEM-PFEIFER. Cinema 21.
Happy Death Day 2U
** After the surprising success of Christopher Landon's 2017 film, Happy Death Day (budget $4.8 million, box office $126 million), a sequel further exploring the Groundhog Day-meets-slasher film presented in the original was inevitable. Happy Death Day 2U seeks to establish the franchise as a sci-fi Scream with plans for sequel after sequel until the films' teenage audience grows weary of the premise and stops showing up. Landon and company have only partly succeeded. Not as charming (or gruesome or well-written) as the Scream films, Happy Death Day 2U doubles down on the complex multiverse premise presented in the first film—our hero repeats the day of her murder until she solves it—by including the friends of Tree Gelbman (Jessica Rothe) in the reality-bending chaos this time around. A few of the filmmaker's choices are a bit confounding, like the "charming" suicide montage (Rothe's character needs to die again and again to have enough time to figure out her predicament) that sees our heroine "comically" drink drain cleaner in a grocery store, as well as a preposterous emotion-baiting subplot that forces her to choose between a reality where her formerly deceased mother is alive and one that finds her dating her beloved Carter, played by Israel Broussard. Rothe shines in this film as she did in the original, and so does most of the supporting cast, but her charms aren't enough to make Happy Death Day 2U a multiverse you'd be happy to be stuck duplicating. PG-13. DONOVAN FARLEY. Bridgeport, Cedar Hills, Clackamas, Division, Eastport, Lloyd, Oak Grove, Vancouver.
* It's the rare thriller that escalates in such a tactless, telegraphed way you end up duped into believing a self-aware twist must be coming. Alas, Greta is just a Lifetime movie with Champagne tastes. The latest from The Crying Game director Neil Jordan may signal indie sophistication by casting Isabelle Huppert and Chloë Grace Moretz, but it's really just a tired stalker parable à la When a Stranger Calls (1979, or the 2006 remake nobody asked for). Case in point: The connection between the transparently unwell Brooklyn shut-in Greta (Huppert) and her unsuspecting young obsession (Moretz) is forged exclusively through plot devices that will be cheaply flipped into torment 20 minutes later. ("Huh, I wonder if that dog they adopt will survive?!") Other hilariously ill-conceived characters include the heroic best friend who's introduced unironically promoting colon cleanses and a distant dad who we know designs boats because he always calls while standing in front of his boat designs. If Greta possessed even a hint of the genius on display in the Huppert-starring Elle—a polarizing and bottomless 2016 Verhoeven thriller whose coattails it's trying to ride—it might be fodder for an enjoyable bad movie podcast. But this is a sad, straight shot to the trash pile that didn't realize it was allowed some weird indulgences on the trip. R. CHANCE SOLEM-PFEIFER. Bridgeport, Cedar Hills, City Center, Clackamas, Division, Eastport, Fox Tower, Laurelhurst, Oak Grove, Scappoose, Tigard, Vancouver.