Archive for July, 2018

Eighth Grade

Posted in Comedy, Drama with tags on July 25, 2018 by Mark Hobin

eighth_gradeSTARS4It was in 1996 that Director Todd Solondz released his Welcome to the Dollhouse. That seminal indie about growing up was a landmark film that captured the painfully insecure adolescence of a young girl. Few dramas capture the pain of that childhood stage in such a raw, unflinching manner. Now in 2018, we get comedian Bo Burnham’s first-time feature, Eighth Grade. Though nowhere near as bitter, the absolute credibility of the presentation comes as close as anything I’ve seen since.

Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher) is a 13-year-old teen navigating the gawky existence of middle school in the midst of social media.  Right from the start, she addresses the camera. Although she’s not talking to the audience directly, but rather to her YouTube subscribers. Her channel is sort of a testimonial of self-empowerment interspersed with copious uses of the words “like” and “um”.  She not the most polished speaker, but what she lacks in poise she makes up for in heart.  “Be Yourself!” is the kind of thing she champions before saying goodbye with her trademark signoff “Gucci!”  The simple phrase is at once precious and sad. She says it not because she’s living the life of the luxury brand, but because she’s trying to cater to people she hopes will like her.  Yes, there is a disparity to her affirmations.  She’s saying all the right things.  Be confident! Put yourself out there!  Yet her demeanor betrays a deeply felt anxiety.  We instantly embrace her fragile personality.

Let’s face it. This isn’t just eighth grade, this is the human experience and it speaks to everyone. We love this girl because she so desperately desires what we all crave: friends, acceptance, to be validated.  As adults, we learn to build a thicker skin.  Sure we aspire to be revered for who we are, but most of us adapt to a world that may not appreciate our uniqueness.  Kayla hasn’t adjusted to that way of thinking yet.  She isn’t celebrated by her fellow classmates, although she does win an award for “Most Quiet”.  The fact that a junior high would even hand out a “superlative” for the quality of being shy is sadly believable.  Kids can be insensitive and sometimes adults are oblivious to it.

Teen actress Elsie Fisher is a revelation as Kayla. She doesn’t appear to be putting on an act.  She simply exists and her achievement is a marvel of natural truth.  Her sincere, helpful single dad, Mark (Josh Hamilton) simply wishes to engage his daughter at the dinner table. This is sadly a conversation in which she has no interest. Oh, what a cruel irony!  He wishes to relate to her in the same way she longs to connect with her peers. That alone makes the scene heartbreaking.  She shuts him out wearing headphones. He’s so sweet that her conduct should make us dislike her, but Kayla is such a fully formed individual.  She’s vulnerable and anxious and so uniquely human.  We make excuses in our own mind to justify her behavior.  We can understand her lack of desire to converse on cue.  It’s a terrific balancing act that ranks among the most honest performances of the entire year.

The fact that 27 year old, male Bo Burnham has so perfectly portrayed the angst of a 13-year-old girl is a miraculous talent. Burnham’s career began on YouTube back on 2006 which lead to a contract with Comedy Central Records.  There’s humor here to be sure, but it’s rather serious.  Eight Grade captures the utter authenticity of real life.  Her existence is made up of seemingly minor associations with other people. Kayla scores an invitation to a pool party thanks to the wishes of a well-meaning mom of the popular girl Kennedy (Catherine Oliviere).  What should be an enjoyable event is a minefield of social interactions with which to navigate.  A run-in with her crush (Luke Prael) is an awkward communication.  Aidan’s personality is unexceptional, but in her eyes, he’s the unattainable boy of her dreams.  Kennedy’s cousin Gabe (Jake Ryan) is at the party as well.  Their introduction to each other is a welcome relief.  Her presence has been acknowledged.  Later, an invite to shadow a high school student Olivia (Emily Robinson), results is an opportunity to hang out with Olivia and her friends at the mall.  The evening ends with an exchange with one of her friends (Daniel Zolghadri) that is so unbearable to watch I winced at the discussion.  There are a lot of cringey moments in Kayla’s navigation of junior high.  Her odyssey is merely the commonalities of life with which we have all experienced in some form.  If you haven’t, then consider yourself lucky.  For the rest of us, Eighth Grade is so real it hurts.

07-19-18

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Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

Posted in Biography, Documentary with tags on July 19, 2018 by Mark Hobin

wont_you_be_my_neighborSTARS3.5In my pre-school days, I must admit I responded a lot more to the work of Jim Henson (Sesame Street, The Muppet Show) than Fred Rogers. Mister Rogers wasn’t hip or cool or particularly funny.  However, he undoubtedly held a sincere, genuine quality that I still find admirable.  He was unlike anyone on TV before or since. His placid, composed demeanor was so incongruous to other hosts that he was almost alien.  The world of children’s entertainment has often relied on wacky escapades, cartoons, frenetic spectacle and animated hosts to captivate kids.  Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was none of those things.

Fred Rogers had a serious agenda but would address it in his own uniquely quiet way.  He simply wanted to affirm that children are “loved and capable of loving.”  He became an ordained minister of the United Presbyterian Church in 1963 but wanted to work in television because he “hated it so” or at least the kinds of “pie-in-the-face” programming popular at the time.  Documentarian Morgan Neville (20 Feet from Stardom, Best of Enemies: Buckley vs. Vidal) inserts footage to clarify this point.  The decision has a bit of a pompous air as it besmirches stuff like Soupy Sales, Howdy Doody and Bozo the Clown. Fred saw an opportunity to educate young minds in the way he felt they should be spoken to.  Neville includes other clips that illustrate a man not easily categorized. Despite being a lifelong Republican, he famously advocated the government funding of children’s television before a U.S. Senate committee during Nixon’s administration.

This documentary celebrates the man, but it also reminds me just how static his program truly was.  Every episode beginning with him arriving home, singing “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” and changing into sneakers and a cardigan sweater.  Then he’d discuss a theme for that week where he’d just plainly sit and talk directly to the audience.  That theme would later be explored by a trip to the “Neighborhood of Make-Believe” where puppets King Friday XIII, Queen Sara Saturday, X the Owl, Henrietta Pussycat, Daniel Striped Tiger, and Lady Elaine Fairchilde would interact.  Mister Rogers didn’t appear in those segments but he’d do the voices.  Through it all, he’d softly and calmly address the viewer almost as if you were the only person in the entire world.

Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood had its official debut on February 19, 1968, on NET. After its first three seasons, it would continue to air on its successor PBS, until August 31, 2001. In that time, the world experienced civil unrest, urban violence, assassinations, wars and global tragedies. Morgan Neville builds a case that Fred Rogers was a peaceful revolutionary.  “I Like You As You Are” Mister Rogers memorably sang in one of the many songs he wrote for the series.  As segregationists demanded swimming pools for whites only, he invited series regular Officer Clemmons (François Clemmons), a black policeman, to join him as he cooled his feet in a kiddie pool on a 1969 broadcast. Clemmons acknowledges he was also gay in one of many talking head interviews recorded for this documentary.   François Clemmons recounts that Fred Rogers was aware of this fact, but asked Clemmons to remain closeted for the purposes of the show.   The two remained lifelong friends as he continued to appear on the show.

Mister Rogers had a distinctive way of connecting with children. This gifted ability is spectacularly demonstrated on an episode from 1981.  He meets with 10-year-old Jeff Erlanger.  A quadriplegic, he explains why he uses an electric wheelchair.  If their subsequent duet of “It’s You I Like” doesn’t move you, then please check your pulse.  The host’s naive sincerity was unparalleled for a person on TV.  I can still remember seeing Fred Rogers as an unlikely guest on the very first season of Late Night with David Letterman on NBC.  It was February 17, 1982, to be exact.  The clip still exists on YouTube.  The clashing of these two diametrically opposite personalities was fascinating but also uncomfortable to watch. Within Mr. Letterman’s cynical atmosphere, Mr. Rogers appeared rather peculiar.  What a difference context makes.  Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is, as expected, a loving tribute.  A man whose gentle temperament is presented like an elixir for troubled times. The mission is not to drop any bombshells.  No secret life or dark side to this man according to the documentary.  He was goodness personified and that’s the uplifting feeling you’ll get when exiting the theater.

07-12-18

Sorry to Bother You

Posted in Comedy, Drama, Fantasy, Science Fiction with tags on July 12, 2018 by Mark Hobin

sorry_to_bother_youSTARS4An unemployed man (Lakeith Stanfield) in his twenties is existing in an alternate reality version of modern-day Oakland, California. He’s living in his uncle’s (Terry Crews) garage and is 4 months behind in the rent His name is Cassius Green and the similarity of that moniker to “cash green” is intentionally ironic I’m sure. He simply wants a job. There’s an opportunity to be a telemarketer with a company called RegalView. He’s even gone so far as to bring a fake “Employee of the Month” plaque that he made himself to the job interview. The interviewer (Robert Longstreet) sees through the facade but hires him anyway because he appreciates the initiative it took to do such a thing. After he’s hired, the manager tells him to “Stick to the Script” or “S.T.T.S.” and amusingly pronounces it as if it’s an acronym. The movie’s title refers to his first line of rehearsed patter. Cassius’ happiness at attaining a job turns to despair however when he realizes how difficult it is to finish his marketing spiel before a potential client hangs up on him. Director Boots Riley has a creative spirit and this cleverness informs the entire film. These interactions are presented with his desk crashing through the floor into the homes of various people he’s calling. It was at this moment I was ready to accept whatever the filmmaker would be throwing down. And let me tell you, he assaults us with a bizarro world of absurdity.

The presentation of Cassius’ mundane workaday milieu will ring true for anyone who has ever held a job they really didn’t enjoy. I would suspect that is pretty much everyone and if that doesn’t describe you, then count your blessings. RegalView is a depressing work environment based in a dingy basement of cubicles surrounded by drab white walls. Things change however when he meets black co-worker Langston (Danny Glover). The aged associate advises him to use his “white voice” which is actually the dubbed delivery of actor David Cross. The incongruity of hearing that nasal tone coming out of the man’s body is perhaps a simple joy but it’s supremely funny nevertheless. Suddenly Cassius’ success rate with clients drastically improves.  One quibble.  Why Langston wasn’t successful at doing the exact same thing is never explained. However, we will soon discover that’s far from the most baffling enigma in this story.  Cassius gains the attention of his superiors who want to promote him up to the high-rise offices as a hallowed Power Caller.

Sorry to Bother You is bolstered by a wonderful supporting cast. His girlfriend is Detroit, an alternative artist played Tessa Thompson. Her comically oversized earrings displaying messages are a running gag throughout the picture. Unfortunately, her radical performance art, supposedly designed to “take down the system”, was completely lost on me.  How does getting pelted with water balloons filled with sheep’s blood make a point? She also condemns Cassius for affecting a false persona that she too is guilty of as well. I wanted her to acknowledge her own hypocrisy.  She doesn’t.  Back in the business realm, low-level supervisor Diana DeBauchery (Kate Berlant) is an absolute hoot. Her surname looks like “debauchery”.  “It’s pronounced DE-bau-sher-AY” she corrects. To physically get him to those high rise offices she must enter a code into the elevator buttons that look like a touch tone phone pad. The joke is extended for such a long time that it actually goes from tiresome to genius. When he gets to his new employment digs he meets Mr. Blank (Omari Hardwick) replete with an eye patch and bowler hat. He’s a black man with his own “white voice” (Patton Oswalt) that’s sort of a bridge between Cassius and the chief executive.  Cassius ultimately meets the shadowy business mogul Steve Lift played by Armie Hammer. Steve is the coke-snorting C.E.O. of a morally corrupt corporation named WorryFree.  His company is liable for questionable business practices although “questionable” doesn’t even begin to describe what they do.  I’m being vague to avoid spoilers.  As a symbol of the establishment, he is the very definition of “The Man”. This all happens at the very same time that Cassius’ peers, which include buddy Sal (Jermaine Fowler) and led by colleague Squeeze (Steven Yeun), are inciting to strike due to poor working conditions.  Does he align with his oppressed workers or assimilate into the mainstream corporate world? The drama is successful at presenting this as a conundrum to be sure, but you don’t even know the half of it.  Things get decidedly weirder after that. The political focus spins wildly out of control along with the plot developments.

This is director Boots Riley’s first feature. I predict this will change, but heretofore he’s been best known as the frontman of a radical hip-hop group known as The Coup. Their politically charged songs center around race, class, capitalism, police brutality, the proletariat, and other issues. Those topics inform the group’s biting social commentary. That point of view gently infiltrates the film’s very funny outlook but it doesn’t even begin to prepare you for the insanity that follows. The screenplay satirizes social media, race, class, poverty, television, and rap music in brilliant ways that often have different interpretations. The production is so adventurous and so gloriously bizarre that it won me over. Sorry to Bother You is unlike any movie I’ve ever seen and yet If I had to draw analogies, I could say the work of Mike Judge is a close parallel.  I found elements of both Office Space and Idiocracy in its targets. There’s also the loopiness of Michel Gondry, who is indirectly name-dropped in an absolutely disturbing claymation video. There’s an off-kilter sensibility that influences the narrative that makes this instantly feel like a cult classic that should play at midnight screenings. Despite a chaotic fantasy that careens wildly from political satire into science fiction, this movie remains fun and witty in a lively way that boldly announces its presence. Its freewheeling bonkers mentality is simply too audacious to ignore.

07-06-18

Ant-Man and the Wasp

Posted in Action, Adventure, Drama, Fantasy, Science Fiction, Superhero with tags on July 9, 2018 by Mark Hobin

antman_and_the_wasp_ver2STARS3.5Back in 2015, Ant-Man was one of Marvel’s lesser offerings in their seemingly never-ending blitz of superhero movies. After Avengers: Age of Ultron of that year, it sorta felt like the cheese course following the main entree. Therefore it should come as no surprise that Ant-Man and the Wasp functions in very much the same way. At the beginning of the summer, Avengers: Infinity War was a game-changing adventure in the ongoing epic of these champions of justice. Comparatively this agreeable little interlude feels like a dessert. I like dessert. Dessert is sweet and delicious. It’s just that this is like a yogurt parfait and I was craving a baked New York–style cheesecake.

Given the lighthearted atmosphere, the narrative is curiously overcrowded with a massive ensemble of characters. Scott Lang, better known as Ant-Man, has been under house arrest after violating the Sokovia Accords by working with Captain America. His home is now a veritable playground so he can entertain his daughter Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson) when she visits. She’s dropped off by his ex-wife (Judy Greer ) and her husband (Bobby Cannavale). The proper story begins when Scott has a vision of Janet van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer), the first Wasp, still trapped in the quantum realm. Apparently, the two of them are quantumly entangled after Scott visited the quantum dimension when he went subatomic in the last film. Get used to hearing the word “quantum” a lot in this movie. The screenplay even makes a joke about this. “Do you guys just put the word quantum in front of everything?” Scott Lang asks.

Scott’s ability to return from the quantum realm is noteworthy. This compels him to contact Janet’s husband Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and his daughter Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly). Hope shows up, wisely ditching that severe black bob for a much more-practical-for-fighting ponytail. Extracting Janet from the quantum field is the ostensible point of this picture. That’s it. Coming after Infinity War where half of humanity was in danger, the uncommonly low stakes are refreshingly simple here. They all join forces with the help of Ant-Man’s X-Con Security crew Luis (Michael Peña), Dave (Tip “T.I.” Harris) and Kurt (David Dastmalchian). Luis secures the hilarious high point of the picture during an interrogation scene when he reveals Scott’s location after being injected with truth serum. It’s unquestionably amusing (again) but since we got this same exact joke in the last Ant-Man the charm is somewhat lessened this time around.  The elder Hank must reluctantly seek the help of former friend and partner, Bill Foster (Laurence Fishburne). Incidentally, despite the buoyant tone, Hank affects such a grim, humorless personality, that it feels as if the actual actor, Michael Douglas, is supremely unhappy to be in this movie.

Surprisingly, the narrative never becomes too convoluted despite the sheer number of actors involved in this plot.  Scott, Hope, and Hank are all confronted by a cadre of corrupt people who impede their progress. There’s Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen), also known as Ava Starr.  She has the ability to move through solid matter but has difficulty stabilizing herself.  She requires Janet’s quantum energy at all costs — even if it means Ghost needs to kill her.  There’s a black market tech dealer named Sonny Burch (Walton Goggins) who wants to get his hands on Hank’s lab.   Also added to the mix is FBI agent Jimmy Woo (Randall Park) whose job it is to monitor Scott Lang should he try to break free from the house arrest of his home. He’s also after Hank and Hope as well. Bill Foster (Laurence Fishburne) is a college professor and former associate of Hank’s. He shows up too, although I’ll keep his nefarious associations a secret.

This is a stridently pleasant production. The drama along with the assorted villains unfold under a mishmash of silly antics. That means we are presented with less crucial stakes but lots of upbeat humor and a jovial mood. This is an innocuous film about simple pleasures.  There’s a lot of fun to be had in watching things enlarge and then quickly shrink down. Tiny cars zipping around the streets of San Francisco or watching Hank’s gigantic lab reduced to a rolling suitcase never gets old.  Ant-Man and the Wasp essentially takes what made the original good and fine tunes it to make it a little bit better.  Yes, this is an improvement over the 2015 entry, but it’s still the B side throwaway ditty to the A-side single. This isn’t a story so much as a framework on which to hang a disposable tale with affable gags.  I remember the frivolous jokes.  The plot machinations, not so much.  Honestly, I had to take to the internet to remind me of the details of this saga.  The specific components fade from memory but I remembered the comedy.  Hey, this is a very funny movie.

07-05-18

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom Podcast – “Out Now With Aaron and Abe”

Posted in Podcast on July 1, 2018 by Mark Hobin

I was guest this week on Out Now With Aaron and Abe

This week’s Out Now with Aaron and Abe has the gang finally escaping the park. Aaron and Abe are joined by Mark Hobin and Scott Mendelson to discuss Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom. The group goes over just what passes for entertainment when it comes to wild dinosaur adventures, along with plenty of other thoughts concerning this film and more. Among topics covered, we have a fun round of Know Everybody (8:15), some Out Now Quickies™ (15:24), Trailer Talk for Bumblebee (28:28) and Creed II (34:08), the main review (41:15), Out Now Feedback (1:26:02), and Games (1:39:14). We then wrap things up (1:47:13) and end on some bloopers (1:59:54), following this week’s closeout song. So now, if you’ve got an hour or so to kill…