EIGHTH GRADE (2018) – Convincing, Contemporary Portrait of Difficult Middle School Years

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Elsie Fisher in EIGHTH GRADE (2018).

The best part about EIGHTH GRADE (2018), the new coming of age comedy/drama by writer/director Bo Burnham, is that it absolutely nails what it is like to experience one of life’s most difficult ages: eighth grade.  And it does it with the all important and clear message that life goes on, that it’s never as bad as it seems during that awkward year of transition, and that it’s all just a natural part of growing up.

It also serves as an accurate assessment of what life is like for today’s middle school students.

EIGHTH GRADE opens with main character Kayla (Elsie Fisher) recording herself on her computer as she shares advice for her fellow eighth graders. She does this numerous times during the movie, and these moments are worth the price of admission alone. She thinks and speaks exactly like an eighth grader, and to hear her share her thoughts on such topics as why you should just be yourself, and approaching life with confidence, is as refreshing as it is real. These chats are juxtaposed with Kayla’s real life experiences which more often than not don’t go as planned.

It’s the end of Kayla’s eighth grade year, and the film follows her final few days in middle school, having to deal with such things as being voted the most quiet girl in her grade, to trying to fit in with the popular girls, to living with her very well-meaning single dad who seems to annoy her with every positive word he says.

EIGHTH GRADE is a fascinating look at one of life’s most difficult years, and the writing is so sharp it captures this awkward time with amazing clarity. I know a little bit about this age group, since I teach middle school, and as the father of two adult sons, I survived the experience of parenting middle schoolers. And of course way back in the stone age I was an eighth grader myself. The film gets it right.

So, the question you’re probably asking is, if you hated eighth grade, why would you want to see this movie? The number one reason is that it captures what eighth grade is like for teens in the here and now, teens who are so locked into electronics they cannot put their phones down even in the middle of personal conversations, teens whose parents struggle to talk with them, teens who find active shooter drills at school dull and boring, and teens who fear growing up too fast.

It also makes a very poignant case for the seemingly endless amount of patience needed as a parent of an eighth grader.

And the script is so strong if you like good writing, you have to see this movie.

Writer/director Bo Burnham, known more for his acting than for his time behind the camera— in fact, EIGHTH GRADE is his directorial debut—has written dialogue that is so on the money with its depiction of middle school voices at times you almost feel as if you are watching a documentary. And his work as a director is just as powerful. So often the camera comes in tight on Kayla’s face and lingers there, capturing her feelings of awkwardness, inadequacy, and all too often discomfort.

There are lots of memorable moments in this movie. When Kayla attends a pool party hosted by the most popular girl in her class, an invite which she only received because the girl’s mother forced the issue, she literally has a panic attack in the bathroom before changing into her bathing suit. And once she does, the camera follows her slow uncomfortable walk towards the pool, where everybody seems to know everyone else, and she feels out-of-place. Her hunched posture during this sequence is on the mark, as is the pain felt when her birthday gift is opened to relative silence and frowns.

Speaking of pain, one of the more powerful scenes is when she is driven home by a high school student who decides to stop the car and get into the back seat with her. These few moments of the movie are extremely uncomfortable and unnerving because the boy’s intentions are clear, and when Kayla finally utters “no!” the audience nearly jumped out of its collective seat.

On the other hand, the joy Kayla feels when her high school mentor invites her to hang out with her and her friends at the mall is so palpable you’ll nearly cheer.

Some of the best scenes are between Kayla and her father Mark (Josh Hamilton). Mark is a patient loving father, but the harder he tries to connect to his daughter, the more she seems to push him away, yet he never loses focus, or his temper. Indeed, in one scene at the dinner table, when Kayla just wants to be on her phone, he displays composure that is beyond belief. And if there’s one part of this movie that might not ring true, it might be the saintly restraint displayed by Mark. While it is certainly admirable, and something that all parents of middle schoolers should strive for, having been there, I know that it’s never that easy to remain that patient.

One of the more disturbing scenes in the film only because it’s a way of life now for students across the United States is the active shooter drill at the middle school. As I watched this scene, I couldn’t help but hope that somewhere in our future, say fifty years from now, audiences might look back and wonder, “what was that all about?”  the way modern audiences do when they see scenes of bomb drills which took place in the 1950s.

As I said, EIGHTH GRADE is actor Bo Burnham’s directorial debut, and it’s an awesome debut to say the least. Both his direction and screenplay are Oscar worthy.

Likewise, Elsie Fisher is phenomenal as Kayla.  It’s such a natural performance. It’s clear that she’s not too far removed from the middle school experience. Kayla is an introvert, a quiet awkward student who doesn’t see herself as quiet outside of school and only chooses to be quiet in school. She is actually brimming with confidence and is constantly looking for any opportunity to show off this confidence, whether it be trying to get noticed by the cute boy in her class to getting along with her new high school mentor.

As Kayla, Fisher is in nearly every scene in the movie, and she carries this film with ease. She’s easy to watch, and Kayla is a character you are happy to root for. In a middle school world full of pretensions and meanness, Kayla is sincere and kind.

Josh Hamilton is also excellent as Kayla’s dad Mark. His unceasing patience is admirable, and the speech he delivers to Kayla late in the movie, where he tells her how happy she makes him, is one that I believe most parents of middle schoolers wish they too could make.

Emily Robinson shines as Olivia, the high school senior who is paired with Kayla during her high school shadow day. She’s perfect as the accepting high schooler who instantly connects with Kayla.

Jake Ryan also has a couple of noteworthy scenes as Gabe, the awkward yet friendly boy who strikes up a conversation with Kayla and later invites her to dinner at his house.

Sadly, the middle school itself is shown as something of a failure and not as a place that is doing a whole lot of good for middle schoolers. As I said, I teach middle school, and I’m fortunate to work at a school that makes middle school students its priority and prides itself on creating an environment where these students thrive.  I hope there are more schools like ours across the country rather than like the one depicted in this movie.

With up to date and realistic dialogue, and powerful and natural acting performances, EIGHTH GRADE is a convincing portrait of what it’s like to be a middle school student here in 2018. The film also communicates the uplifting message that in spite of the awkwardness and pain that accompanies the age, the future is bright for these students as they move on to high school and beyond. It’s a message that is both heartfelt and rewarding.

EIGHTH GRADE is one of the best films I’ve seen this year.

—END—

 

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THE EQUALIZER 2 (2018) – Denzel Washington is Excellent in this Subpar Sequel

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I could watch Denzel Washington all day.

The guy’s a tremendous actor, and he possesses a compelling screen persona with the ability to keep audiences riveted to everything he does and says. Of course, I’d enjoy Washington even more if he wasn’t starring in a subpar sequel to a movie that itself wasn’t so hot.

THE EQUALIZER (2014) was an okay movie that was loosely based on the old TV show of the same name starring Edward Woodward, which ran from 1985-1989. In the movie, Denzel impressed in the lead role, but the film itself was rather average.

Now comes the sequel THE EQUALIZER 2 (2018) which is less than average.

Director Antoine Fuqua, who directed the first movie, returns to helm this sequel.  Fuqua is a talented director with plenty of credits to his name, including TRAINING DAY (2001) which won Denzel Washington a Best Actor Oscar. That being said, I wasn’t all that crazy about Fuqua’s previous movie, the remake of THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (2016), which also starred Denzel. And I’m not too crazy about THE EQUALIZER 2, although Fuqua’s direction isn’t the main problem with this one.

It’s the story.

THE EQUALIZER 2 opens with an entertaining enough sequence, on a train, where we are re-acquainted with main character Robert McCall (Denzel Washington) as we see him do what he does best: handily beat up a bunch of bad guys and rescue a little girl who had been taken away from her mother. As opening sequences go, it’s all right, but it’s certainly not memorable, and as such, serves as the perfect table setter for the rest of the movie.

The action switches to Brussels, Belgium, where we witness a brutal execution of a man and his wife. After that, the setting jumps to Boston, where McCall is currently working as a Lyft driver, and we get to see him interacting with his passengers. Interestingly enough, some of Denzel Washington’s best scenes in this one are with with people not integral to the main crime plot. The whole subplot regarding his mentoring relationship with a young man Miles Whittaker (Ashton Sanders) from his neighborhood was my favorite part of the movie. On the contrary, the main plot of this one, regarding murder and betrayal, I found to be a snooze.

In that main plot, McCall’s friends Susan (Melissa Leo) and Brian Plummer (Bill Pullman) run afoul of some baddies with a connection to the prior murder in Brussels. Just what is that connection? Well, the bottom line is the film never really makes that clear, nor is it important. The only thing that matters here is McCall’s friends have been wronged, and one of them murdered, and so he’s on the job seeking justice for them. And while it’s certainly fun watching Denzel Washington’s character pursue this justice, it’s not enough to make THE EQUALIZER 2 a worthwhile movie.

The screenplay by Richard Wenk does a nice job with Denzel’s character, as we know and understand what he is all about.  The character’s issues with OCD also add to the mix, as rather than a hindrance, this anxiety seems to help McCall focus when fighting his enemies. The dialogue is also very good, especially in the aforementioned scenes between McCall and Miles.

But the main plot is way too underdeveloped to have any impact. It’s all very shadowy, and the story does not supply the necessary answers to its questions. It’s the old plot of the former government assassin thrown out to pasture and so to make ends meet he has to kill for private contracts and not be too choosy as to who he kills. This is all well and good, but the film doesn’t really get into the folks who are doing the hiring and so we don’t know why any of these people are being killed.

Wenk wrote the screenplay to the first EQUALIZER movie, and he also worked on the screenplays for THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (2016), JACK REACHER: NEVER GO BACK (2016), THE EXPENDABLES 2 (2012) and THE MECHANIC (2011).

DirectorAntoine Fuqua does an okay job here.  The fight scenes are polished and well-choreographed, but none of them blew me away. The entire movie takes place as a hurricane bears down upon the east coast, and it hits just in time for the film’s climax. I’m not exactly sure of the relevance of the stormy atmosphere, other than it sets the tone for the story’s volatile proceedings. Don’t see this movie expecting to see sunshine. But other than this the hurricane doesn’t add much to the story.

THE EQUALIZER 2 marks the first time Fuqua has directed a sequel.

Likewise, it’s also the first sequel for Denzel Washington. I really enjoyed Washington here. Like I said at the outset, he has that gift for making whoever he plays on screen be very compelling, to the point where you can’t stop watching him. And even though he’s 63, he still makes the violent exploits of Robert McCall believable, and that’s because Fuqua does a nice job keeping his action scenes believable. We don’t see McCall running around all over the place like he’s 25 years old. He moves like he’s 63. It’s just that when he moves, he’s deadly.  Okay, he moves like an incredibly agile and swift 63 year-old! At least his upper body does. Like I said, he’s not racing through the streets like the Flash.

Ashton Sanders [MOONLIGHT (2016)] is also very good as Miles Whittaker, the young man McCall pretty much takes under his wing. Again, this part of the movie was my favorite, and the scenes between Washington and Sanders were the best scenes in the movie, so good in fact that they deserve a better story than the one here. It’s a shame that THE EQUALIZER 2 wasn’t about McCall and Whittaker.

Both Melissa Leo and Bill Pullman are wasted in small throwaway roles as McCall’s friends, the ones he has to seek justice for. Leo and Pullman are reprising their roles from the first film.

The movie also suffers from not having a decent villain. The main villain, Dave (Pedro Pascal) is one of McCall’s former partners, and for most of the film we don’t even know he’s the bad guy, although truth be told, it’s not much of a twist.  I could tell early on that this guy was bad news. The character just doesn’t resonate.

And it’s too bad because Denzel Washington is so good as Robert McCall. He deserves a formiddable foe. But he doesn’t get one in this movie.

THE EQUALIZER 2 is a largely forgettable sequel.  Fans of Denzel Washington probably will not be disappointed, because Washington is indeed excellent in this one, but on his own he’s not enough, even with some fine support from Ashton Sanders, to make me recommend this movie.

—END—

 

 

LEAVE NO TRACE (2018) -Subtle, Honest Look at Living With PTSD.

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Critics are loving LEAVE NO TRACE (2018). The film is being called the best reviewed movie of the summer.

Allow me to bring the film back to earth a bit.

Now, while I enjoyed LEAVE NO TRACE, I didn’t love it, mostly because its slow-paced story lacked the necessary intensity to keep me riveted throughout. That being said, LEAVE NO TRACE is still a good movie.

LEAVE NO TRACE tells the story of a father Will (Ben Foster) and his thirteen year-old daughter Tom (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie) who live in the woods in Oregon, and they live there because they choose to. They are happy there, and as the film opens, we observe them in their routine, enjoying a simple life in nature, albeit working hard to keep their shelter water-proof, collect rain water for drinking, and cover their tracks so they are not discovered.

The other reason they live in the woods is Will suffers from PTSD, a result from his time serving in the military. He simply has a hard time being around people and feels better living in the woods.

When a jogger sees Tom in the woods, the Park Rangers and the police are called in, and they arrest Will and also bring Tom into custody. Once social services determines that there’s nothing strange going on and that Tom is not in danger, they release them, but tell them they can no longer live where they were because those woods are part of a National Forest, owned by the government, and the law states that people can’t live on land owned by someone else.

A man Mr. Walters (Jeff Kober) having seen their story in the news, offers to set up Will and Tom with a modest home in return for Will’s help on his tree farm. What follows is the story of how Will and Tom try to adjust to a new life in a home not of their choosing and of their ongoing journey to find their place in the world as Will realizes he cannot function in society like other people.

LEAVE NO TRACE takes a sharp look at what constitutes a home and questions why it is that people simply can’t live where they want to, even if it’s in the woods. The film opens with such a deliberate pace showing Will and Tom’s peaceful existence, it easily makes the case that this lifestyle shouldn’t be disturbed. But it is, as there are laws to follow in society, and as a result Will and Tom are evicted from their “home.”

While I enjoyed the deliberate pace early on, the problem is as the film moves along, the pace never changes. We follow Will and Tom from one living experience to another, and the intensity pretty much stays the same. Low key. Very low-key.

The other story, and frankly the one that drives the movie along, is the relationship between Will and Tom. They love each other very much. This is established early on and the bond they share remains strong throughout. However, whereas Will understands he can’t live with other people, Tom begins to realize through their ongoing experiences that she can. Not only that, but she begins to enjoy being around other people, leading up to the point where she’s not sure she wants to continue following her father any more.

Writer/director Debra Granik has made a thought-provoking and visually pleasing movie that takes its time telling its story of two people, a father and a daughter, trying to live on their own terms, even while the daughter begins to learn that her interests are changing from that of her father’s. And the shots of the Oregon woods are peaceful and soothing. Five minutes in, and I was ready to pitch a tent, and I’m not an outdoors person.

Another problem I had with LEAVE NO TRACE is that while I appreciated its story, it didn’t resonate with me emotionally as much as I expected it to.  The film is low-key, and that pretty much sums up how it played on my emotions. There really aren’t any powerful scenes that pack a punch, no gut wrenching decisions or plights.  Just calm measured migration.

The best part of LEAVE NO TRACE and the main reason to see this one are the performances by the two leads, Ben Foster and Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie.

I’ve been a fan of Foster’s for a while ever since I first saw him in 3:10 TO YUMA (2007). He’s been impressive in nearly every film I’ve seen him in, usually playing some pretty intense characters, in films like 30 DAYS OF NIGHT (2007), THE MECHANIC (2011), and HELL OR HIGH WATER (2016) to name just a few.

Foster sheds some of that intensity here in LEAVE NO TRACE, and like the rest of the film, his performance is a bit more subtle than we’re used to seeing, but it’s no less effective. We never learn what exactly happened to Will, but Foster’s performance makes it clear that at some point in his life he suffered from a trauma that he has yet to recover from.

As much as I enjoy Foster, the performance of the movie belongs to Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie as Will’s daughter Tom. While her performance is subtle as well— don’t expect screaming, angry teenage angst— she creates such a sincere, watchable character in Tom that in spite of the film’s slow pace, I never grew tired of watching her.

She has a way of speaking that captures Tom’s innocence and loyalty to her dad, yet remains perfectly natural as she begins to realize that unlike her dad she needs other people in her life. I wouldn’t be surprised if come Oscar time McKenzie gets a shout out. She’s very good.

The other thing I liked about this story was the positive way it depicted ordinary citizens, a welcomed sight in this day and age. Everyone who Will and Tom meet treats them with respect and dignity. I kept expecting someone to try to take advantage of them, but they don’t.  And this might be the most powerful part of the entire movie, the way these every day folks treat Will and his daughter. They all seem to recognize that Will suffers from post traumatic stress disorder and treat him accordingly.

Director Debra Granik and fellow screenwriter Anne Rosellini should be commended for taking this route in their screenplay, which was based on the novel My Abandonment by Peter Rock, and for creating characters who function as a strong support network for the two strangers in their lives. It reaffirms some faith in humanity.

But in terms of emotion in LEAVE NO TRACE, there’s simply not a lot of it. While I was intellectually intrigued about Will and Tom’s plight, I was never emotionally invested in their journey. I wanted to know what was going to happen to them, to be sure, but most of the time, what was happening to them was so low-key it barely registered on the intensity meter.

LEAVE NO TRACE is a subtle look into the lives of two people, a father and a daughter, who enjoyed living off the grid until they were told they had to move. It then follows them on their journey from one living situation to another, telling the story of how their relationship changes.

It’s also a quiet look into the life of a person with PTSD, and of a teenage girl living with a person with PTSD, as well as an honest inquiry into just what it is that makes something a home.

Thought-provoking to be sure, but as intense as quietly collecting rain water for a cool morning drink in the forest.

—END—

Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

Ebook version:  $2.99. Available at http://www.crossroadpress.com. Print version:  $18.00. Includes postage! Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

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 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.crossroadpress.com.  Print version:  $18.00.  Includes postage. Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, short story collection by Michael Arruda.  

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Ebook cover

 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.crossroadpress.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Includes postage. Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

IN THE SHADOWS: J. CARROL NAISH

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J. Carrol Naish as Daniel the hunchback in HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1944)

 
Welcome back to IN THE SHADOWS,  the column where we look at character actors in the movies, especially horror movies.

Today in the shadows it’s J. Carrol Naish, one of the most respected character actors of his day, and while he’s certainly known for his horror roles, one of my favorite Naish roles is not from a horror flick at all, but from a superhero tale.

No, they weren’t making Marvel movies back in the 1930s and 40s, but they were making DC serials, and Naish starred in one of the best, BATMAN (1943), starring Lewis Wilson as Batman. This 15 episode serial marked the first time Batman would appear on the big screen, and it remains one of the better interpretations of the Caped Crusader, even all these years later. Another reason this one is so memorable? J. Carrol Naish plays the evil villain, Dr. Daka.

Since Naish was known for his multitudinous accents, he was a natural choice to play the Japanese Dr. Daka.  Remember, this was 1943, smack dab in the middle of World War II, and just two years after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and so it made sense to feature a villain of Japanese descent. Still, this one unfortunately contains some racial slurs which were redubbed in the VHS release, then restored in the later DVD release. Interestingly enough, Naish was originally signed to play the Joker, but the villain was changed to fit into a more contemporary and pressing storyline. Some remnants of the Joker still remain, like his hideout being inside a carnival.

I love Naish’s performance in BATMAN. Every time he gets the upper hand on one of his victims, and they lament, he tends to say, “Oh, that’s too bad.” Not quite a catch phrase, but there’s just something about his delivery that cracks me up every time.

But horror fans remember Naish for his horror roles, especially that of Daniel, the sympathetic hunchback in HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1944).

Here’s a partial look at Naish’s whopping 224 screen credits, focusing mostly on his genre films:

THE OPEN SWITCH (1925) – Naish’s first screen appearance is in this silent crime drama.

GOOD INTENTIONS (1930) – Charlie Hattrick – Naish’s first screen credit. Another crime drama.

DR. RENAULT’S SECRET (1942) – Noel – horror movie also starring George Zucco as the mysterious Dr. Renault. Naish plays Noel, Renault’s strange assistant, whose real identity, is Dr. Renault’s secret.

BATMAN (1943) – Dr. Daka – 15 episode serial remains one of the better screen interpretations of the Batman. Also the first. Naish plays the villain, the evil Dr. Daka, which happens to be my favorite Naish role.

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J. Carrol Naish as the evil Dr. Daka in the 15 episode serial BATMAN (1943). 

SAHARA (1943) – Giuseppe – Classic Humphrey Bogart World War II adventure tells the story of a group of survivors in an army tank facing the Nazis in the desert. Naish was nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.

CALLING DR. DEATH (1943) – Inspector Gregg- Horror movie with Lon Chaney Jr. where Chaney plays a doctor who believes he has murdered his wife.

THE MONSTER MAKER (1944) – Markoff – Naish plays a mad scientist who injects his victims with a serum that causes them to become seriously deformed. Why? Because he can! Also stars Glenn Strange as the giant, who would go on later that year to play the Frankenstein Monster in HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1944), which would also star Naish.

JUNGLE WOMAN (1944) – Dr. Carl Fletcher – horror movie featuring Paula the ape woman. (Not to be confused with Mildred the Monkey Woman. Or Clara the Cat Woman. Or Madge the Avon Lady. Seriously, though, Paula the ape woman???) Also stars Evelyn Ankers.

HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1944) – Daniel – my second favorite J. Carrol Naish role after Dr. Daka. Naish plays the hunchback Daniel, assistant to Boris Karloff’s evil Dr. Niemann, who falls for the beautiful gypsy woman Ilonka (Elena Verdugo) but his love is not returned as she has eyes for the doomed Larry Talbot/The Wolf Man (Lon Chaney Jr.) in one of the film’s better story arcs. With Boris Karloff as Dr. Niemann, Lon Chaney Jr. as the Wolf Man, John Carradine as Dracula, and Glenn Strange as the Frankenstein Monster.

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Naish and Karloff searching the ruins of Frankenstein’s castle in HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1944).

A MEDAL FOR BENNY (1945) – Charley Martin – Second and final time Naish was nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in this war drama based on a story by John Steinbeck.

STRANGE CONFESSION (1945) -Graham – another horror movie with Lon Chaney Jr.

THE BEAST WITH FIVE FINGERS (1046) – Ovidio Castanio – classic horror movie starring Peter Lorre about a murderous severed hand. Written by Curt Siodmark.

THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E (1966) – Uncle Giuliano- guest spot on the popular 60s spy TV show in the episode “The Super-Colossal Affair.”

GET SMART (1968) – Sam Vittorio – guest spot on the classic Don Adams comedy in the episode “The Secret of Sam Vittorio.”

DRACULA VS. FRANKENSTEIN (1971) – Dr. Frankenstein – Naish’s final film role is in this dreadful horror movie which falls under the “it’s so bad it’s good” category. Plays a wheel chair bound Dr. Frankenstein. Also notable for being Lon Chaney Jr.’s final movie. He actually fares worse here than Naish, as his character doesn’t even have any dialogue. Horrible, grade Z stuff.

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Lon Chaney Jr. and J. Carrol Naish in DRACULA VS. FRANKENSTEIN (1971), the final film roles for both these actors.

 

Naish passed away on January 24, 1973 from emphysema at the age of 77.

J. Carrol Naish – January 21,  1896 – January 24, 1973.

I hope you enjoyed this partial look at the career of J. Carrol Naish, one of the hardest working and most effective character actors of his day.  His horror movies were few and far between, but he was always memorable in them.

Thanks for joining me today on IN THE SHADOWS and I hope you’ll join me again next time when we look at the career of another great character actor.

Thanks for reading!

—Michael

 

 

 

 

BEIRUT (2018) – Complex Thriller Driven by Strong Performances

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BEIRUT (2018) is a complex thriller about a hostage negotiation in 1982 Beirut. Driven by strong performances by Jon Hamm and Rosamund Pike, the film does a lot of things well and more than makes up for its lack of supporting character development and peripheral plot.

The movie opens in 1972 Beirut with American diplomat Mason Skiles (Jon Hamm) hosting a dinner party with his wife for a group of dignitaries, including a United States Congressman, where Mason explains the current intricate political situation inside Lebanon. When Mason’s best friend Cal (Mark Pellegrino) arrives with the shocking news that the thirteen year-old boy Mason and his wife have taken into their home and consider a part of their family is the younger brother of the world’s most wanted terrorist, and the U.S. authorities want to extract the boy that very night. Mason refuses, and in the middle of his argument with Cal, gunmen open fire on the party and whisk the boy away before the U.S. agents can take him.  In the process, Mason’s wife is shot and killed.

The story picks up ten years later and finds Mason back in the U.S. working as a mediator and negotiator for local labor disputes. He has left his former life behind him, having walked away from both Beirut and his friend Cal immediately after the shooting, and he hasn’t spoken to his former friend since he left.

But all that changes when he is approached by a group of federal agents who want his help.  It seems that an American was taken hostage in Beirut, and the kidnappers demanded that Mason handle the negotiation.  Mason balks at the idea and says that the kidnappers simply pulled his name out of a hat. The agents then inform Mason that the hostage is his friend Cal.

Against his better judgement but not wanting to abandon Cal a second time, Mason returns to Beirut to negotiate the release of his best friend.

BEIRUT tells a compelling enough story and for the most part keeps its intricate tale from becoming too confusing. It’s a decent screenplay by Tony Gilroy, as one would expect as Gilroy also penned screenplays for the BOURNE movies and more recently he was one of the writers involved with ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY (2016).

BEIRUT reminded me a little bit of ARGO (2012), the Ben Affleck movie which won Best Picture in 2012. Both films share suspenseful hostage stories and international intrigue, although ARGO told the better story by far.

The story BEIRUT tells is not as memorable, nor is it as riveting since one of the weaknesses of the screenplay is the supporting characters aren’t really developed. In ARGO, the audience gets to know the hostages. In BEIRUT, very little is known about hostage Cal, and so even though the proceedings are very interesting, they don’t always resonate as well as they should on an emotional level.

The best part of BEIRUT are the performances by the two leads, Jon Hamm and Rosamund Pike. Hamm is terrific as Mason Skiles, although this smooth talking alcoholic character is clearly reminiscent of Don Draper, the character Hamm played so well on the TV series MAD MEN (2007-2015). Fans of the show might have fun imagining that this is what happened next to Mr. Draper. And while Hamm isn’t exactly out of his comfort zone here, he still delivers an enjoyable performance.

Rosamund Pike is also excellent as Sandy Crowder, one of the government operatives who helps Mason when he’s on the ground in Beirut. It’s a solid understated performance by Pike, whose character has her own reasons for wanting to extract Cal. The other dynamic I enjoyed between Mason and Sandy is that unlike most movies where the male and female leads are involved romantically, this time they are not, which I found refreshing.

I like Pike a lot and have enjoyed her recent roles in such films as HOSTILES (2017), GONE GIRL (2014), and JACK REACHER (2012) to name a few.

BEIRUT also has a strong supporting cast.  Mark Pellegrino is very good as Cal, Mason’s shadowy friend, even if the character isn’t developed all that well. For most of the film we don’t really know if Cal is a good guy or not, which hurts the story somewhat.

Dean Norris, Hank on TV’s BREAKING BAD (20080-2013) is nearly unrecognizable with a full head of hair and glasses as Donald Gaines, one of the government agents who recruits Mason. And Shea Whigham is memorable as another of these agents, Gary Ruzak.

BEIRUT was directed by Brad Anderson, who’s directed a lot of movies and TV shows, including the horror movie SESSION 9 (2001).  Anderson certainly does a good job of capturing war-ravaged Lebanon circa 1982, and the film’s location alone is enough to make this one a nail biter.

The story is certainly engrossing as we follow Mason’s efforts to find his friend Cal and navigate the negotiations needed to release him. There are some decent scenes, like when Mason first meets the group claiming to have Cal, as there is a rather unexpected execution right in the middle of it.  And the film heats up every time Mason slips away from his handlers, driving them crazy while he’s off the grid.

That being said, there really isn’t any centerpiece scene in this movie, either in artistic design or in its plot, no part of the film where it kicks into high gear and really becomes something special.

And I would imagine this one is not making a whole lot of money. I saw it with a very small audience. There were fewer than ten people in the theater.

Nonetheless, it’s a solid movie driven by two potent performances by Jon Hamm and Rosamund Pike, and it’s certainly worth a trip to the theater.

BEIRUT is also a nice reminder of the value of diplomacy and negotiation over violence, even though when all is said and done, there is certainly lots of bloodshed, which is what you would expect in 1982 Beirut.

—END—

 

TOMB RAIDER (2018) – Alicia Vikander Is The Reason To See This One

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Alicia Vikander in TOMB RAIDER (2018)

I had zero interest in seeing TOMB RAIDER (2018).

I’m not into video games, so I haven’t been a fan of the Lara Croft video game character, I haven’t seen any of the earlier movies with Angelina Jolie, and I could give a care that this reboot presented an origin tale for the character. I could have easily skipped this one.

But, I do like Alicia Vikander.

And Vikander is playing Lara Croft here.  So, I asked myself, how many times have I ventured to the theater to see a low-regarded action film starring a Sylvester Stallone or an Arnold Schwarzenegger over the years just because they were in the movie? Plenty. So, why shouldn’t I do the same for a female actor?  I couldn’t come up with a good answer.  With that in mind, I decided to check out TOMB RAIDER, starring Alicia Vikander.

I wish I could tell you that it was all worth it, and the film was great, but it’s not.  But you know what? It’s not awful, either.  In fact, it’s a halfway decent movie, if your bar isn’t set too high.

And the reason it’s watchable is Alicia Vikander. If you’re going to see this one, she’s the reason to do so.

Twenty one year-old Lara Croft (Alicia Vikander) is having a tough time of it.  She’s working as a bike courier in London, scraping together just enough money to live on, even though she’s heir to a fortune.  All she has to do is sign the papers which declare her missing father Lord Richard Croft (Dominic West) legally dead, and the company and all its assets are hers, but she declines, because she refuses to believe that her father is really dead.  He disappeared seven years earlier somewhere in Hong Kong.

However, when informed that unless she signs the papers, her father’s entire fortune will be lost, she relents and agrees to sign, but just as she is about to do so, she discovers a secret note to her from her father.  The note leads her to a secret room containing her father’s secret work, as a researcher into the supernatural. When he disappeared, he was actively searching for a mythical Japanese witch who it turns out is so dangerous, that the message he left for Lara was for her to destroy all his notes so no one will be able to misuse the witch’s power.  But Lara being the strong-willed woman that she is, decides instead to use this newfound information to seek out and learn the fate of her missing dad.

So, she travels to Hong Kong in search of the man who took her father to the mysterious island home of the witch, and instead finds his son Lu Ren (Daniel Wu) who nonetheless agrees to take Lara to the island.  There, they are captured by the villainous Mathias Vogel (Walton Goggins) who is running a slave labor camp in an ongoing attempt to locate the tomb of this all-powerful supernatural demon queen.  He’s overjoyed to meet Lara because he finds in her belongings her father’s notes which will lead him at long last to the hidden tomb.

But Lara has other ideas.

In terms of story, the one that TOMB RAIDER tells is completely ridiculous and silly. I didn’t believe any of it.  By far, the main plot involving the search for the demonic queen/witch is the weakest part of the film. That being said, the screenplay by Geneva Robertson-Dworet and Alastair Siddons is not awful.  It does some things right.

For example, it downplays the supernatural.  The whole demonic queen aspect of this story is ludicrous and one thing I could never wrap my head around was why these folks were so darned interested in her.  The story never really makes that clear, and as a result, this one had the potential to be a goofy mess.  But it’s not, because as we learn more about this queen, it’s revealed that she’s not all that supernatural.  In fact, she’s not supernatural at all, but that doesn’t mean she’s not deadly.  It’s a twist in the story I really liked.

Also, early on, the tale is grounded in reality.  A lot of time is spent on Lara’s life in London, and this gritty part of the story works well.  The film takes its time before it gets to all the RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK treasure hunting stuff, and with Alicia Vikander in the lead, the film doesn’t suffer at all for its patient storytelling.

As I said, the best part of TOMB RAIDER is Alicia Vikander’s performance as Lara Croft. I’ve always enjoyed Vikander’s work, ever since I first saw her in EX MACHINA (2014), and she was just as memorable in THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. (2015) and JASON BOURNE (2016).  And of course she won the Ocscar for Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role for THE DANISH GIRL (2016).

The story here might be ludicrous, but Vikander makes Lara Croft completely believable.  She brings her energetic spunky personality to life, and she’s as tough as nails.  She looks completely believable in the role, as she’s lean and mean, and she gets to take part in some really cool fight scenes.

Vikander is so good in the role, that even though I have had no interest in the Lara Croft character, I would easily be happy to see Vikander play the role again, hopefully in a movie with a better plot.  She’s that good. Is she up there with Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman? In terms of the entire package, no, but in terms of individual performances, yes. Vikander carries this movie in much the same way that Gadot carried WONDER WOMAN (2017), which might be more impressive since Vikander has less help, in terms of cast, production values, and writers.

The supporting cast in TOMB RAIDER is okay.  Walton Goggins is the biggest standout here other than Vikander as the villain, Mathias Vogel. Goggins makes evil look so effortless, but that doesn’t make him any less impressive.   The best thing about his performance is that he makes Vogel real.  He’s surrounded by silly story elements, but Vogel could have walked off the set of THE WALKING DEAD- he’s that type of bad guy. You don’t want to mess with him. All this comes as no surprise, as Goggins has been a highlight of a bunch of recent movies, including DJANGO UNCHAINED (2012) and THE HATEFUL EIGHT (2015).

Daniel Wu is likable as Lu Ren, although his character is stuck in a thankless sidekick role.

I was less impressed with Dominic West as Lord Richard Croft, who just never came to life for me.  He seemed like a stock character from a 1980s soap opera, that handsome lead who disappears from the show for six months and then turns up later on a deserted island.

And veteran actors Kristin Scott Thomas and Derek Jacobi have small roles, mostly appearing in the Croft board room.

TOMB RAIDER was directed by Norwegian director Roar Uthaug, and he does a decent job. The fight scenes involving Alicia Vikander are all first-rate, and they’re pretty intense and compelling.  Of course, the film is rated PG-13, and so the skirmishes never get as grueling and dirty as they should have been.

There’s also a couple of really cool scenes, one in particular involving Lara and the wreckage of a plane that is right out of an Indiana Jones movie.  Lara is fighting through a raging river, trying to avoid a massive waterfall when she seeks refuge inside the wreckage of a plane precariously hanging on to the edge of the fall. It’s a scene that is well-staged and is one of the more intense sequences in the film.

There’s also a bicycle chase through the streets of East London that is well done, although it’s early on in the film and much lighter in tone than the later sequences. And all of the hand to hand battles which Lara engages in are well worth the price of admission.

On the flip side, things tend to slow down a bit towards the end, and the film does struggle to get through its 1 hour and 58 minute running time.  Also, the very end, which sets up an obvious sequel, is forced and contrived.

That being said, TOMB RAIDER is much better than it has any business being, and the number one reason for this is Alicia Vikander.  With this movie, she makes the Lara Croft character her own.

So, should you run out and see TOMB RAIDER? Is it on par with a film like WONDER WOMAN? No, and no. But I see a lot of movies each year, and as a result, unfortunately, I see a lot of bad movies. TOMB RAIDER is not a bad movie.

It’s a decent movie, lifted by a spirited performance by Alicia Vikander as Lara Croft, and it has a competent script, and features some energetic directing by Roar Uthaug. It’s not going to make my list of best movies of the year, but for a film I had zero interest in, it’s not all that bad.

If you’ve never seen Alicia Vikander, or you have seen her and you’re a fan, either way, she’s the reason you should see TOMB RAIDER.

—END—

 

 

 

Memorable Movie Quotes: ANNIE HALL (1977)

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Diane Keaton and Woody Allen in ANNIE HALL (1977).

One of my favorite Woody Allen films is ANNIE HALL (1977), which just might be the quintessential Woody Allen movie.

I didn’t always feel this way.  I remember feeling quite bitter as a 13 year-old when ANNIE HALL bested my beloved STAR WARS (1977) for Best Picture that year.  Grrrr!!!

But it didn’t take me long to come around, as by the time I was in college I had watched ANNIE HALL multiple times and absolutely loved it. The jokes are nonstop and nearly all of them work, making ANNIE HALL the perfect subject for today’s MEMORABLE MOVIE QUOTES column, the column where we look at noteworthy quotes from some truly memorable movies.

ANNIE HALL works so well because Allen nails many of the truths that go along with relationships, and he finds humor in even their darkest moments. There’s an honesty in ANNIE HALL that lifts the humor to a whole other level.  There are enough memorable quotes in ANNIE HALL for several columns.  Today we’ll look at just a few of them.

The film opens with a memorable quote, as Woody Allen’s character Alvy Singer addresses the camera:

ALVY SINGER: There’s an old joke – um… two elderly women are at a Catskill mountain resort, and one of ’em says, “Boy, the food at this place is really terrible.” The other one says, “Yeah, I know; and such small portions.” Well, that’s essentially how I feel about life – full of loneliness, and misery, and suffering, and unhappiness, and it’s all over much too quickly. The… the other important joke, for me, is one that’s usually attributed to Groucho Marx; but, I think it appears originally in Freud’s “Wit and Its Relation to the Unconscious,” and it goes like this – I’m paraphrasing – um, “I would never want to belong to any club that would have someone like me for a member.” That’s the key joke of my adult life, in terms of my relationships with women.

 

There are a ton of hilarious quips regarding the relationship between Allen’s Alvy Singer and Diane Keaton’s Annie Hall, like this split-screen exchange when they’re each seeing their respective therapists:

ALVY SINGER’S THERAPIST: How often do you sleep together?

ANNIE HALL’S THERAPIST: Do you have sex often?

ALVY SINGER (complaining): Hardly ever. Maybe three times a week.

ANNIE HALL (annoyed): Constantly. I’d say three times a week.

 

And this conversation:

ALVY SINGER: Hey listen, gimme a kiss.

ANNIE HALL: Really?

ALVY SINGER: Yeah, why not, because we’re just gonna go home later, right, and then there’s gonna be all that tension, we’ve never kissed before and I’ll never know when to make the right move or anything. So we’ll kiss now and get it over with, and then we’ll go eat. We’ll digest our food better.

 

And here’s one of my favorite jokes in the film, where Alvy confronts Annie about having an affair:

ALVY SINGER: Well, I didn’t start out spying. I thought I’d surprise you. Pick you up after school.

ANNIE HALL: Yeah, but you wanted to keep the relationship flexible. Remember, it’s your phrase.

ALVY SINGER: Oh stop it, you’re having an affair with your college professor, that jerk that teaches that incredible crap course, Contemporary Crisis in Western Man…

ANNIE HALL:  Existential Motifs in Russian Literature. You’re really close.

ALVY SINGER; What’s the difference? It’s all mental masturbation.

ANNIE HALL: Oh, well, now we’re finally getting to a subject you know something about.

ALVY SINGER: Hey, don’t knock masturbation. It’s sex with someone I love.

 

Then there’s this observation on relationships:

ALVY SINGER: A relationship, I think, is like a shark. You know? It has to constantly move forward or it dies. And I think what we got on our hands is a dead shark.

 

And of course there are jokes that have nothing to do with relationships that are flat-out hilarious in ANNIE HALL, like this comment by Alvy on California when he and Annie are visiting The Golden State:

ANNIE HALL:  It’s so clean out here.

ALVY SINGER: That’s because they don’t throw their garbage away, they turn it into television shows.

 

Another of my favorite bits involves a scene with Christopher Walker as Duane.

DUANE:  Can I confess something? I tell you this as an artist, I think you’ll understand. Sometimes when I’m driving… on the road at night… I see two headlights coming toward me. Fast. I have this sudden impulse to turn the wheel quickly, head-on into the oncoming car. I can anticipate the explosion. The sound of shattering glass. The… flames rising out of the flowing gasoline.

ALVY SINGER: Right. Well, I have to – I have to go now, Duane, because I, I’m due back on the planet Earth.

 

And like it begins, ANNIE HALL ends with another memorable set of lines, once more spoken by Woody Allen’s Alvy Singer, to close out the film:

ALVY SINGER: After that it got pretty late, and we both had to go, but it was great seeing Annie again. I… I realized what a terrific person she was, and… and how much fun it was just knowing her; and I… I, I thought of that old joke, y’know, the, this… this guy goes to a psychiatrist and says, “Doc, uh, my brother’s crazy; he thinks he’s a chicken.” And, uh, the doctor says, “Well, why don’t you turn him in?” The guy says, “I would, but I need the eggs.” Well, I guess that’s pretty much now how I feel about relationships; y’know, they’re totally irrational, and crazy, and absurd, and… but, uh, I guess we keep goin’ through it because, uh, most of us… need the eggs.

 

As I said earlier, there are so many more memorable quotes and jokes in ANNIE HALL, there’s enough to fill an entire second and third column. But that’s it for today.  I hope you enjoyed today’s MEMORABLE MOVIE QUOTES column and join me again next time when I look at cool quotes from another classic movie.

Thanks for reading!

—Michael