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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ANT-MAN AND THE WASP (2018) – Light, Fun, Another Marvel Hit

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Evangeline Lily and Paul Rudd in ANT-MAN AND THE WASP (2018)

ANT-MAN AND THE WASP (2018), the latest entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, is a comedic vehicle that will have you chuckling throughout, which is just what Marvel fans needed after the devastating AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR (2018) earlier this year.

After breaking the law by teaming up with Captain America in CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR (2016), Scott Lang/Ant Man (Paul Rudd) finds himself under house arrest. He sees his young daughter Cassie (Abby Ryder Forston), and he’s visited by his business partner Luis (Michael Pena), but he cannot leave his house, which explains his absence from AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR. Speaking of which, the events in this movie take place just before the events in INFINITY WAR.

Scott’s also not supposed to have any contact with Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lily) or her father Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) since they designed the Ant Man suit which he wore when he fought against Iron Man and half the Avengers when he joined Team Captain America. Hope and Hank are considered fugitives from justice. And Scott wants no part of seeing them since his house arrest ends in a matter of days.

But that all changes when Hope and Hank extract Scott from his house, telling him they need his help to find Hope’s mother Janet (Michelle Pfeiffer) who was lost years ago in the subatomic realm and considered dead, but since Scott had been reduced to a subatomic level and returned, Hank now believes it’s possible his wife is still alive. Scott reluctantly agrees to help them.

But along the way they find resistance from a shady business contact Sonny Burch (Walter Goggins) and a mysterious being with super powers greater than their own, both of whom want to steal Hank’s technology.

So, as you can see, the plot here is nothing heavy.  Ant Man is not trying to save the world, and after AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR, that’s fine with me.

How does ANT-MAN AND THE WASP compare to the first ANT MAN movie?  It’s as good if not better.

One of the strengths of the Marvel movies has always been that they have very strong scripts, and the screenplay here by Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Paul Rudd, Andrew Barrer, and Gabriel Ferrari is no exception.  It goes all in on the comedy and is light and funny throughout. Writers Barrer and Ferrari are new to the Marvel Universe, while Rudd worked on the screenplay to the first ANT-MAN (2015), and McKenna and Sommers were on the team that wrote the highly regarded SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING (2017).

The other strength of these Marvel movies is the impressive casts they always assemble.

Paul Rudd returns as Ant Man, and he’s about as likable a superhero as you’re going to find in a movie, mostly because he’s an unlikely superhero. He doesn’t see himself as much of a hero. In fact, he knows he usually messes things up pretty bad.  Rudd is fun to watch because of both his easy-going personality and his sharp comedic timing.

Rudd’s scenes with Abby Ryder Forston, who plays Scott’s daughter Cassie, are precious. The scene where she says she wants to be his partner is a keeper. And Forston also gets plenty of comedic moments as well.

Rudd enjoys fine chemistry with both Evangeline Lilly and Michael Douglas.  Lily is perfect as Hope/Wasp, as she’s both bitter and in love with Scott, and their scenes together have the necessary sexual tension and honed humor. Lily also makes for an impressive bad-ass superhero.

Michael Douglas gets plenty of opportunities to shine as Dr. Hank Pym. When he’s not chastising Scott or saying lines like “are we going to get out of here or are you two going to stare at each other all day?” to Scott and Hope when they become preoccupied with each other rather than escaping, he’s devoted to finding his wife.

And it was fun to see Michelle Pfeiffer back on the big screen in a superhero movie, something she hadn’t done since her phenomenal performance as Catwoman in BATMAN RETURNS (1992). Pfeiffer’s not in this one much, but she appears early on in a flashback as the first Wasp, thanks to some CGI/motion capture effects, looking years younger.

The rest of the cast is largely there for comedic relief.

Michael Pena has a field day as Scott’s business partner Luis, and as the movie goes along, he becomes more involved in the plot. Luis, along with associates Dave (T.I.) and Kurt (David Dastmalchian), form a team who when helping Scott are about as useful as the Three Stooges.

Likewise, Walter Goggins, who’s played some very serious villains in his day, in films like DJANGO UNCHAINED (2012) and THE HATEFUL EIGHT (2015), plays baddie Sonny Burch strictly for laughs. The scene where Sonny and his goons capture Luis, Dave, and Kurt and plan to use “truth serum” on them is hilarious.

Judy Greer returns as Scott’s ex-wife Maggie, and Bobby Cannavale returns as her new husband Paxton, and their scenes are comic as well this time around. And Randall Park plays lawman Jimmy Woo, also, you got it, for laughs.

The emphasis on humor would be bad if the film wasn’t funny, but it is, very much so, and all these actors excel in their roles. The result is a highly entertaining two hours which fly by incredibly quickly.

About the only two folks in the film not playing things for laughs are Hannah John-Kamen as the mysterious Ghost, and Laurence Fishburne as Hank’s former colleague Dr. Bill Foster. Hanna John-Kamen is okay as Ghost, but the character, in spite of an interesting background story, isn’t developed all that well.

Laurence Fishburne fares better as Dr. Bill Foster. He’s a man who’s often at odds with Hank Pym, but he’s trying to do the right thing. The scene where he puts his foot down with Ghost when she suggests they go after Scott’s daughter for leverage really resonates. When he tells her in no uncertain terms that going after children is wrong and that he will not be a part of using a child to get what he wants, it’s a telling moment.

ANT-MAN AND THE WASP was directed by Peyton Reed, who also directed the first ANT-MAN movie. He handled both films very well, and I think he outdid himself with this second film, as he pretty much got everything right with this one. The humor works, the action scenes are edited well and fun to watch, and the pacing is perfect. The special effects are also spot-on.

If there’s any flaw it’s I would have liked more Wasp.  I really enjoyed Evangeline Lilly as Wasp and would have loved to have seen her in even more scenes as the bad-ass superhero.

And while comedy ruled the day in ANT-MAN AND THE WASP, the events from AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR which have not happened yet loom like a cloud over the proceedings, which makes this story even better.

In the Marvel movie tradition, there are two after-credit scenes. The first is the big one, the one you definitely do not want to miss, while the second, at the very end of the credits, reverts back to the comedic.

ANT-MAN AND THE WASP is yet another high quality superhero movie from Marvel, as the studio continues its amazing run of entertaining movies, and it shows no sign of slowing down. In fact, the studio is having an extraordinarily exceptional year, as all three of their releases so far in 2018, BLACK PANTHER, AVENGER: INFINITY WAR, and ANT-MAN AND THE WASP, are among the best films of the year.

And since Ant-Man wasn’t involved in the devastating conclusion to AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR, he’s suddenly a very important superhero going forward. Be sure to catch him in this light adventure now, because the next time we see him in the next AVENGERS movie, things no doubt will be a bit darker.

Yup, the next time we see him he’ll be going up against Thanos.  Gulp!

—END—

 

 

 

 

 

 

TAG (2018) – Uneven Comedy Actually Based on True Story

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The craziest thing about the new comedy TAG (2018) is that it’s actually based on a true story.

So, as much as I want to say that the plot point of a group of adults still playing tag is rather ridiculous, it actually happened. There really were a group of childhood friends who continued to play tag well into adulthood.

As a famous sports announcer used to say, how about that!

And that’s exactly the story that TAG has to tell.

Hogan (Ed Helms), Bob (Jon Hamm), Kevin (Hannibal Buress), Chilli (Jake Johnson), and Jerry (Jeremy Renner) have been friends since childhood, and now as adults, they continue to play the game of tag which they used to play as kids. It’s their way of both keeping young and keeping in touch, literally. Once a year, during the month of May, regardless of where they are, they find each other and play tag, and no one wants to be stuck being “it” for a year once the month ends.

And the one friend who has never been “it” is Jerry. He’s so good at the game that he’s never been tagged. Not once. And so the other four friends gang up on him with the plan of finally making Jerry “it.”

I have to admit, watching adult males doing whatever it takes to tag their friend and make him “it,” whether it be by taking fake jobs to get close to their target, wearing an old lady disguise, breaking into homes, and even crashing AA meetings, is fairly amusing. Up to a point.

I judge comedies by how much I laugh, and watching TAG, I laughed fairly often, but most of these laughs came during the first half of the movie. For the most part it’s a likable enough comedy, but it never becomes a laugh-to-you-cry type of experience. And that’s because even though this is based on a true story, the novelty of watching adult males playing tag only goes so far.

The jokes and situations needed to be sharper. The screenplay by Rob McKittrick and Mark Steilen is okay.  It does a nice job showing the lengths these guys go to in order to win the game, but during the film’s second half it’s just begging for things to get over the top and completely out of control, but this doesn’t happen, as the story goes for some sentimentality instead.

The recent comedy GAME NIGHT (2018), another “friends” comedy with a different contrivance -friends playing a murder/mystery game that unknown to them was in fact real— I thought had a stronger screenplay, with more jokes that worked and much funnier situations.  TAG has its moments, but it doesn’t stay consistently funny throughout.

The cast is fine. Ed Helms sort of has the lead role, as his character Hogan seems to try the hardest to win the game. Helms can do this sort of thing in his sleep, which is part of the problem. It’s nothing we haven’t seen Helms do before. I enjoyed him much more cast against type in a dramatic role in CHAPPAQUIDDICK (2017).

I’m a big Jon Hamm fan, and he kinda plays it straight here. He spends most of the time reacting to what his other friends are doing.  I would have preferred to have seen Hamm stretch his acting chops and go for some comedic timing.

The guy who is really funny is Hannibal Buress as Kevin.  He gets some of the best lines in the movie.

Jake Johnson is okay as Chilli, but the character is rather annoying and is certainly the least likable of the friends, which is saying a lot since Jeremy Renner’s character Jerry isn’t likable either.  I enjoyed Johnson much more on the TV show NEW GIRL (2011-18).

I can’t say that I enjoyed Jeremy Renner all that much either. His character Jerry spends most of the film talking down to his friends and acting superior to them. I get that he’s supposed to the tag champion, but the writing here does the character and the story no favors by making him a very unlikable guy.

And even though this is based on a true story, I doubt the game included the intricately choreographed stunts and fight moves that Jerry uses to elude his friends. Strangely, these CGI enhanced scenes, which reminded me a lot of the action scenes in the movie KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE (2014) were among the least funny scenes in the film.

On the other hand, some of the earlier scenes of physical comedy, scenes where Chilli tries to leap from a fire escape and where Jon Hamm’s Bob tries to smash through some unbreakable glass, for example, are funny.  Much of the film relies on the use of heavy slapstick rather than verbal jokes, but with mixed results, as a lot of those polished staged action scenes just don’t tickle the funny bone.

The women in the cast actually score a bit higher than the men.  Isla Fisher is hilarious as Hogan’s wife Anna. She makes Anna an over the top intense character, and it’s the type of thing that’s missing from her male co-stars’ performances. As such, it’s my favorite performance in the movie

I’m also a fan of Annabelle Wallis, a talented actress who is still waiting for her break-out film role.  She’s been in such movies as ANNABELLE (2014), KING ARTHUR: LEGEND OF THE SWORD (2017), and, ugh, THE MUMMY (2017), and she was also on the TV show PEAKY BLINDERS (2013-2016). She plays it straight here as the newspaper reporter who decides to tell the guys’ story, but she’s very good in what otherwise could have been a forgettable role. She’s someone to watch going forward.

Director Jeff Tomsic gets mixed results with this one. I thought the plot was a good one. It was fun to watch how far these guys would go to play tag, and early on the physical comedy was pretty uproarious, but the film actually becomes less funny as it goes along because the concept of adults playing tag gets old quick without a strong script to add depth and keep things going.

I also never got the feel for how close these guys were. They said they were friends, but we don’t really see it other than in the context of the silly game of tag.

And I didn’t really like the Jeremy Renner “action” scenes at all. I thought they were the most phony and unfunny parts of the film.

TAG has its moments, and these moments were good enough to make me laugh here and there, but taken as a whole, it’s not quite the solid comedy it starts out to be. Like most games of tag, it kinda fizzles out after a while.

—END—

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

OCEAN’S 8 (2018) – Mildly Entertaining Heist Tale

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Truth be told, I’ve never been a fan of the OCEAN’S movies.

The Steven Soderbergh-directed trilogy did little for me in spite of its impressive cast, led by George Clooney. Of course, the first one, OCEAN’S ELEVEN (2001) was a remake of the 1960 film, OCEAN’S 11 starring Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin.

With that in mind, I wasn’t all that excited to see OCEAN’S 8 (2018), the all- female take on the OCEAN’S formula, starring Sandra Bullock as Debbie Ocean, younger sister to Clooney’s Danny Ocean, but I wanted to check it out anyway, mostly because of its cast.

For me, the Soderbergh OCEAN films always held such promise: they had fabulous casts and told fun lively tales about bold heists of Las Vegas casinos, but the trouble was, they just weren’t that fun and lively. The culprit? Scripts that just never brought the characters or the stories to life.

So, now comes OCEAN’S 8, where the heist features an all-woman team. Would the results be any different?

Sadly, no.

OCEAN’S 8 opens with Debbie Ocean (Sandra Bullock) getting out of prison after convincing the parole board that all she wants to do is live a normal crime-free life. Once out of prison, this promise last all of two seconds as she immediately scams her way into purchasing items from a high-end boutique followed by a hotel room. And before you can say Rat Pack she’s already assembling her team for her big heist which she had been planning during her five-year prison stay.

Ocean’s team includes Lou (Cate Blanchett), Rose Weil (Helena Bonham Carter), Tammy (Sarah Paulson), Amita (Mindy Kaling), Constance (Awkwafina), and Nine Ball (Rihanna). The job? To steal a diamond necklace, which they intend to do by manipulating the famous Daphne Kluger (Anne Hathaway) into wearing it to New York City’s annual Met Gala where they plan an elaborate scheme to remove it from her neck and get it out of the building undetected.  It’s a job which would make her older brother Danny proud.

I had the same problem with OCEAN’S 8 that I had with the other OCEAN movies: love the cast and the plot, but the script not so much.

You can’t find too much fault with the cast here. They’re fun to watch, but none of the actors are enough on their own to carry this lackluster tale to higher places.

Sandra Bullock lacks the charm of George Clooney in the central role, and so you don’t have that same “bad boy does good” feeling going on here. It’s the type of thing that Cary Grant used to be able to pull off with ease- the thief who you actually really like.  Clooney could do the same.  Bullock here, interestingly enough, comes off as more of a villain than Clooney ever did.  Her take on the “family business” is far less playful than Clooney’s.

Cate Blanchett is okay as Lou, but it’s the supporting cast who actually make more of a mark. In particular, Rihanna as Nine Ball and Awkwafina as Constance both add considerable spunk and energy to their roles. Even though their roles aren’t any more developed than the others, I enjoyed watching these two whenever they were on-screen.

Likewise, Sarah Paulson was also very enjoyable as Tammy, as she, too delivers a spirited performance.

I thought Helena Bonham Carter gave the best performance in the movie as the manic and apprehensive Rose Weil. It’s nothing I haven’t seen Carter do before in her long and successful career, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t do it well.  I pretty much enjoyed her scenes in this one the most.

And Anne Hathaway does what she is supposed to do, as the wealthy celebrity Daphne Kluger, but it’s not really a role that moved me in any particular way, which doesn’t help the story, since she wasn’t someone I felt deserved to be an unwitting participant in a major jewel heist.

Which brings me to the weakest part of the film, the screenplay by Gary Ross and Olivia Milch.  The biggest knock against it is, like the earlier OCEAN films, it’s just not sharp enough with its humor or its story to make me care all that much. There’s nary a memorable line or scene to be found.  I’ve always found the OCEAN films to be only mildly entertaining, responsible for providing a minor diversion for a couple of hours, but hardly all that exciting or fun.  OCEAN’S 8 is the same.

And in terms of story, the heist has very little meaning. Anne Hathaway’s Daphne Kluger is no villain, and so there’s no feeling that she deserves to be robbed. Plus, since the jewels aren’t even hers, she’s not even the one being robbed. There’s also very little motivation for Sandra Bullock’s Debbie Ocean, other than that crime seems to run in her family’s genes. There are hints, as in the first George Clooney OCEAN film, that the heist is personal, as Debbie uses the crime to get back at the man who put her in prison, but this plot point remains minor throughout the film.

In addition to writing the screenplay, Ross also directed OCEAN’S 8, and while the film looks good, in terms of pacing, things never really build to a satisfactory climax.  I thought the whole film just seemed off somehow.

Ross also wrote and directed the first HUNGER GAMES movie in 2012, and his work on that film was much stronger than his work here.

OCEAN’S 8 might entertain you, especially if you’re a fan of the previous OCEANS movies, as it’s pretty much the same exact formula, but if you’re not really into the George Clooney films, I can’t see how you’d enjoy this one any better.

Underneath all the glamour and glitter, OCEAN’S 8 is just a mediocre heist tale, a mild diversion, the type of film you might want to catch at home rather than at your local theater.

And while an OCEAN’S 9 may be inevitable, what should come first is an OCEAN’S 101 for the writers who write the screenplays for these movies.  Now that would have some value.

—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.  

 

 

 

 

LIFE OF THE PARTY (2018) – Melissa McCarthy Comedy Surprisingly Lively and Funny

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LIFE OF THE PARTY (2018), the latest comedy starring Melissa McCarthy, possesses a positive vibe that makes it livelier and funnier than most critics are giving it credit for.

Then again, maybe I was simply influenced by the audience. I saw it in a very crowded theater, where the majority of people in the seats were women, and the loud and frequent laughter was nothing short of contagious. The folks in the theater definitely enjoyed this one.

LIFE OF THE PARTY tells a simple, albeit far-fetched, story. Right after housewife Deanna (Melissa McCarthy) drops off her daughter for her senior year of college, she learns that her husband wants a divorce. Devastated, Deanna decides to go back to college to earn the degree she gave up on when she decided to start a family.

She enrolls at the same school as her daughter, and before you can say “Toga!” she and her daughter and her daughter’s friends are all best buds and living the college dream together.

As I said, this one is definitely far-fetched. But it’s also definitely funny, as most of the jokes work, and for a comedy, you can’t really ask for more than that.

I saw this one because I’m a fan of Melissa McCarthy, and I generally enjoy her work. I have to say, she’s more than up to the task of carrying what otherwise would have been a mediocre and very silly movie.  She imbues Deanna with likable characteristics that make you root for the character, but more importantly, she’s simply very funny.

When she goes to a college party and tries to fit in, the scene has all the makings of a terrible cliché, but yet McCarthy pulls it off and the audience is laughing. When she finds herself in a sexual relationship with a young college hunk, it’s ridiculous, but because of McCarthy, it’s also hilarious.

That’s one place where this film could have been much better, if it had simply been more believable. This lighthearted comedy is so unbelievable it’s nearly a fantasy, but it’s heart is in the right place, as is it’s funny bone.

And the comedy has to work on a good-natured level because the film is rated PG-13, not R, and so this isn’t a raunchy gross-out college comedy. It plays like a throwback to some of the classic comedies of yesteryear, the silly comedies of the 1960s which used to feature Doris Day. Think “Doris Day Goes Back to College” and you’ll have the right idea for how this one plays out.

McCarthy wrote the screenplay with her husband Ben Falcone, who also directed. This is their third film together, following TAMMY (2014) and THE BOSS (2016).

In spite of this one not being believable, it does get some things right.  It nails the relationship between Deanna and her daughter Maddie (Molly Gordon). Maddie is not too keen at first about her mother being on the same campus and hanging out with her friends, but it doesn’t take her long to change her mind and really go along with things. Their relationship is not cliché. They really do like each other, which is something you don’t see every day in a movie. And Molly Gordon is excellent as Maddie.

As is the rest of the cast. Maya Rudolph has a field day as Deanna’s best friend Christine, and she has some of the best laugh-out-loud moments in the movie. The mediation sequence is a keeper, as is the scene with Deanna and Christine on the racket ball court.

The actresses who play Maddie’s friends all stand out, especially Gillian Jacobs as Helen, known as “Coma Girl,” as she had awoken one day after spending several years in a coma.  Character actors Stephen Root and Jacki Weaver are hilarious as Deanna’s parents. And Chris Parnell is on hand as Deanna’s former classmate and now professor, who obviously has a thing for her.

The film also captures Deanna’s delight at being back in college again. It’s as if she has turned back the clock for herself.

LIFE OF THE PARTY certainly doesn’t rank with my favorite Melissa McCarthy movies. For example, THE HEAT (2013) with McCarthy and Sandra Bullock was a much funnier movie. But I’d heard this one was awful, and it really isn’t.

The best part of LIFE OF THE PARTY is it is indeed funny.  I laughed a lot. The audience of women I saw it with laughed even more.

I didn’t believe any of it for a second, but since the film avoided the pitfall of associating stupidity with humor, in that it retained a sincere mood throughout, even if its situations were often far-fetched and suited more for fantasy than for a comedy, it worked, making it that rare example of a movie that I can’t say I believed but I can say that I liked.

LIFE OF THE PARTY is lively, energetic, and fun. It truly is the life of the party.

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TULLY (2018) – Odd Telling of Motherhood Tale A Showcase for Charlize Theron

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Mackenzie Davis and Charlize Theron in TULLY (2018).

TULLY (2018) is an odd movie.

Sometimes I like the odd ones. Other times I don’t.  This one teetered right on the fulcrum for the most part, leaning ever so slightly towards the side of it-didn’t-really-work-for-me.

TULLY is a tale of motherhood, but that’s not what makes this one peculiar. The stress and toils of what it’s like to raise a newborn with two very active older children already in the house, and with an inattentive husband, that part the film gets right.  It’s the extension of that part, which leads to the arrival of the titular character, where the film struggles.

Marlo (Charlize Theron) is about to have a baby, and as one of the characters points out, she looks like she’s going to pop. She and her husband Drew (Ron Livingston) already have two children, an eight year-old girl Sarah (Lia Frankland) and a five year-old son Jonah (Asher Miles Fallica). Jonah has emotional issues, and while Marlo has taken him to see doctors, they haven’t received a proper diagnosis of his condition. Jonah is prone to fits of panic, crying, and he fixates on routine, which all certainly sounds like a branch of autism, but the disorder is never mentioned in the movie. Instead, Jonah is referred to as “quirky.”

Marlo is already under tremendous stress, mostly because all the parent duties fall on her. Drew works long hours, and when he comes home, they have dinner, and then he retreats to the bedroom where he plays video games. She has no idea how she is going to handle the additional burden of caring for a newborn.

Marlo’s brother Craig (Mark Duplass) suggests she hire a night nanny, someone who comes in at night and takes care of the baby so the mother can enjoy a full night’s sleep, or at least a better night’s sleep. The night nanny still wakes the mother up to breast feed, but that’s it. The mother is free to go right back to sleep afterwards. Craig even goes so far as to offer to pay for the night nanny as a birthday gift for Marlo, but she hesitates, not feeling comfortable inviting a stranger into her home to care for her baby while she’s sleeping.

But after a few rough weeks, Marlo changes her mind. Soon after, showing up at the front door one night like a magical Mary Poppins, is Tully (Mackenzie Davis), their new night nanny.  Tully explains that she’s also there to take care of Marlo as well as the baby. In fact, she says she can help out with everything around the house.

If this sounds like the set-up for a bad horror movie, you’re right. It does, but TULLY is not a horror movie. It’s a comedy-drama, with the emphasis on drama. At one point, Marlo and Drew even joke that the situation does sound like a horror movie, but they laugh it off.

Tully is a quirky character herself, always positive, almost seeming like an angel to Marlo. She is certainly there to help, and the way she helps and her relationship with Marlo is pretty much the story TULLY has to tell.

First off, the most amazing thing about TULLY is that Charlize Theron gained 50 pounds for this role! Talk about dedication! Marlo’s body is supposed to be in rough shape after the pregnancy, as she struggles to lose the additional weight, and Theron with the extra pounds she put on looks the part.

The extra weight also represents the heavy emotional burden Marlo faces each day, as you can just see her struggling to stay afloat in her life. It’s a very good performance by Theron, certainly more satisfying than her traditional turn as the killer agent in ATOMIC BLONDE (2017). That being said, I enjoyed her performance in MAD MAX: FURY ROAD (2015) better than her work here.

So, if you’re a fan of Charlize Theron, you definitely want to see this movie. It’s a chance to see her really act.

But the story I had some issues with.  TULLY is by the same team that made JUNO (2007), with Jason Reitman directing and Diablo Cody writing the screenplay. Tully is definitely an odd character, one who at times seems too good to be true, a la Mary Poppins, and since this isn’t a fantasy tale, obviously something has to give, and what that something is to be honest I saw coming very early on.

For starters, the film offers some clues. For example, Marlo has a recurring dream about a mermaid swimming in the water, and since mermaids are not real, the imagery is there for the audience to see clearly a character— the mermaid— who is not real.

Also, if you’ve seen a certain famous movie by M. Night Shyamalan, you won’t be fooled here. It’s obvious early on by the way certain scenes are set up that something isn’t quite right.

The other issue I had with the screenplay by Diablo Cody is the way it handles the young Jonah character.  The boy is certainly on the spectrum for autism or asperger syndrome, and yet no one in the movie acknowledges this. Even the administration and teachers at the school seem to be oblivious, only referring to Jonah as “quirky.” In this day and age, that didn’t seem realistic to me, nor was it credible that Marlo and Drew would have taken their son to multiple doctors without receiving a proper diagnosis.

It also didn’t help that Tully was supposed to be this savior character, but yet I found her persona grating and annoying.

Mackenzie Davis is fine as Tully, although admittedly I never warmed to the character. We recently saw Davis in BLADE RUNNER 2049 (2017), and I liked her better in that science fiction movie.

This isn’t the first time Ron Livingston has played an ineffective dad.  He got to perform the same honors in the scary horror flick THE CONJURING (2013) a few years back.  Here, as Drew, the video game playing father, Livingston is very good.  What he does best is make Drew more clueless than careless.  He does love his family and his wife, but it simply takes him an entire movie to realize he needs to get off his butt more to help out.

Which also brings me to another issue I had with this one, the ending.  It ends on a happy note, which one would expect from a movie marketed as a comedy/drama, but I’m not sure I bought all of it.  For instance, Drew supposedly sees the light at the end of the movie and realizes, “You know, I should be helping out more, shouldn’t I?” Duh! Through Livingston’s performance, I understood that Drew was a decent guy, but the script never sold me on the moment when he awakes from his self-absorbed stupor.

And as I said, the big twist in this one, I didn’t think was much of a twist because I saw it coming very early in the proceedings.

The movie wasn’t hyped all that much, and it showed, as I saw it with a small audience. There were only about ten of us in the theater.

TULLY is an odd one. It works best when it shows the incredible stress Marlo feels raising three children, including a developmentally challenged five year-old boy, and a newborn baby. It stumbles when it enters its metaphorical realm, with the entrance of the titular character Tully, the night nanny with all the answers.

There is certainly more to Tully than meets the eye, but sharp observers can figure out what that something is before it’s revealed. And once it is revealed, it begs the question, what’s the point? Is it all just one big wake-up call for Marlo and Drew? That seems to be the case.

I wish they had experienced this enlightenment earlier in the movie. The two of them working together trying to handle their challenging family situation sounds like a story I might like to see.

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THE DEATH OF STALIN (2018) – Brutal Dark Comedy Still Generates Laughter

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THE DEATH OF STALIN (2018), the most recent film by writer/director Armando Iannucci, is one of the darkest and painfully ugly black comedies I’ve seen in a long time.

And yet, like the audience I saw it with, I laughed out loud. Frequently.

In terms of its satirical tone, THE DEATH OF STALIN is reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick’s classic DR. STRANGELOVE OR: HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB (1964). Whereas STRANGELOVE made people laugh with a story about nuclear annihilation, THE DEATH OF STALIN takes the ruthlessness of Russian politics in the days following Stalin’s death and presents a story that somehow gets its audience to howl with laughter.

The story opens in Moscow in 1953, and we see a nation living in mortal fear of its leader, Joseph Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin). In fact, the people are so frightened, that when Stalin requests a recording of a concert held earlier that evening, and the petrified producers realize the concert was not recorded, they call everyone back into hall to play the concert again and this time record it. Since most of the patrons had left, they round up people off the street to fill in the empty seats.  To calm the people, the producer says, “Everything’s fine.  No one is going to be killed.”  But the conductor panics, slips, falls, and dies.

They send for another conductor, whisking him out of his apartment in the middle of the night, amidst the evening raids by Soviet troops to extract citizens and execute them. The conductor expects to be shot but instead is gleefully brought to the auditorium where he conducts the orchestra in his pajamas.

Such is life in Stalin’s Soviet Union.

When Stalin dies, his inner circle of ministers scramble to fill the power void, as folks like Lavrenti Beria (Simon Russell Beale), Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin) and Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi) jockey for position to become the next in power, which often means making sure they’re not next in line to be shot.

What they do, who they team up with, and how they try to outsmart one another makes up the remainder of the film, and of course, students of history know who ultimately prevailed in this power struggle.

THE DEATH OF STALIN is a sharply written and very well-acted dark comedy that had me laughing in spite of the lurid tale it tells.

One of the reasons it resonates so well is due in large part to current events.  Russia is in the news an awful lot lately, mostly because of the antics of its leader Vladimir Putin. THE DEATH OF STALIN provides an open look into the ruthlessness and brutal history of Russia. It also shows what life is like in a country where all the power is held by one man.  It’s not a pretty picture. Not in the least.

It also resonates here in the United States where the present administration is making great strides to operate outside the traditional political landscape, to the point where it’s almost celebrating the realm of dictators, leaders like Putin. THE DEATH OF STALIN shows why such leaders are simply not to be celebrated.

The biggest reason the movie works, however, is that the biting humor is on target throughout. The aforementioned concert sequence is hilarious, while later elements, the moving of Stalin’s body, for instance, are just as uproarious. The film highlights the ridiculousness of certain situations without ever become ridiculous. People don’t act silly here. They act dead serious, knowing that they could be shot at any moment. Position and power do not matter. No one is safe. In fact, so many people are shot in this movie, so casually, it almost becomes a running gag.

Steve Buscemi is perfect as Nikita Khrushchev.  His silly demeanor had disarmed his associates, Stalin included, but his meticulous note taking and serious thoughts on his country put him in prime position to become the next Soviet leader. Buscemi is hilarious in the role, which is seeped in seriousness,.

Simon Russell Beale delivers the best performance in the movie, as the icy cold Lavrenti Beria, the man who held secrets on nearly everyone. Beria was a notorious sexual predator, and his scenes here with young girls make him a rather despicable character.

Jeffrey Tambor makes for a satisfying Georgy Malenkov, the clueless leader who had no idea what he was doing. Michael Palin gives a restrained and understated performance as Molotov, who seems to be driven by fear throughout. And Jason Isaacs, recently of the TV series STAR TREK: DISCOVERY (2017-18) as Captain Lorca, and who also played the mysterious doctor in A CURE FOR WELLNESS (2016) is memorable as Field Marshall Zhukov.

Director Iannucci made the curious decision to have all the actors speak English without Russian accents. At first, I found this off-putting, as it seemed strange to be telling this deeply Russian tale with actors with British accents, but eventually this decision grew on me.  The British accents seemed to fit in more closely with the humor and served as a reminder that this tale though based on true events was being told with a comedic eye towards the absurd.

Iannucci wrote the screenplay with David Schneider, Ian Martin, and Peter Fellows, based on the comic book “The Death of Stalin” by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin. As I said, the storytelling was reminiscent of DR. STRANGELOVE. At times, it also reminded me somewhat of Ernst Lubitsch’s TO BE OR NOT TO BE (1942) although its story is much darker than Lubitsch’s World War II tale.

I enjoyed THE DEATH OF STALIN, and I don’t think I’ve ever laughed at material as dark and disturbing as this before, which is a testament to the writing, acting, and directing in this one.

It’s not for everyone’s tastes, and it’s certainly not a straightforward comedy, but THE DEATH OF STALIN has a lot to say about the dangers of absolute power and the ridiculousness of those who believe that such power is a good thing. And it says it all with a sense of humor that will make you squirm in your seat and laugh at the same time, which is not an easy thing to do.

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