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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Print cover

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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

 

 

 

 

SICARIO: DAY OF THE SOLDADO (2018) – SICARIO Sequel A Solid Thriller

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Isabela Moner and Benicio Del Toro in SICARIO: DAY OF THE SOLDADO (2018).

 

SICARIO (2015) was my favorite movie of 2015.

It was also the first film written by Taylor Sheridan, who, along with his screenplays for HELL OR HIGH WATER (2016) and WIND RIVER (2017) has become one of my favorite screenwriters working today.

So, my interest in the sequel to SICARIO went up when I realized that Sheridan was writing it.

That sequel, SICARIO: DAY OF THE SOLDADO (2018), does what most sequels fail to do: it tells a completely different story from its predecessor, as it follows the natural progression of two of the main characters from the previous movie and tells their ongoing story. As such, it feels more like the next episode in a quality TV series rather than a rehash of the first movie, the trap into which many sequels fall. In fact, it’s the second chapter in a proposed trilogy of SICARIO movies.

Its plot is also timely, as it involves smuggling immigrants over the southern border from Mexico.

SICARIO: DAY OF THE SOLDADO opens with Mexican immigrants being rounded up as they try to cross the border. One of the men flees and just as the officials are closing in on him, he detonates a bomb and blows himself up. The action switches to Kansas City where we witness a deadly terrorist attack where suicide bombers blow up a crowded shopping area.

Special agent Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) is called in to meet with Secretary of Defense James Riley (Matthew Modine) and a group of other officials.  Graver explains that while Mexican cartels used to make most of their money smuggling drugs, nowadays they make more money smuggling people. Riley then informs Graver that the cartels have upped the ante as they are now smuggling terrorists.

Riley wants Graver to put a stop to this, and Graver, an expert in dealing with the cartels, says the best way to do it is to get them to fight each other, and so a plot is hatched to kidnap the daughter of a Mexican drug lord and make it look like the work of a rival cartel. Graver is given the green light to do whatever it takes, and as he assembles his team, he includes the shadowy hitman Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro).

Graver’s team pulls off a brazen daytime abduction of the daughter, Isabel Reyes (Isabela Moner) and they do indeed lay the blame on a rival cartel. But before their plan of getting the cartels to fight each other can take shape, things get messy, and as we know, the best laid plans of mice and men—.

In addition to Taylor Sheridan once again writing the screenplay, SICARIO: DAY OF THE SOLDADO also reunites two of the stars from the first movie, Josh Brolin and Benicio Del Toro, as they both reprise their roles from SICARIO, and as you would expect, they are both excellent once again, delivering solid performances.

On the other hand, Emily Blunt, who played the main character in SICARIO, did not return for the sequel and her presence is definitely missed. Likewise, director Denis Villeneuve also did not return, and these are two of the reasons why SICARIO: DAY OF THE SOLDADO, a solid thriller nonetheless, isn’t as good as its predecessor.

It’s a decent enough screenplay by Taylor Sheridan, although it’s probably not as tight as his previous scripts. It tells a tense and riveting story, and gives us realistic characters and dialogue. Like his previous screenplays, it also gives us layers. There’s a lot going on in this story.

One of the fresher and very timely aspects in the script is its take on immigrants coming into the country. For the most part, it seems to vindicate those who argue for stronger borders, but later in the movie, as the mission is spiraling out of control, it’s revealed that the Kansas City terrorists were American citizens and weren’t smuggled into the country after all, which turns the entire mission upside down. It also is one of those layers I was just talking about. Things are never black and white in a Taylor Sheridan screenplay.

But the story isn’t quite as tight as previous Sheridan tales. While the intensity is palpable for most of the film, it doesn’t quite hold up till the end. The story fizzles somewhat by the time we get to the final reel.

But as I said both Josh Brolin and Benicio Del Toro reprise their roles and are both exceptional. I actually enjoyed Brolin more this time around, as his character seemed to be a bit more fleshed out. Del Toro, while less chilling and mysterious than he was in SICARIO, still makes Alejandro a force to be reckoned with.  There’s more sympathy for the character this time around.

I like both these characters and would be more than happy to see them in yet another movie.

The younger actors here also fare well. Elijah Rodriguez is very good as Miguel Hernandez, a teen recruited by his adult cousin to work for the cartels smuggling immigrants across the border. It’s a cold-hearted performance that definitely strikes a chord.

But the performance of the movie belongs to young Isabela Moner as the kidnapped daughter Isabel Reyes. When we first meet Isabel, she’s in a fight at her school with another girl, and when she’s called into the principal’s office, she pretty much tells him off. And when he says he should expel her, she calls him on it, and when he does nothing, she says, “Yeah. That’s what I thought.” She then casually strolls out of his office, knowing full well she’s untouchable because of her father.

Once abducted, she’s terribly frightened, as she should be, and rather than being a clichéd “handful” she’s smart and resilient. The story arc where she bonds with Alejandro also works. It’s a terrific performance by Isabela Moner, and as much as I enjoyed Brolin and Del Toro in this movie, I think I enjoyed Moner even more. She really brings Isabel Reyes to life.

The supporting cast is full of veteran actors, including Matthew Modine, Catherine Keener, Shea Whigham, and Bruno Bichir.

Director Stefano Sollima doesn’t imbue this film with as much sweat-inducing intensity as Denis Villeneuve gave the original, but he’s also working with a weaker story. As much as I like Taylor Sheridan’s writing, the story told in the first SICARIO was a stronger one than the one told here.

Still, there are some effective scenes. The sequence where Graver’s team is attacked by the Mexican police is a good one, as is the initial kidnapping scene. And near the end, where Alejandro finds himself at the mercy of cartel members, the suspense is nail-biting.

But SICARIO was a tight thriller that remained riveting right up until the end, whereas SICARIO: DAY OF THE SOLDADO simply doesn’t do this. It has its moments, a lot of them in fact, but it doesn’t match the phenomenal original.

Sicario, by the way, is Spanish for “hitman,” and soldado means “soldier.” I’m guessing that’s a reference to Josh Brolin’s Matt Graver character, who’s portrayed here much more as a soldier this time around.  And he does tend to take center stage here.

I’m also guessing this one might underperform at the box office. I saw it on opening night with a sparse crowd which was almost entirely male. I spotted just one or two women in the audience.  And these guys were jacked and — well, let’s just say they  looked like they wanted to sign up for Matt Graver’s special ops team. So if you’re looking to put together a secret military unit, look no further than the audience at a  SICARIO: DAY OF THE SOLDADO movie.

SICARIO: DAY OF THE SOLDADO is nowhere near as strong a film as the original, but it’s still a hard-hitting thriller which successfully tells a complex and timely story involving cartels, immigration, and the shadowy missions of the U.S. government.

—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.

InTheSpooklight_NewText

 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.  

For The Love Of Horror cover

Print version:  $18.00.  Includes postage. Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

Streaming Movie Review: THE GIFT (2015)

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THE-GIFT-2015-movie-still

Rebecca Hall, Justin Bateman, and Joel Edgerton share an awkward dinner in the mystery/thriller THE GIFT (2015).

Even though I see lots of movies each year, I’m never able to see every one I want to see at the theater, so it’s always fun to catch a film I missed the first time around.

Such was the case with THE GIFT (2015) a thriller from few years back written, directed, and starring Joel Edgerton.

I like Joel Edgerton a lot.  I’ve enjoyed nearly every movie I’ve seen him in, from IT COMES AT NIGHT (2017), BLACK MASS (2015), to THE GREAT GATSBY (2013) where he played Tom Buchanan.  THE GIFT was his directorial debut, and as debuts go it’s pretty darn good.

 

THE GIFT tells the story of a married couple, Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall) who move to California to get a fresh start in life since Robyn had recently suffered a miscarriage. They move to a place close to Simon’s home town. Not long after they are there, they run into a man (Joel Edgerton) who says he used to know Simon, but Simon doesn’t recognize him until he tells Simon his name, Gordon Mosely, or “Gordo” for short. At that point Simon does remember him and they have a polite exchange.

That is the end of that until Gordo sends them a gift, a gesture Robyn thinks is sweet, but Simon strangely seems unnerved by it, and explains to his wife that Gordo was something of an odd duck back in school, so much so that he earned the nickname “Weirdo.” When Gordo begins to visit more often and attempts to become closer friends with the couple, Simon pushes back, and the whole thing raises a red flag for Robyn because she doesn’t quite understand her husband’s feelings of hostility toward Gordo.

As things grow weirder and tensions rise, and as Simon and Robyn begin to feel threatened by Gordo, Robyn decides to look deeper into the man’s background, and what she finds is not what she expects, especially regarding her husband.

I really enjoyed THE GIFT.  Its story grabbed me right away and held my attention throughout. Because I thought I knew where the plot was heading, I kept expecting it to become stupid or predictable, but that didn’t happen.  It stays strong throughout and kept me guessing all the way to the end.

As a result, THE GIFT is a solid mystery/thriller.

The three principal actors all do an excellent job, and as a director, Joel Edgerton should be commended for getting so much out of his actors, even if one of those actors was himself.

First and foremost, it was fun seeing Jason Bateman cast against type. The comic actor, who has enjoyed a very long career and has starred in the recent comedies GAME NIGHT (2018), IDENTITY THIEF (2013), and the HORRIBLE BOSSES movies, as well as the ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT (2003-18) TV series, is really good here as Simon, the seemingly wonderful husband with a dark past. I bought his performance throughout.

Likewise, Rebecca Hall is equally as good as Robyn. It’s a nuanced performance because she has to react to things that affect her intuition and gut feelings, rather than to things that are blatantly in her face.  And she pulls it off because most of the time I knew exactly what she was thinking and feeling. I’ve enjoyed Hall in other movies, in films like THE TOWN (2010) and VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA (2008), but her performance here ranks as one of my favorites.

To round out the trio, Joel Edgerton does a fine job as Gordo as well.  As I said, I’m a big fan of Edgerton’s, even though the last two films I saw him in weren’t very good, GRINGO (2018) and RED SPARROW (2018), but that being said, Edgerton’s performances in those movies were just fine.  In THE GIFT, as was the case with Rebecca Hall, Edgerton’s performance is a nuanced one. At first, there’s something quite sad about the man, and then something a little creepy, but then sad, or is it creepy? That’s part of the reason this movie works so well.  It keeps you guessing.

Which brings me to the screenplay, also by Joel Edgerton. It scores high on several fronts. It creates realistic three-dimensional characters who are difficult to label, because we get to see different sides to them. It also works as a solid mystery and thriller.  I did not figure out where the story was going ahead of time, which is always a good thing, nor was I disappointed with the reveals at the end of the movie. Everything pretty much works.

The screenplay also works as a social commentary, as it has something to say about bullying, and it says it well.

And as I said, it’s an impressive directorial debut for Edgerton. In addition to being a successful mystery, it’s also an effective thriller.  The best part is that it doesn’t rely on violence to unnerve its audience.  It relies on its story and its characters. There is a feeling of unease throughout the movie, a feeling that keeps the audience off-balanced, and this feeling pervades until the end credits roll.

THE GIFT is an excellent thriller, one that I’m sorry I missed at the theater during its initial run. But it’s currently available on Netflix, and I highly recommend you take a look.  You’ll be sure to enjoy it— unless, of course, a long-lost friend shows up at your doorstep bearing gifts. If that happens, you might want to look over your shoulder— or into your significant other’s past.

—END—

 

 

 

 

 

HEREDITARY (2018) – Stylish Horror Movie Can’t Keep It All Together

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hereditary poster

I had heard good things about HEREDITARY (2018), the new horror movie by writer/director Ari Aster, with some folks comparing it to last year’s hit GET OUT (2017), and so I was really looking forward to seeing this one.

Alas, after seeing it, I can’t say that I share this opinion. To me, it’s less like GET OUT and more like THE WITCH (2015) another critically acclaimed horror flick that for me simply fell flat and didn’t work.

That being said, there are parts to HEREDITARY that I really liked, but taken as a whole, the film didn’t do it for me.

HEREDITARY opens with an obituary. Which is as good a way as any to open a horror movie. From the obit we learn of the passing of the grandmother of the Graham family, and judging by the eulogy given by her daughter Annie (Toni Collette), she was a complicated and often demanding woman who wasn’t going to be missed in the traditional sense.  After the funeral, Annie returns home with her husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne), teenage son Peter (Alex Wolff) and 13 year-old daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro) to the house which they shared with the now deceased matriarch of the family.

When Annie sees an apparition of her dead mother inside the house, she realizes she is more troubled by her mother’s passing than she has let on, and so she attends a support group for people who have lost loved ones, and it’s there through Annie’s testimony where we learn her family’s history of mental illness and the horrific events which took place because of it.

When more tragedy strikes Annie’s family, she struggles to hold both herself together and the rest of her immediate family, often appearing unhinged and unbalanced, which will leave the audience guessing, is what is happening due to undiagnosed mental illness or the supernatural?

If only the movie offered a satisfactory answer.

Again, there were parts to HEREDITARY I really liked.

The acting is off the charts good.  Toni Collette knocks it out of the park as Annie, the mother who may or may not be dealing with her own mental health issues. The pain Annie feels over the losses in her family are among the most disturbing scenes in the movie.  Collette brings this wounded troubled character to life, and there are a couple of scenes in particular where she is grieving that are almost too disturbing to sit through. In fact, you could make the argument that the best scenes in HEREDITARY aren’t the traditional horror scenes, but the dramatic ones.  There are some truly powerful moments in this film that pack a wallop.

Gabriel Byrne is also excellent as husband Steve, the calm, rational father who offsets the high-strung Annie perfectly. It’s an understated performance, but it is just as effective as Collette’s.

The two teens are also superb. Alex Wolff is phenomenal as Peter, and his relationship with his mom is as pained and problematic as they come.  Any parent of a teenager will relate to this dynamic. While there are obviously good days and bad days to raising teenagers, the scenes in this film capture perfectly the darkest days of the experience in scenes that are again way better than the traditional horror scenes. While Wolff’s performance here isn’t quite as good as his chilling performance as Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in PATRIOTS DAY (2016), it’s still very memorable.

And Milly Shapiro does a fine job as Charlie, the daughter who was very close to her grandmother and most impacted by her death.

So, you’re not going to find better acting in a horror movie.

And the film really gets off to a good start. I really enjoyed the first half of this one, perhaps even the first two-thirds. It’s not until I realized that so many of the themes put forth here just were not coming together that things began to take a downward turn.

Writer/director Ari Aster presents us with an impressive canvas of themes to work with, especially for a horror movie. The opening shot after the obituary shows an intricate doll house, which is what Annie does for a living, design miniatures models, and the camera closes in on a miniature bedroom where we see a figure in bed which amazingly morphs into live action as we are introduced to Peter as he wakes up for his grandmother’s funeral. As opening shots go, it’s a keeper.

And it plays into a central theme of the movie, which is the debate of free will vs. fate. Do we have choices in life, or is everything that happens to us already predestined? This theme runs through the first half of the movie.

Then there’s the mental health angle. Does Annie suffer from mental health issues? Based on her behavior and on the information we learn about her family’s history, as well as the movie’s title HEREDITARY, the answer seems to be yes. In addition, the question must also be asked, what about the children?  Do they suffer from mental health issues? Again, the answer could be yes.

On the other hand, the answer could just as easily be no because there are plenty of supernatural elements occurring in the story. For two-thirds of this movie, it does a good job keeping its audience off-balance with these questions.

One of the best scenes in the movie, if not the best scene, features a dinner table conversation between Annie and Peter, where dad Steve largely remains silent, and it takes place at a point where Annie seems the most unhinged. And yet when she loses it in the conversation and lashes out at her son, and at her entire family, saying that she’s sick and tired of no one in the family owning up to their actions and always letting the guilt fall on her, she actually makes a lot of sense, which throws the audience a curve, because here’s this character who seems unbalanced but yet her argument comes off as true and valid. And then Peter backs it up by once more not owning up to what he did and instead implying that what happened was his mother’s fault.

The real horror in this movie is the family dynamic.  We see a family that comes off as very real, with little or no sense of wanting to harm each other, but through their actions can’t seem to do anything to bring themselves together.  It’s a dynamic which is much more powerful than the supernatural parts of the movie.

Which is why the movie’s ending is so disappointing.

Ari Aster throws all these themes at us, and creates a compelling family back story, but then does little with it.  The answers given here are simply not satisfying, and when the film makes the choice near the end to go full throttle towards the supernatural, it falls several notches. It simply takes away from what was shaping up to be a high brow horror tale.

The pacing is also dreadfully slow, and at two hours and seven minutes, that’s a long time to sit through a slow-paced movie. I didn’t mind as much during the first half, because the pace helped set the mood, but as the film went on, it seemed to grow slower and slower.

HEREDITARY also borrowed a page from the IT FOLLOWS (2014) playbook, featuring naked adults in creepy poses. It’s a thing that worked better in IT FOLLOWS than it does here.

There are parts to HEREDITARY that I definitely liked, as the first half of this movie held so much promise and offered so many possibilities, but it simply failed to deliver on these possibilities during its second half

As a result, HEREDITARY is a mixed bag. Its stylish and nontraditional horror style works for a while, but when it finally decides to shed some light on its questions and provide some answers, well, at that point, it simply becomes a little more traditional and a little less innovative.

I left the theater thinking, that’s it? That’s what the whole story was all about?

I think a better answer to the questions posed in this movie is that we are all predestined to act in a certain way based on our heredity and our family genes, and as such we are doomed to repeat our ancestors’ flaws, but that’s not the answer this film gives. Instead, it goes for another definition of hereditary: the right to a title based on inheritance, and in this case, that take is much less effective.

So much so that in several of the key scenes near the end, folks in the theater were laughing. Not a good sign for a horror movie.

You can do a lot worse than HEREDITARY. It’s ambitious and creative, well-acted and at times powerfully emotional, but you can also do a lot better. It throws a lot of themes at you but then fails to keep things tight. It meanders along and allows itself to lose momentum as it slowly creeps towards its disappointing traditional conclusion.

—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.

InTheSpooklight_NewText

 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.  

For The Love Of Horror cover

Print version:  $18.00.  Includes postage. Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.