Archive for the Drama Category

Three Identical Strangers

Posted in Documentary, Drama with tags on September 21, 2018 by Mark Hobin

1532373776411_three_identical_strangers_smSTARS3Three Identical Strangers is stranger than fiction.  That’s because it’s the truth.  Bobby Shafran, Eddy Galland, and David Kellman were identical brothers that were separated at birth and adopted by three different families.  Each one didn’t know about the other.  That’s the premise.  The story begins when 19-year-old Bobby attends Sullivan County Community College for the first time.  All of a sudden people are slapping him on the back and acknowledging him with an intimate familiarity.  It turns out the students mistook him for Eddy, a very popular student who had dropped out the previous semester. A fellow classmate makes the connection that Bobby was a twin. To hear Bobby tell this anecdote is one of the many pleasures of this feature.  There’s a shared sense of elation with his palpable excitement in coming to terms with the revelation that he had a twin brother. Then after their picture appeared in the newspaper, David saw the photo of his doubles and realized they were a set of triplets.

What happened next was a whirlwind of activity.   Back in the early 1980s, the media had a field day with the news of long lost triplets.  They were living the high life.  They appeared on talk shows,  frequented nightclubs, had a cameo opposite Madonna in Desperately Seeking Susan.  The three young men became the toast of New York society. Everything seemed wonderful.  During this segment, the soundtrack blasts the song “Walking on Sunshine” and I had to chuckle a little.  Director Tim Wardle was obviously setting the stage.  I sensed a precipitous fall, as is usually the expectation when things seem a little too perfect.  Sure enough. A bombshell is dropped. There are a few more twists as the tale develops and slowly the details of their separation become clearer.

Talking about this movie is tricky. I contend that it’s the joy of discovery that holds the entertainment value in this saga. I went in completely cold and I believe this real-life drama is best experienced this way.  Knowing more than what I’ve revealed here can severely lessen the emotional impact.  Why these brothers were separated at birth is something you will learn.  The chronicle gives us quite a few details into that decision and the subsequent aftermath.  Furthermore, a lot of attention is focused on how similar these men were.  Despite their time apart, they had many similar tastes. They smoked the same brand of cigarettes, they all had been wrestlers, they were attracted to the same type of woman. The media exaggerated these superficial facts at the time and so does the documentary for the majority of its runtime.  What the picture doesn’t do is spend enough time emphasizing how they were different.  It rarely makes them seem like three separate people, often blurring the distinction between each individual man.  Moreover, it doesn’t hold a lot of resolutions.  As such, there is no finality to this story.

Three Identical Strangers is fascinating, but I still had many questions. The way the boys embraced their newfound fame is highlighted.  This even led to a joint business—they opened a restaurant on New York’s Lower East Side called Triplets. Collectively they were living the dream.  So it makes how each man’s life changes a bit of a head-scratcher.  Current interviews with the subjects somewhat help distinguish their individuality.  To its credit, this documentary was captivating enough to inspire me to do some investigative journalism of my own after I watched the film.  I wanted more clarification. It’s marginally brought up, but apparently, a lot more demons plagued these brothers than this account reveals.  Why is the burning question, but the feature doesn’t leave us with many answers.  The respective background lives of each man should have been given a more detailed consideration.  Near the end, the movie does manage to offer a “hot take” on the parenting styles of each mom and dad.  The blaming of one parent, in particular, is not only glib but irresponsible.  This condemnation is one of the last things we are left with as an audience.  The facile explanation left a bad taste as I left the theater.  Yet I will avow, that for most of the tale, this is a compelling story.

9-20-18

Advertisements

A Simple Favor

Posted in Comedy, Crime, Drama, Mystery, Thriller on September 15, 2018 by Mark Hobin

simple_favor_ver9STARS2.5Director Paul Feig (Bridesmaids) has carved out a successful niche in Hollywood.  His female-centric comedies have been both box office successes as well as critically lauded hits.  I consider myself an admirer.  So when A Simple Favor was announced, I welcomed another offering from the filmmaker.  The screenplay by Jessica Sharzer (TV’s American Horror Story) is based on a 2017 novel by Darcey Bell.  I was intrigued by ads that led me to believe that he was undertaking something new. The trailer promised a shift into neo-noir thriller, that A Simple Favor would deviate from Feig’s comedy wheelhouse.  While the production attempts to affect a pseudo-serious edge, this material incongruously relies on laughs, sometimes awkwardly in the very same scene.

I was elated by the cast.  I am a Blake Lively fan. The statuesque actress plays Emily, a mysterious friend of Stephanie (Anna Kendrick) who goes missing.   Lively got her start in features with The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants (2005). Then made a splash in the CW television series Gossip Girl (2007–2012). Initially subsequent films (Green Lantern, Savages) followed that didn’t make use of her talents.  I must confess she really didn’t impress until her appearance in The Age of Adaline. The willowy blonde epitomized cool stylish class in that production.  Visually, Lively is a chic throwback to Hollywood heroines like Jean Harlow, Kim Novak, Veronica Lake, or Grace Kelly.  She is undeniably well cast here.  With her designer duds and cosmopolitan demeanor, she is the epitome of a gorgeous sophisticate. The movie adopts a refined air.  Although her character subverts that mood with a vulgar temperament.  Her conversations with Stephanie make it clear.  Emily is a lewd and crude woman.

The rest of the cast intrigued me.  Emily’s husband is portrayed by Crazy Rich Asians newcomer Henry Golding.  He plays it rather straight.  The actor treats the screenplay as if he’s in a sincere drama.  Anna Kendrick, on the other hand, seems to be in a different picture altogether.  As a mother, she hosts her own self-produced internet program for fellow moms.  When she addresses her audience of mommies in her video blog, her strident performance makes sense.  Yet she maintains that same shrill demeanor even while sipping martinis with newly found friend Emily.  Her acting is broad and gratingly self-aware.  I wouldn’t be surprised if the part was originally written with frequent Paul Feig collaborator Melissa McCarthy in mind.  McCarthy was brilliant taking on an uncharacteristic role in Spy so I have no doubt she could have pulled off this part with aplomb as well.  She would’ve been a better casting selection given the way Kendrick is directed to behave.  Miss Kendrick’s constant mugging would be more at home in a Miller-Boyett sitcom.  I have nothing against Full House, Perfect Strangers, Family Matters, Step by Step, et al.  Those 90s hits have their place in TV history.  It’s just that the acting style doesn’t suit an elegant mystery.

The choice to mix folly with drama is black comedy and when it works, it can be marvelous.  But taking a serious subject and introducing humor is a difficult balancing act.  It’s been done successfully.  David O. Russell achieved the feat with 2013’s American Hustle to cite one recent example.  There has to be a modicum of respect for your own characters so the audience can be invested in their plight.  Quite simply, these characters lack depth.  All of them.  Even Emily’s young son (Ian Ho) comes across like spoiled brat on a bad sitcom.  I consider the moment when the little tyke surprisingly shouts “F— You!” at Stephanie to be the nadir.  With A Simple Favor, what initially begins like as a captivating mystery slowly devolves into superficial farce. Sometimes in mid-scene. The decision to undercut tension with silliness undermines the story’s more lofty ambitions.  I hesitate to mention Hitchcock because invoking his name in the same breath as a sordid piece of entertainment such as this is akin to blasphemy.  However, that’s clearly the aesthetic to which director Paul Feig was aiming.  Unfortunately, misplaced absurdity and then a convoluted denouement with a few too many twists, completely sinks the plot.  The recent Searching had twists too but at least they were coherent.  Perusing the number of one-star reviews on the social book site Goodreads for Darcey Bell’s 2017 novel leads me to believe the problem lies with the source material.  That’s a shame.  The ultimate mystery of A Simple Favor is why they buried an elegant thriller underneath this goofy mess.

09-13-18

The Wife

Posted in Drama with tags on September 13, 2018 by Mark Hobin

wifeSTARS3There’s an old adage that states ‘Behind every great man there’s a great woman.’  The ostensibly uplifting quote hasn’t aged well.  The proverb was originally meant to spotlight women not recognized for their talents.  However the image of women following men can be misinterpreted in a negative way.  The success of the women’s movement has made the notion a bit dated. Yet The Wife is an old-fashioned film.  I was constantly reminded of this saying.  This motion picture is essentially that slogan in cinematic form.

Glenn Close stars as Joan Castleman as the titular spouse of Professor Joe Castleman (Jonathan Pryce).  Where he is self-absorbed, forceful and celebrated.  She is self-effacing, elegant, and overlooked.  He is an author who is set to receive the Nobel Prize for literature.  It should be a happy occasion for the two of them and it is at first.  The news arrives from a late night phone call.  The two celebrate with unadulterated glee together.  Nevertheless, that announcement ignites a spark that sets off a series of confrontations between the longtime couple.  Their marriage gradually unravels before our eyes.  She accompanies her husband to Stockholm.  When Joe compliments her in his public speeches, she registers subtle disdain for the conspicuous display that appears more for show than sincere gratitude. We observe them now, but we examine them in the past as well.  Flashbacks chronicle Joe (Harry Lloyd) and Joan’s (Annie Starke) relationship in their younger days.  His rise as a successful writer is depicted.  The thinly plotted tale involves a traditional stay-at-home mom and a husband that succumbs to adulterous indiscretions.  The details couldn’t be more mired in cliches.  Even the big reveal is foreseeable.  Still, these particulars give an elaborate background to their history together.  This is a portrait of a marriage that is buckling under long-suppressed emotions.

The Wife doesn’t hold many surprises.  Even the title, with its lightly repressive connotation, telegraphs the tone.  Consider the difference between when a husband refers to “my wife” as opposed to “the wife”.  The screenplay was written by Jane Anderson who adapted Meg Wolitzer’s 2003 novel of the same name.  It’s almost as if the author started with the question “How can I fashion a story around a subjugated woman?”  The Wife is pure Oscar bait – a movie seemingly created with the intention of giving 6-time nominee Glenn Close that elusive Academy Award.  She’s undeniably brilliant in the role.  Close masterfully conveys the nuance of a character that both loves and resents her companion in equal measure.  She hides a slowly building tornado of emotion behind a mask of dignified restraint.  It’s an exquisite achievement. Jonathan Pryce holds his own as “the husband” and Christian Slater is fascinating as a journalist looking to write a possibly sensationalized biography of Joe.  Less effective is Max Irons as their adult son that comes across like a petulant brat.  Also less compelling are the hackneyed elements of a soap opera that undercut the sophistication of Glenn Close’s performance.  Director Björn Runge understands his star is the main attraction. She is the reason to see The Wife. Close is the entire film and she simply shines.

09-06-18

Searching

Posted in Drama, Mystery, Thriller with tags on September 2, 2018 by Mark Hobin

searching_ver2STARS3.5Searching is a tale about what happens when a father (John Cho) discovers his 16-year-old daughter (Michelle La) has gone missing after a late night study group. David’s hunt for Margot completely relies on the internet in his quest to uncover her whereabouts. He soon realizes that she had a whole other life he never knew.

Searching is the debut feature from writer/director Aneesh Chaganty. The drama is shot from the point-of-view of computer screens.  Oh, it might be relevant to mention that Chaganty used to work for Google.  The presentation is innovative, however, he didn’t invent the idea. The approach is not unlike the technique used in Leo Gabriadze’s 2014 horror movie Unfriended. Nonetheless, Searching should definitely get kudos for exploiting the idea in a captivating manner.  Not surprisingly Russian-Kazakh director Timur Bekmambetov is a producer on both films.  Using an integration of Apple’s FaceTime and iMessage through his computer and then employing other social networking services like Facebook and Instagram, David tries to piece together the details of what happened to her.  All the while we witness his investigation via his monitor.

Searching brilliantly lays the emotional groundwork for our connection to this family right from the start.   Within the opening minutes (à la Up) we learn that mom Pamela (Sara Sohn) had been suffering from lymphoma.  She has recently passed on leaving father and daughter still grieving her loss.  Their dynamic is key, as there appears to be a somewhat uneasy relationship between the two.  Father’s constant admonitions for her to take out the trash gently underscores a hovering mentality.  Then, late one night her phone calls to him go unanswered while he sleeps.  The next day he returns her missed calls with no response.  This inspires a fear that is every parent’s worst nightmare.  He needs to determine who saw her last.  Her study group confirms she left early.  Then he calls her piano teacher and is shocked to learn she quit her lessons months ago.   Apparently, she had deposited the money for those classes in a secret bank account instead.  This is but the beginning of several revelations that the daughter he thought he knew was a stranger to him.  He contacts the authorities.  Officer Rosemary Vick (Debra Messing) is the detective that takes his case.

Searching is masterfully crafted.  Yet, I did find the gimmick of everything taking place on a computer screen to be a contrivance that somewhat hindered the exhibition.  The constraint was unnerving but in a claustrophobic style that didn’t serve the drama.  I would’ve preferred the expansive cinematography of a traditional narrative.  Director Alfred Hitchcock did this sort of thing to perfection.  Still, the screenplay co-written by Aneesh Chaganty and producer Sev Ohanian is clearly inspired by the master filmmaker’s oeuvre.  That’s a compliment of the highest order.  I adore Hitchcock and this production should bear a mention when discussing films he has inspired.  Searching is extremely well designed.  The chronicle gently unfolds slowly disseminating clues as the story sees fit.  The discovery of information is fascinating. At one point he unearths a questionable connection having to do with his brother Peter (Joseph Lee).  Figuratively, a lot of bombs are dropped.  I was riveted throughout the entire saga, but the ending is completely mind-blowing.  I can’t even begin to explain how one explosive revelation subverts another in the final 30 minutes.  I won’t even try.  Just go see Searching.  You’ll be so glad you did.

08-30-18

Crazy Rich Asians

Posted in Comedy, Drama, Romance on August 19, 2018 by Mark Hobin

crazy_rich_asiansSTARS3.5Hollywood is so steeped in the culture of comic books and sci-fi these days that when a movie comes along that hinges on the various alliances between a clan of a well to do socialites, the occurrence seems almost unique.  There was a time when Hollywood used to regularly finance big-budget relationship-based tales.  The romantic comedy in particular has a long history of stock characters that the audience can easily identify.  We cheer and jeer accordingly.  That is the case with Crazy Rich Asians.  However, there is a very essential distinction to this account. This is the first major studio offering since The Joy Luck Club to feature a predominately Asian cast.  Hard to believe that was 25 years ago.  That makes the film significant, but more importantly, it also happens to be incredibly entertaining.

Crazy Rich Asians is based on the 2013 bestselling novel by Kevin Kwan.  The narrative features a large cast but is centered on longtime couple Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) and Nick Young (Henry Golding).  Two attractive people that are intellectually distinguished and utterly pleasant in every way.  If they have faults, they aren’t shown here.  They’re blandly perfect.  She is an American born economics professor at NYU of Chinese descent.  He is a professor at NYU as well.  He currently lives with Rachel in New York City but is originally from Singapore.  She comes from modest beginnings but he, unbeknownst to her, hails from a very prosperous family living back in Singapore.  Things are set in motion when Nick’s best friend Colin (Chris Pang) invites Nick to his upcoming wedding back home.  This is a golden opportunity for the longtime couple to of course attend, but also meet Nick’s parents in the process.   Father is away on business but mother Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh) is very much present and a force with which to be reckoned.

Crazy Rich Asians is a big budget spectacle fashioned around the “wedding of the year.”  Jon Chu directs this story with an eye toward luxury and elegance.   There’s an abundance of wealth on parade – enough affluence to accent several movies. This is colorful entertainment.  An escapist movie built on extravagance.  Nick’s family makes him a well-known member of the upper class.  We live in a celebrity-obsessed age. Just how exactly Rachel is unaware of his social standing is rather incomprehensible but I’m game.   I’ll suspend disbelief.   The speed at which gossip travels in our modern world is featured to delightful effect. There’s a moment early on when Nick and Rachel are on a date in public and a stranger from a blog site snaps a photo of the two together. News of the mystery woman (Rachel) gets back to Nick’s mother.  The cinematic vignette of how that photo goes viral is brilliantly presented with a succinct flair that encapsulates the power of social media in seconds.

Crazy Rich Asians is always giving us something to see. The ensemble is highlighted by a large cast of interesting individuals. There’s too many to mention each in detail. However, Rachel’s friend Peik Lin Goh (Awkwafina) stands out. She’s a larger than life personality.  Her family’s ostentatious residence is done up in the gilded and gold style of the Palace of Versailles or “Donald’s Trump’s bathroom” as she jokes.  Nick’s second-cousin Oliver (Nico Santos) also seizes the viewers’ attention whenever he is on screen. So too does Gemma Chan as fashionista Astrid, Nick’s cousin.  When first introduced, I was getting vibes of Audrey Hepburn.  In fact, I was thinking more about her marital woes with husband Michael (Pierre Png) than the main storyline.

The myriad of human bonds intertwine and elevate the drama. They affirm that detailing interconnected relationships is an idea worthy of a film.  This saga is a glorious soap opera.  I say that with respect not ridicule. Director Douglas Sirk appealed to the same emotions. His work in the 1950s pushed the genre into art.  Crazy Rich Asians is a lot sillier than that.  We’re poking fun at class obsessed people who think that where you come from is more important than who you are.  There’s side glances and disapproving looks galore.  If looks could kill, this movie would have the highest body count of the summer.  Crazy Rich Asians makes sure to condemn those superficial sensibilities but still manages to simultaneous revel in them anyway so the viewer gets lots of opulent displays. The wedding is a wow!  It’s a charming amalgamation that is a worthy addition to the pantheon of light, frothy rom-coms.

08-18-19

The Meg

Posted in Action, Drama, Horror, Science Fiction with tags on August 10, 2018 by Mark Hobin

meg_ver7STARS1.5In the four decades since Jaws there has been a seemingly never-ending tide (pun intended) of shark-themed dramas. I suppose quality determines whether each offering is considered a rip-off, an homage or perhaps “inspired by”.  I do enjoy these types of stories.  The Shallows is a recent example that was quite good.  Others like Deep Blue Sea or Jaws 3-D — a proper sequel in the original franchise — are so ridiculous that they’re kind of enjoyable anyway. The Meg is neither of those. It’s just awful. This production doesn’t even qualify as adequate entertainment. It’s cut up pieces of fish – a bucket of chum in the sea of movies about killer sharks.

The Meg is actually short for Megalodon which is a now extinct 75 foot long species of fish that lived in prehistoric times.  It was one of the largest and most powerful predators to have ever lived.  First off, The Meg is a stupid title.  It sounds like a romantic comedy about a woman named Megan with a very big ego.  Yes I know it was based on the book Meg: A Novel of Deep Terror by Steve Alten.  I don’t care.  Lose that title.  That’s why movies are written by screenwriters.  It astonishingly took three writers (Dean Georgaris, Jon Hoeber, Erich Hoeber) to adapt this story.  Personally, I don’t know why they didn’t embrace the silliness with some fun title like Megalomania! and put an exclamation point at the end to emphasize the fact.  The saga is helmed by Jon Turteltaub (Phenomenon, National Treasure).  He’s one of those dependable directors that has been working since the early 90s.  For years he turned out a lot of profitable live-action features for the Disney studio.  Disney in fact picked up the movie rights way back in 1997 but dropped the project a few years later. It languished in development hell for 2 decades. Warner Brothers has finally brought it to the screen.  Given the production budget was between $130–178 million plus $140 million on advertising, it would appear they’re likely to lose money.  At least in the domestic market.  There are overworked clichés, dreary special effects, and a plot so rote it can be summed up in three words: Shark attacks crew.

The Meg could have been so bad it’s good. No such luck. The picture takes itself too seriously to be in on the joke but then not legitimately enough to bother with a decent script.  It occupies that middle ground where it’s conspicuously bad.  The marketing for The Meg has featured Jason Statham. I am a fan of the action star.  He brings a much needed stoic resolve that is required in adventures like these.  He plays a rescue diver and he’s the main figure.  However, there’s a large international cast of actors playing scientists, oceanographers, and Ph.D. holders that take residence up in this underwater research facility too.  They add absolutely nothing to the narrative.  There’s some great talent here.  I won’t impugn their acting craft.  Unfortunately, none of it is on display here.  It’s surprising that in a flick named after a prehistoric beast, the titular animal doesn’t really occupy that much screen time.  This is mainly about the capricious relationships between the various crew members.  In fact, there’s very little to recommend about The Meg. It’s a pretty weak excuse for a film.  This shark movie lacks bite.

08-09-18

Christopher Robin

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Comedy, Drama, Family, Fantasy with tags on August 9, 2018 by Mark Hobin

christopher_robin_ver3STARS3Christopher Robin is the latest live-action re-imagining of a Disney studios’ previously animated work.  A tradition that can at least be traced back to the 1994 version of The Jungle Book starring Jason Scott Lee.  This approach has yielded some major hits for the studio over the past two decades. The biggest being Beauty and the Beast in 2017. There’s usually a twist to these adaptations though. Christopher Robin is decidedly different. This is not an upbeat audience-pleasing romp, but rather a melancholy rumination on growing up.

Our story concerns the titular character mostly as an adult.  So you see it’s more of an extension of A. A. Milne and E. H. Shepard’s book Winnie-the-Pooh and its followup The House at Pooh Corner. At the open, however, he is a young boy.  Christopher is leaving for boarding school. Winnie the Pooh, Tigger, Piglet, Eeyore, Kanga, Roo, Owl, and Rabbit are all there to bid him farewell with a party in the Hundred Acre Wood.  Many years pass and eventually he meets architect Evelyn (Hayley Atwell).  They get married and have a daughter named Madeline (Bronte Carmichael).  He goes to work as an efficiency expert for Winslow Luggage.  Without getting into details, his job places demands on him that comes at the expense of a good relationship with his family.  Meanwhile, Pooh awakens one day unable to find his friends.  He travels through a door in the tree and finds himself in London where he meets his companion from the past now all grown up.

The drama is pitched in a minor key, a quiet meditation on what’s important in life. Christopher Robin is working to support his family. Nothing wrong with that, but it goes deeper. He has been tasked with reducing costs which means he will likely have to lay off his friends.  The proposal must be put together during a weekend he had promised to spend with his wife and daughter.  The idea is that this man has lost more than the time. It’s his very soul that is at stake and it’s up to Pooh to help him remember to recapture it again.  In this way, the stuffed bear is not unlike a wise sage with philosophical guidance. Pooh is an uplifting presence, although his personality is fairly subdued.

Christopher Robin is surprisingly somber for a children’s movie.  This is about a man dragged down by existential despair.  The production design utilizes a muted color palette for both the workaday world in London as well as that of the Hundred Acre Wood.  Winnie the Pooh, Tigger, and the rest of the gang have the look of beloved stuffed animals that are showing signs of wear.  All of this makes for odd stylistic choices but it does give the production a stimulative dose of reality. I did welcome the reflective mood. Not a whole lot happens and intellectually it doesn’t all make sense. Let’s not delve too deeply into the schizophrenic resolution. A denouement that ultimately acknowledges the importance of capitalism after it has been railing against it for most of the movie. Oh bother!  I simply appreciate Christopher Robin because it’s a poetic reminder to cherish your loved ones.  The film is gentle and sweet.

08-02-18

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

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