A SIMPLE FAVOR (2018) – Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively Lift Uneven Comedy Thriller

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Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively in A SIMPLE FAVOR (2018)

The combination of comedy and thriller is a complicated dance.

A SIMPLE FAVOR (2018), the new film by director Paul Feig, known mostly for his comedies, with films such as BRIDESMAIDS (2011), THE HEAT (2013), and SPY (2015), makes an energetic attempt to master this nuanced tango, but with a few missteps along the way, especially towards its latter half, it’s not exactly a polished polka.

The best part of A SIMPLE FAVOR, and honestly the main reason I wanted to see this one, is its casting of Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively, as two very different moms whose lives intersect in a way that at first suggests an unexpected friendship but gradually reveals the hatching of a sinister plot.

Kendrick and Lively are both excellent, and they are the main reasons to see A SIMPLE FAVOR. What stopped me from really liking this one was its story, filled with more twists and turns than an Agatha Christie novel, and as such, far less believable.

A SIMPLE FAVOR opens with Stephanie (Anna Kendrick) hosting her vlog, which is usually a platform for helpful tips for moms, but this time she’s discussing the disappearance of her best friend Emily (Blake Lively) who five days earlier had asked Stephanie to do her a simple favor and pick up her son from school because she had to work late, but then Emily never showed up, and no one has seen her since.

Stephanie decides to bring her viewers up to speed and tell the whole story leading up to Emily’s disappearance, and thus the film flashes back to how the two friends first met. Stephanie is an incredibly energetic single mom who volunteers nonstop for her son Miles’ first grade class. When Miles wants to have a play date with his friend Nicky, Nicky’s mom Emily (Blake Lively) at first says no, that she doesn’t have time, but eventually changes her mind and invites Stephanie and Miles over to her luxurious home.

They live in a small town in Connecticut, and Emily works for a high-profile designer in New York City, and her lifestyle is completely opposite from Stephanie’s. But the two strike a friendship which at first seems odd but happens because the one thing they both have in common is that neither one really has any friends.

When Emily disappears, Stephanie joins forces with Emily’s author husband Sean (Henry Golding) to find out what happened to her. And what quickly becomes apparent is that this is not an ordinary missing person’s case. With that in mind, I’ll stop right there because the less known about the plot the better.

That being said, the story as a whole even with all its twists and turns, didn’t really work for me. For starters, there are just so many curves thrown to keep the audience off-balance that after a while it simply becomes too farfetched. By the end of the movie, I found myself believing very little of it.

And this is where the thriller/comedy combo comes into play. Had this been a straight comedy, then I most likely wouldn’t have cared as much if the story wasn’t all that believable. But A SIMPLE PLAN in spite of frequent comedic outbursts retains a serious tone throughout, and when a thriller isn’t believable, that’s problematic.

The screenplay by Jessica Sharzer, based on the novel by Darcey Bell, mixes things up from the outset. In her opening vlog Stephnie announces that Emily is missing, a serious beginning, but in the ensuing flashback Stephanie is shown in highly comedic scenes. It’s an odd mix. The overall look of the film is light and bubbly, yet the dialogue and the plot is most often somber. At one point Emily says the best thing she can do for her son is “blow her brains out,” to which she quickly follows with an “I’m kidding.” The entire film plays like this, and to be honest, as it went along, I had a difficult time determining what was supposed to be taken seriously and what wasn’t. The plot certainly goes down some dark roads as it involves fraud and murder.

And it’s not a comedy which just happens to feature murder a la some of the classics of yesteryear like FOUL PLAY (1978) and MURDER BY DEATH (1976). It’s much more a thriller with some quirky characters and brief comedic moments.

Both Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively are excellent, even if they are playing characters who by film’s end I didn’t find very believable. Which is another problem I had with the movie. Most of the characters didn’t seem credible, and so you have this rather serious plot inhabited by characters who were difficult to take seriously.  It just didn’t quite work for me.

I like Anna Kendrick a lot, and her performance was my favorite part of this uneven movie. At first, as Stephanie, she seems to be this supermom, but when she starts loosening up and confiding with Emily, she has some secrets of her own to share. And later, when her relationship with Emily’s husband Sean changes, it opens up the door for some questions about her character and motives. Kendrick does a nice job capturing the nuances of the character, even if the script ultimately lets her down.

Blake Lively is equally as good as the complex Emily Nelson. She’s the complete opposite of Stephanie. She’s the trend-setting go-getting career woman with little or no time for her son, but yet she and Stephanie do become friends. Stephanie is attracted to Emily’s fierce no-apology take-everything-you-can philosophy of life which is so opposite of her own self-sacrificing personality. Lively has a field day as the no-nonsense power mom, whose shadowy past is revealed once Stephanie starts looking into her disappearance.

Henry Golding rounds out the triumvirate as Emily’s husband Sean. Fresh off his starring role as eligible bachelor Nick Young in CRAZY RICH ASIANS (2018) Golding is married this time around but still brings his attractive good looks to dress up the proceedings. Golding makes for a confused husband. At times he’s completely mesmerized and dominated by Emily, and at others he seems genuinely in love with her and sincere in his efforts to find her.

But when his relationship with Stephanie develops, it raises questions that ultimately I’m not sure the film does the best job answering.

When all is said and done, and all the twists and turns have come to a halt and the dust has settled, the result is a plot that is pretty darn ludicrous. I bought very little of it. And one of the main twists in the film is one I’ve seen done many times before.

But it might not matter. I saw A SIMPLE FAVOR in a crowded theater, and there was lots of genuine laughter from the crowd.

Some dark comedies work. In fact I love most dark comedies. But A SIMPLE FAVOR is less a dark comedy and more a comedic thriller, with the emphasis on crime and mystery, but it’s a crime and a mystery that I just didn’t believe.

I ultimately found  A SIMPLE FAVOR to be a disappointment, even with solid performances by Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively. Kendrick and Lively are very good, but the story they occupy is too far-fetched not to have been played completely for laughs.

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CRAZY RICH ASIANS (2018) – Romantic Comedy More Interested in Wealth Than Asian Culture

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The “crazy” in CRAZY RICH ASIANS (2018) refers to just how “crazy rich” the main character’s family is in this movie. Aside from that, there’s not much “crazy” in this well-meaning romantic comedy which has more to say about wealth than Chinese traditions or falling in love.

But that doesn’t mean it’s not an enjoyable comedic love story.

It is.

It’s just— unless you’re planning to marry royalty— not all that relevant.

In CRAZY RICH ASIANS, Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) is a young economics professor at NYU, and she’s involved in a happy relationship with the handsome and easygoing Nick Young (Henry Golding). When he invites her to Singapore to meet his family at his best friend’s wedding, she happily accepts, and since she knows little about his family, she assumes they are very poor since Nick rarely talks about them. Boy, is she wrong.

It turns out, that not only is Nick’s family wealthy, they’re crazy wealthy!  As in near royalty! As in Nick being the most eligible bachelor in all of Southeast Asia!

At first, this poses little or no problems, because for Rachel, it’s almost as if she has entered a fairy tale realm of princes and princesses. But this euphoria is short-lived, as it becomes increasingly clear that Nick’s family, especially his mother Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh) does not see Rachel as the right fit for Nick. In Eleanor’s case, she sees her son as taking over the family business, something he will not be able to do properly if he marries “beneath his status.”

And thus the battle lines are drawn, as Rachel decides to fight for the man she some day hopes to marry, but can she stand up to the impossible wealth wielded by Eleanor and her dynasty?

This may sound serious, and this part of the story is, but on the whole CRAZY RICH ASIANS is light and fun, with a heavy emphasis on romance.  The film definitely plays more like a fanciful love story than a straight out comedy.

The most impressive thing about CRAZY RICH ASIANS is its all Asian cast, which for a Western-produced film is something that hasn’t happened since THE JOY LUCK CLUB (1993). Let’s hope it’s not twenty-five more years before it happens again.

CRAZY RICH ASIANS reminded me of another recent romantic comedy, THE BIG SICK (2017). That film was a love story between a Pakistan-born man and an American woman, and it both highlighted and poked fun at the differences between cultures. That story worked better than the one told here in CRAZY RICH ASIANS, as Rachel doesn’t face cultural differences— as in the difference between a Chinese American and a Chinese—as much as she faces monetary differences, and in this regard, the story simply doesn’t resonate as well. Understanding the very rich is less engrossing than understanding another culture.

The screenplay by Peter Chiarelli and Adele Lim, based on the novel Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan, works for the most part. The comedy is light and amiable, and the romance irresistible. It’s difficult not to get swept up in the opulence of the Singapore settings. And the two leads are certainly likable.

Constance Wu delivers a strong performance as Rachel, the young woman who at first goes along with the revelation about her boyfriend’s rich family until she finds herself on the receiving end of ugly words and innuendos. She remains likable throughout, so much so you’re almost wishing she’d just up and leave this annoying family behind her.

Henry Golding is sufficiently handsome as the dashing Nick Young, and he makes for a sincere and honorable boyfriend who believes he can shield Rachel from his family.

One of the better performances in the movie belongs to Michelle Yeoh as Nick’s powerful mother Eleanor. She has a way of being both dignified and icy cold, and as such, gets some of the best dramatic scenes in the movie.

Likewise, Gemma Chan is excellent as Nick’s sister Astrid, who Nick describes as having the biggest heart in the family.  Chan’s supporting storyline, about problems in her own marriage, is as interesting as the main plot.

In terms of comedy, Awkwafina delivers a scene-stealing performance as Peik Lin Goh, Rachel’s college roommate who lives in Singapore with her family.  She gets some of the best comedic scenes and lines in the movie. I enjoyed Awkwafina a lot here, more so than her recent role in OCEAN’S 8 (2018).

And Ken Jeong shows up as Peik Lin’s father, and he of course has some comedic bits as well, although they’re not quite on the same level as Awkwafina’s.

Nico Santos is also memorable as Oliver, a flamboyant member of Nick’s family who, unlike Nick’s mother, is always there for Nick and Rachel.

Director Jon M. Chu fills this one with eye-popping rich parties and weddings, and he takes full advantage of Singapore and its surrounding islands. The film is beautiful to look at, full of both beautiful locales and people. There are also plenty of mouth-watering foods. Don’t see this one on an empty stomach!

For the most part, the pacing is good, although the film is long, clocking in at two hours, and towards the end things do slow down a little bit. Chu previously directed the lowly G.I. JOE: RETALIATION (2013) and NOW YOU SEE ME 2 (2016). Needless to say, CRAZY RICH ASIANS is his best film yet.

I enjoyed CRAZY RICH ASIANS. It was fun to immerse myself in Asian culture and be part of the crazy rich wedding. I also liked Rachel and Nick and were rooting for them to be together, and better yet, I laughed a lot at the lighter parts of this movie.

That being said, it didn’t completely resonate with me because the incredible wealth of Nick’s family played more like a romantic fantasy than a true life story. It also just didn’t interest me all that much. Plus, I reached the point in the story where I felt Rachel would be better off without Nick and his family, which is I’m sure not what the writers had in mind. As such, the ending of the film didn’t completely work for me, as I could easily have imagined better fates for Rachel.

If you’re a fan of romantic comedies, especially those which emphasize romance over comedy, you’re sure to enjoy CRAZY RICH ASIANS. The film pushes all the right buttons with its rich boy meets poor girl storyline, with the possible exception of its ending, as it may have overplayed its mean rich family hand. But if you like stories about the girl going after her handsome prince, this is the movie for you.

For the rest of us, it’s an amiable tale, helped by gorgeous locales and a very talented cast.

CRAZY RICH ASIANS is lighthearted entertainment.  I enjoyed watching it, even though its “crazy rich” lifestyle is far less interesting to me than the other parts of Singapore culture I wish the film had explored.

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BLACKKKLANSMAN (2018) – Effective Essay on Race Relations in the U.S.

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Adam Driver and John David Washington in Spike Lee’s BLACKKKLANSMAN (2018).

Believe it or not, BLACKKKLANSMAN (2018), Spike Lee’s latest movie which tells the tale of a black Colorado cop who infiltrated the KKK in the 1970s, is based on a true story, chronicled in the memoir Black Klansman by Ron Stallworth in 2014.

But Lee’s BLACKKKLANSMAN is less a bio pic of Ron Stallworth and more an essay about race, and that’s what ultimately makes this all-too-often-over-the-top tale a success. From its opening shot from GONE WITH THE WIND (1939) to its closing news footage of the horrifying events in Charlottesville, Virginia, the film is structured as a treatise on race relations in the United States, and sadly shows that rather than progressing to a better place, we’ve largely stayed the same, or worse, as judging from the emboldened unmasked faces of the white supremacists marching in Charlottesville, we may have gone backwards.

It’s 1972, and Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) becomes the first black police officer in Colorado Springs. His dream is to become an undercover detective, and he sets out to do just that as he phones the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan and pretends to be a racist white American male. When he’s invited to join the KKK, he arranges for a white officer Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) to play him, and the ruse is on.

Together, and with the full support of their superiors, Ron and Flip infiltrate the KKK’s inner circle and move to take down its more prominent members. Their investigation even leads them to the KKK’s grand master, David Duke (Topher Grace).

This in a nutshell is the plot of BLACKKKLANSMAN, but as I said, what’s more important and impressive about this movie is what it has to say about race relations. On that note, there’s a lot to digest.

BLACKKKLANSMAN makes the case that we haven’t gotten anywhere with race relations, that we’ve actually gone backwards. At the height of Ron’s and Flip’s success, late in the movie, they are informed that their unit is being disbanded due to budget cuts, the symbolic meaning being that here was a moment in time when racism was being driven back, and we took our foot off the pedal and allowed it to return unchecked to the point where it is now, as chronicled in the film’s final few minutes with the footage from Charlottesville.

Early on, there’s a speech by a former Black Panther member to a college crowd where he speaks about his childhood love of Tarzan and how he used to root for Tarzan to beat the black Natives, until he realized those Natives were him. This, along with the footage from GONE WITH THE WIND, speaks to how ingrained racism has been in our culture, even in our movies.

Later, in one of the best sequences of the movie, the film jumps back and forth between two events. A speech by Jerome Turner (Harry Belafonte) who recounts in explicit and painful detail his eyewitness account of a brutal lynching of a black boy, watched by a crowd of white onlookers behaving as if they were at a sporting event, is intercut with David Duke and other KKK members watching THE BIRTH OF A NATION (1915). This is the closest the film comes to making its audience weep at the horrors of race relations in our country.

One of the things that doesn’t work in BLACKKKLANSMAN is Spike Lee’s lack of subtlety. Too often his in-your-face style backfires with the unintended result of giving credence to the opposite side. Some of the KKK members, for example, seem like walking clichés for what racist people should be like. The same with some of the police officers. The white racist officer, for example, seems to have walked off the set of last year’s THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI (2017) as if he’s Sam Rockwell’s Officer Dixon’s long-lost cousin, but with far less realistic results.

The screenplay by Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott, and Spike Lee, based on the memoir Black Klansman by Ron Stallworth, gets an A for its race relations content but scores far less when it comes to its characterizations and plot points. The characters struggle to remain real and the story doesn’t hit all the right notes. There are times when it feels like an awkward “special” episode of Norman Lear’s ALL IN THE FAMILY (1971-79).

On the other hand, one thing Spike Lee does well is take advantage of our knowledge and feelings of present day issues.  There are several uncomfortable scenes of police brutality, for example, in this story which takes place in 1972, but by and large they pale in comparison to real events which have happened in the here and now, again showing how things are worse here in 2018.

John David Washington, the son of Denzel Washington, is solid as Ron Stallworth, but strangely the character isn’t developed as thoroughly as he should be. We know that he always wanted to be a cop, and that he likewise wanted to fight for his people, but we know this because he says this.  We don’t really see or experience his passion or his pain.

Adam Driver fares better than Washington, and his Flip Zimmerman character is actually better developed than Ron Stallworth. Zimmerman is a Jew who at first doesn’t mind hearing all the KKK’s insults, but later in another of the movie’s better scenes, he tells Ron that the reason he didn’t mind the slurs is that although he is Jewish he wasn’t raised Jewish, and so his heritage meant nothing to him. He just saw himself as an average white American, but after hearing all the KKK members’ derogatory remarks, he says now for the first time in his life he can’t stop thinking about his heritage.

He also has a key scene where he responds to Ron’s question of why he doesn’t do anything about the racist cop in their midst, as he tells Ron that although the cop in question is a bad cop, they won’t do anything about it because they are a family and they must look after their own, to which Ron says “that sounds like another group I know about.”

Two of the better performances belong to the supporting players. I loved Laura Harrier as Patrice Dumars, the college student who leads the black movement on campus and who Ron falls for. Harrier possesses a strength and energy that oddly is missing from both Washington’s and Driver’s characters. The movie picks up in intensity every time she’s on-screen. Harrier was similarly successful in SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING (2017).

And Topher Grace is excellent as David Duke. His matter of fact businesslike style showing how Duke tried to intellectualize the KKK and make it mainstream, doing everything in his power to make it more acceptable, is unlike the rest of the movie, subtle and chilling. And when we see the real David Duke in 2017 footage, you can see how well Grace nailed the role.

Some of BLACKKKLANSMAN works. Some of it doesn’t. For example, the conversation where it’s explained that the role of the KKK in the 1970s was to legitimize racism to the point where it’s accepted in U.S. politics in the hope that one day someone with similar views is elected U.S. President, works on the one hand because here in 2018 that appears to be the case, but on the other hand seems too convenient and trite, the perfect ammunition for those arguing the opposite point that such talk is “fake news.”

That being said, I liked BLACKKKLANSMAN a lot, but I didn’t love it. What it has to say about race is absolutely required viewing. We still have a race relations problem in the United States and right now it’s not even close to getting better. But in terms of how it tells its story, I liked it less so.  Its characters struggled to draw me in, its story often seemed too blatant, as if Lee’s emotions about this topic were so strong he couldn’t see to it to tell it through a more nuanced lens, and its comedy rarely struck a chord and drew nary a chuckle.

Strangely, I was more emotionally moved regarding race by Marvel’s BLACK PANTHER (2018) earlier this year.

However, I may be in the minority. The film received a hearty round of applause from its full audience as the end credits rolled.

I do agree, however, that it’s Lee’s best film in years. It’s been a while since I’ve seen a Spike Lee movie that I’ve really liked. You probably have to go all the way back to MALCOLM X (1992).

The strength of BLACKKKLANSMAN is not in its storytelling but in its unabashed openness to look at issues of race. As such, it makes for a highly successful and effective essay on the history of race relations in the United States.

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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.

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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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tag

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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Oceans-8

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.