File Under 2018 #103: The Nun

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What it’s about: Sister Irene is a nun-in-training who is commissioned to accompany a priest to an ancient Romanian castle that serves as an abbey. A young nun committed suicide by hanging outside of her window and the locals tell stories about other evil things that have happened there.. Sister Irene and Father Burke are tasked to determine whether the grounds are still holy or if this tragedy has brought unspeakable evil. They must spend a terrifying night inside the abbey, a night that will test their faiths and their sanity as they are tormented by an unholy spirit. With the other inhabitants of the abbey only able to hold off this evil through their prayer, Sister Irene and Father Burke decide more action is needed in order to keep this force from the outside world.

Unorganized thoughts:

  • The Nun is set up as an origin story for everyone’s favorite painting/demonic spirit from The Conjuring 2, but it really isn’t that. There are aspects that bring this story directly into the Conjuring-verse [mostly through a bookend narrative device] but The Nun is a pretty standalone horror experience — if you haven’t seen any of The Conjuring films, you won’t be missing out on too much … except that The Conjuring and The Conjuring 2 are much better than The Nun [you can put Annabelle: Creation in that pile, as well].

  • A test I have for the effectiveness of a horror film doesn’t come until I actually leave the theater — the best continue to leave me shaken, as if the movie is out into the world now. There is something about The Nun that prevented that. I’m not sure if it is the isolated far-away setting or how the film is wrapped up, but the film’s scares aren’t going to follow me outside of its 90 minute runtime.

  • Part of it is certainly that the title Nun isn’t all that scary herself. She has a creepy presence, certainly, and the character worked well enough in The Conjuring 2. She’s lacking here, though, when the entire focus of the film is on her. She stands around ominously, maybe screams every once in a while. That’s about it.

  • I also think that I might be getting too used to the Conjuring style of filmmaking, especially the floaty, intricate camerawork that was initially the prize of the series. In The Nun, whenever the camera began to swivel or swoop, I was too aware of what was coming. It is still impressive on a technical level, but it doesn’t inform the narrative or the scares as well as they used to.

  • A majority of the horror beats are more like a zombie film than a ghost story, which was unexpected.

  • Still, the decent scares come around in the film from trickery. This makes sense in the context of being haunted by a demon. When the film is at its best, the perfect way to describe it is devilish. The more elaborate setpieces were few and far between the usual “something’s behind you” scares, unfortunately.

  • That said, The Nun is missing a crucial aspect of any comedy. Frankly, I don’t recall much comedic relief in any films within the franchise, but The Conjuring films in particular had a lighter touch through the performances of Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson. It is particularly missing in The Nun, however. One character, Irene and Burke’s local guide Frenchie, is meant to fill this void as the 3rd act comic relief, but he falls completely flat, more hammy than anything else. Though the film certainly could have used more playfulness, this half attempt only made things worse.

  • Overall, the acting in the film is fine, but the casting of Taissa Farmiga as Sister Irene is more fascinating on the page than on the screen. She is, of course, Vera Farmiga’s younger sister and this is notable because of Vera’s role as Lorraine 20 years after the events of The Nun. Even more, the sisters share an undeniable likeness, which begs for speculation of a possible deeper connection between the two characters. Anti-spoiler: The Nun doesn’t go there. Someone who knows the series more than me could probably break down some clues that might suggest a tease for future films but it seems pretty unlikely that there is any other connection. It’s just kind of weird.

File Under 2018 #102: Christopher Robin

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What it’s about: Christopher Robin grew up near the magical Hundred Acre Wood where his menagerie of stuffed animals came alive. As Christopher grew older, life became bleaker with the death of his father, boarding school life, participation in a world war, and the hustle and bustle of London business. Now with a wife and daughter, Christopher works tirelessly to provide for his family, so much so that he has forgotten how to have any fun. A vacation back at his family’s cabin is ruined once again by work, so his family go without Christopher. But when a friend from the past, the honey-hungry bear Winnie the Pooh, makes an unexpected visit, Christopher is sucked back into his world of childhood imagination.

Unorganized thoughts:

  • The extent of my Winnie the Pooh knowledge goes as far as the last two big screen adaptations: The incredibly underrated 2011 animated film and the depressingly bleak A.A. Milne biopic Goodbye Christopher Robin. The tone and execution of those two films couldn’t possibly be any different. Christopher Robin falls in between these tones and the ways the narratives are told.

  • While it might not be as completely unapproachable as Goodbye Christopher Robin, Disney’s newest adaptation is strangely not much of a kids’ movie. Like its main character, it feels more targeted toward adults who cherished Pooh growing up, nostalgic for the time when they could be more carefree.

  • Stylistically, the film’s melancholy is portrayed with a washed-out color palette. It is overall much more gray than you’d expect for a kids’ film. Visually, it is kind of a bummer.

  • That said, the effects work to bring the toys to life works really seamlessly. Pooh and friends have a really nice tactile look. They are slightly worn looking, exactly like your favorite stuffed animals from when you were a child.

  • The best argument for why Christopher Robin is actually a kids’ film is its fantasy logic, which is so strange that it has to be difficult for an adult to look past. Usually a movie like Christopher Robin supposes that the main character is imagining his toys come-to-life as part of a low-key psychotic breakdown on the journey for lessons learned. In Christopher Robin, however, Pooh, Tigger, Piglet and the whole gang are actual living and breathing toys that can be seen or heard by any poor soul in their way.

  • This leads to some of the funnier moments of the film [especially a scene with a cameo by British oddball Matt Barry] but the implications of this can only be devastating for any bystander in the film who glimpses what is going on here.

  • There are even more strange fantastical elements that aren’t at all explained. For example, Hundred Acre Wood seems to exist in some sort of parallel dimension or portal world. Pooh basically has the ability to jump between dimensions. It’s wild.

  • Unfortunately, Christopher Robin falls into the easy, lazy narrative trap of an extremely didactic character arc pitting work against family. Christopher is such a terrible husband and father, his relationship with his family is the coldest, most strident, movie version of a 1950s style businessman. Of course, Christopher Robin sets him so low as a way to build him back up through fantastical redemption, but it is such a cliche.

  • Worse yet, the film completely wastes Hayley Atwell as the doting wife only in the film to shame her husband into spending more time and having more fun with her. It is such a blase role that is somehow still a thing when we all can see how blatantly terrible a character it is.

  • Christopher Robin does have some charms. The voice-work by Jim Cummings is iconic, Brad Garrett as Eeyore is the perfect shade of downtrodden. There are some zen-like philosophies that work with these characters. It is just too bad that Christopher Robin is so weird without really embracing how weird it is — it tires to pass as a kids’ film while actually trying to appeal to adults, leading to a shoddy narrative and some confusing elements.

  • Oh, and in case you were wondering, Christopher Robin is no Paddington 2.

#1 1982: An Officer and a Gentleman

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Let me take you back to September 10-16, 1982. During that week, Grace Kelly tragically died in a car crash, American ballet dancer Misty Copeland was born, Chris Evert and Jimmy Connors won the tennis U.S. Open, 36 inches of snow falls in Red Lodge, Montana, Pope John Paul II met with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, the first issue of USA Today was published, and An Officer and a Gentleman was the #1 movie in America.

Prior to this project, I’d never seen An Officer and a Gentleman and I didn’t quite know what to expect. It was certainly a big hit at the time and I think it has held up in the 1980s canon, but I’m not exactly sure if people remember it fondly or as something of a cliche. Opening with an instrumental version of “Up Where We Belong” isn’t a point in its favor -- the music may have won one of the film’s two Oscars, but it is painfully dated. I was definitely looking forward to seeing the other Oscar winner, Louis Gossett Jr.’s supporting performance, a performance I suspected isn’t talked about enough anymore [he is quite good, of course, though the role is smaller than I expected].

The film was not only the 3rd highest grosser of 1982, it was the tops R-rated, which is always going to be a disadvantage. This may have influenced a smaller theater count -- its peak of 1,050 screens was nearly 200 lower than any other film that finished in the top five; the next film to have that few screens [48HRS. at #7] grossed $50M less.

Another interesting fact about the film’s run to #1 is that it is another 1982 film to show up in the top 10 films that took the longest to reach the top spot [previously covered Absence of Malice and On Golden Pond took a longer route]. Obviously, the E.T. juggernaut is mostly to blame for An Officer and a Gentleman not hitting #1 until its 6th week of release. Spielberg’s family friendly sci-fi flick would actually have a nice battle with An Officer and a Gentleman over the next few weeks, reclaiming the #1 spot for three weeks before giving it back to An Officer and a Gentleman for an additional week.

The secret to the success of An Officer and a Gentleman may be that it has stereotypical appeal to both genders. It is both a romantic tearjerker and a military drama. He can come for the training scenes and male angst while she can sink into the undeniable attraction between Gere and Winger. Sure, this is a bit trite and reductive, but the film also works really well on both sides. This is a damn near perfect date night movie for adults. Zack Mayo fist-fighting Sgt. Foley and picking up [literally, in fact] Paula from her dead-end factory job within the span of 10 minutes is about all you need to know for the wild targeted emotional shifts in An Officer and a Gentleman.

File Under 2018 #101: Searching

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What it's about: David Kim is a single father whose 15-year-old daughter Margot unexpectedly goes missing after a late night study session. Margot seems to be the perfect daughter: she does well in school, loves playing the piano, spends time with her dad, and the extent of her bad behavior seems to be not taking out the trash. Distraught, David turns to her social media life to piece together the clues for how this could have happened and discovers that he didn't actually know Margot as well as he thought. As he realizes some disturbing truths about her through her online presence, David must race against time to find the reasons why she disappeared and if she can be saved.

Unorganized thoughts:

  • If you've heard of Aneesh Chaganty's debut film Searching it is probably because of its radical cinematic form, told almost entirely through a computer screen operation system. This isn't the first movie to be made this way -- it is something of an extension of the bulk of found footage movies that have come out the past decade and more directly similar to low budget horror film Unfriended and its 2018 sequel.

  • I haven't seen either of the Unfriended films, so this was my first look at the formal style that producer Timur Bekmambetov apparently wants to make a thing. To my surprise, what seemed like a awful gimmick is Searching's best attribute. The desktop style of the film is used cleverly, seamlessly integrates visual storytelling, and is more cinematic than I expected.

  • The look-and-feel of Searching reminds me of a classic point-and-click computer mystery game in the way the story progresses. But it was engaging enough to cede control over to movie characters.

  • Believe it or not, montages of David scrolling through social media profiles, creating spreadsheets, and collecting data are when Searching is the most captivating. This really speaks to the film's exceptional editing. In contrast from an emotional perspective, the film's opening montage which zooms through about a decade in the changes of our lives on computers and the specific journey of this family is probably where the film best balances its narrative and visual construction.

  • John Cho has an incredibly difficult task as the primary character of the film and he exceeds the challenges. As most of his interactions in the film take place over phone or FaceTime, it is quite obvious that he is doing a majority of his work without an acting partner. Others in the cast have a more difficult time with this, but Cho delivers a performance full of energy and broad scope of emotion. The successful design of Searching was enough for it to work as a film, but it certainly would have been a lot tougher to watch with a less compelling performance throughout.

  • Seeing how social media reacts to a tragedy is one of the more biting commentaries on technology. It is only a brief moment in the film, but Searching does a great job poking at the inherent hypocrisy and ignorance that divides our social and "real" lives.

  • OK, after the praise I have for Searching, now I need to get into what doesn't work about the film ... and there are significant problems that ultimately give the film a barely passing grade. As a crazed father searching for clues, Searching works. As a full on police investigation film, Searching is comically complicated and painfully rote.

  • The only way the film can ultimately bring everything together is for a character to literally explain everything in a confessional setting. The film is able to make a lot of its thriller connections out organically [at least palatably], so this was a great disappointment and absolutely ruins the ending.

  • One of the film's biggest problems, unfortunately, is the character of lead detective Vick and the performance by Debra Messing. As much energy as John Cho brings to the table, Messing is basically the complete opposite -- she's robotic, monotone in an narrative environment that already is inherently emotionally distant.

SPOILERS MAY FOLLOW

  • The final act, roughly 30 minutes, of the film piles on twists at a dizzying rate. It also brings forward a very interesting dilemma: when a film's twist reveals that what seemed like plot holes or bad narrative logic was perhaps purposeful, how should someone thinking through the film critically reconcile this?

  • As the film's investigation plot moved forward, there were many times when information was revealed in a shocking way that just didn't hold up to any critical thought. David makes discoveries that any thorough police investigation should have easily found.

  • At other times, there is information that David probably would have stumbled across if the film didn't need it to be held off for the climax -- messages between Margot and another character close to David is the biggest example of this.

  • But when everything is fully on the table at the end it is justifiable why certain characters acted in particular ways or why certain important information was ignored or not discovered. So what seemed like sloppy plotting is excused. This kind of reveal is tried-and-true in thrillers [the viewer forced to think back through the entire events to see everything in a new light], but in the case of Searching, I still would have appreciated a little more narrative discipline.

File Under 2018 #100: The Meg

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What it's about: Jonas Taylor is a deep-sea rescue diver with a troubled past. On a job involving a nuclear submarine, he made the tough choice to leave friends behind in order to save the lives of a majority of the ship's crew. Now spending his days drinking and bumming on a Thai beach, Jonas is approached by old colleagues for another job. Off the coast of China, a group of scientists working from a high-tech underwater research lab have made an incredible breakthrough, finding a new ecosystem beneath what was thought to be the ocean's floor. Their discovery has dangerous consequences, however, as they've broken the seal that kept a prehistoric monster, the Megalodon, out of our world.

Unorganized thoughts [Finally Getting Around to It Edition]

  • I saw The Meg about a week ago and wasn't really in much of a hurry to write out my thoughts on the internet. That isn't because I had some unconventional opinion but basically the opposite ... There isn't much interesting I can say about The Meg because it just isn't very interesting.

  • By the time I saw The Meg, the general consensus had already been established and so I didn't have very high expectations going in. If I didn't already know what to basically expect, The Meg probably would have been a bigger let down.

  • The elements are there: Jason Statham, giant shark ... do you need anything else? On that level, those things certainly exist in the movie, but The Meg doesn't really do anything interesting with them. Statham comes out unscathed, it certainly isn't his worst film or performance, but he never comes across like the kind of movie star he could be. As for the shark, The Meg does nothing creative in its design or menace. It is simply a bigger version of a thing.

  • The most surprising thing about The Meg is that it completely skirts any tongue-in-cheek vibe. This isn't a Jaws parody that one might expect and it also doesn't even have the tenacity or over-the-top nature of the Piranha series. It doesn't even seem to be trying to be a bigger, badder version of that shark film despite the premise almost literally being a bigger, badder version of that shark film. The film doesn't push the envelope in horror or action in any way whatsoever.

  • As a monster movie with a big ensemble cast, just about the easiest thing The Meg could have done was structure itself around a series of kills, shark related or otherwise. I suppose there are memorable death scenes in the film [Rain Wilson's billionaire, for example, is set up as a centerpiece death] but there are none that are particularly inventive. A half-dozen or so people getting chomped on, that's basically it.

  • Opening up the world to include other threats would have given a little more flavor, as well -- as can be seen in the marketing, a giant squid makes an appearance, which is pretty cool, and The Meg could have used more of that.

  • The weirdest sections of The Meg involve a put-upon romantic angle between Statham's Jonas and single-mother scientist Suyin, played by Chinese actress Li Bingbing. I'll give the film marks for shooting for a more well-rounded entertainment experience, but it completely falls flat. Statham isn't exactly a romantic lead and he doesn't have any chemistry with Li. Worse, it is played off as incredibly chaste, perhaps trying too hard to be a family friendly, international friendly film.

  • The Meg could have had potential but only in a version of the film that was clearly not the film that The Meg strives to be. In a strange way, that actually shifts any potential disappointment to a realization that The Meg just wasn't for me. Oh well.

#1 1982: Zapped!

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Let me take you back to September 3-9, 1982. During that week, singer-songwriter Andrew McMahon was born, Jerry Lewis raised more than $28MM at his annual telethon for muscular dystrophy, Paul McCartney released his solo album “Tug of War,” and Zapped! was the #1 movie in America.

Yep, the film that unseated E.T. after 12 consecutive weeks at #1 was Zapped!, a film I’m guessing you’ve never heard of -- and why would you have? In the mold of Porky’s, a film that may not be good but is certainly iconic, you’d think Zapped! was a complete rip-off if it wasn’t released only a few months later [I suppose maybe it was still possible given the production values of this thing]. The venerable Scott Baio stars as Barney Springboro, a high school nerd who after an accident in the school lab where he spends all his time, develops telekinetic powers. In 1980s comedy fashion, Barney uses the power to get back at the bullies and lift up the hot girls’ skirts.

Zapped! has a very weird tone. As an R-rated high school comedy, there is some rampant sexuality and drug humor. But the film also seems like it wants to be a Nutty Professor or Flubber style wholesome family science comedy. Part of this is the leading role, played by Scott Baio, who isn’t the crude Revenge of the Nerds hero but a sweet, good natured kid whose teenage impulses come naturally once he’s received this unlikely power. It takes about half the film until there is any nudity and there really isn’t much until the prom-set finale. Before then, the film spends its time with an extended baseball scene, a day at Six Flags, and a drug-induced dream involving Albert Einstein on a bicycle. There are bits that act as light parodies for Star Trek and The Exorcist. Nothing particularly risque. Certainly lame for someone looking for the next Porky’s.

Coming off television roles on Happy Days and Joanie Loves Chachi, this was Scott Baio’s big break into Hollywood and I don’t doubt that it was marketed as such. The film’s co-lead, Willie Aames had even more cache on the boob tube as a child actor on Swiss Family Robinson, Family, and Eight Is Enough. Both young actors were going for a re-imaging in something a bit bawdier. Zapped! wasn’t bad enough to kill either of their careers, but it didn’t make them instant movie stars, either. A few years later they would team up again for their biggest career venture, the long-running sitcom Charles in Charge.

Despite coming in at #1, Zapped! wasn’t particularly successful, which speaks to its obscurity. The $10MM it grossed in its fourth week accounted for 64% of its overall gross. Just as soon as it broke through at the box office, it completely evaporated from the cultural consciousness. The numbers are so strange that I honestly wonder if there is a database mistake or missing information over at Box Office Mojo. Then again, the quality of Zapped! clearly warrants a week of good returns followed by a movie-going audience who wasn’t going to be continually duped.

I’ll leave you with this: In his New York Times review, great film critic Vincent Canby called Zapped! “a half-baked, rather retarded parody of Carrie.” That basically says it all.

File Under 2018 #99: BlacKkKlansman

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What it's about: Ron Stallworth was the first black police officer to serve the community of Colorado Springs. He quickly rose from working in the records room to become an undercover detective, first assigned to monitor a Black Panther affiliated speech on the local college campus. On a whim while reading an article about the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan, Stallworth called up the organization and asked to join. Being a black man would obviously make infiltration impossible, so his partner Flip Zimmerman was brought in to be Stallworth for in-person meetings. The two cops worked together to monitor the actions of the Colorado Springs Klan, which lead to a bomb threat and a brush-up with Grand Wizard David Duke.

Unorganized thoughts [New Father Edition]:

  • Not surprisingly, BlacKkKlansman is a film that has a lot to say. Made by Spike Lee, it says it loudly and unpretentiously. It is a film that should be dissected for its philosophy on race, violence, cinema ... and, unfortunately, I just don't have the strength or mental capacity to tackle that challenge in my new status. There certainly are many things that struck me while watching BlacKkKlansman, though.

  • Start with the opening: Alec Baldwin, credited as Dr. Kennebrew Beauregard [who doesn't appear to be a real figure in this otherwise true-life story] stands in front of projected footage of The Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind and equally problematic images and delivers your typical white nationalist sermon about the superior and inferior races. It is a bold way to start the film, though certainly anyone seeming BlacKkKlansman knows what they are getting into. It just doesn't have the power these kinds of set-ups in Spike Lee films typically have. It might be the unmistakable presence of Baldwin or the performative aspect of the character's speech [he often breaks, is prompted lines from an unseen woman], it just doesn't work.

  • As the film's core story kicks in, however, it really moves. As a period cop drama BlacKkKlansman is incredibly entertaining, funny and original, full of vibrant characters and a thrilling plot.

  • The KKK crew are pretty clearly drawn with derision, a few of them are incredibly clownish. But as Flip mentions after his first dive into their world, they aren't exactly the backyard yokels he expected. Their ideologies are plastered throughout the movie and they are made to sound as ridiculous as they should -- but the group is also taken seriously as a real threat to society.

  • Like the best of Spike Lee's films, this works pretty well between the worlds of broad entertainment and a film with radical messages. Even as it zooms through a pretty broad undercover detective genre film, Lee never lets it go too far before reminding that this is his film. A lot of the Spike Lee joint markers are here: the use of documentary footage, direct address to the camera, the double dolly shot.

  • One of the most incredible sequences in the film cross-cuts between two speeches: one from David Duke and the other from an old black man [played by Harry Belafonte] speaking to a crowd, remembering friends who were beaten and killed for being black. Because they are both shown together in the same space and context, it creates a strange emotional push-and-pull.

  • Further proof that Adam Driver has quickly become one of the best character actors working today. He plays second fiddle to John David Washington [who is also excellent] but he brings so much depth to Flip Zimmerman and a great inner struggle that is completely unnecessary for the greater points of the film to work -- though it certainly works into the larger themes.

  • Greatly and obviously influenced by the blaxploitation films that were popular in the era, from the mainstream black hero to the 1970s fashions [the afro is a major part to the look of this film] and the grainy camera work. The characters even speak about the artform with Stallworth debating with an activist about the role and merits of films like Shaft and SuperFly -- though she doesn't believe a black cop can have any meaningful effect on the racist institution, she even gets wrapped up in cheering for Richard Roundtree's most iconic character.

  • BlacKkKlansman ends with a montage centered on the white supremacist marches at Charlottesville in 2017 and the response from Trump [and if you see the film you won't miss another particular dig at the current President]. It certainly isn't seamless and some may find it too didactic a way to bring this story together, but I couldn't help by see the power in the message. It is most reminiscent to the opening of Lee's Malcolm X [which we covered extensively in the previous form of this site], which used the footage of Rodney King to set up the story. Technically, there is more of a direct connection in BlacKkKlansman to the doc footage.

File Under 2018 #98: Crazy Rich Asians

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What it's about: Rachel Chu is the youngest faculty member at NYU, an economics professor, who has worked extremely hard from her humble beginnings raised by a Chinese immigrant single mother. Her hunky boyfriend, Nick Young, finally invites her to meet his family to attend a wedding in Singapore. What Rachel doesn't realize, though, is that Nick's family is among the wealthiest in Asia. While getting a taste of the extreme high life, she must navigate dozens of jealous women, survive his crazy family, and impress his highly critical mother. No matter her personal success, her American family upbringing will make it difficult to win over the demanding matriarch and become a permanent part of Nick's life.

Unorganized thoughts [No Notes Edition]:

  • After being a father for two weeks, my wife and I finally got the time to leave the baby with my mother-in-law, go get a nice dinner and see a movie. As I haven't been to the theater in a while, there were many options of what we could see, but we quickly decided on the crowd-pleasing Crazy Rich Asians. It proved to be a perfect date night film and stress-free choice.
  • I love how Crazy Rich Asians takes a very Hollywood production and American popular culture and tips it. The film is flawlessly recognizable as an American romantic comedy and all of their markers without white culture. The clearest and best version of this is the pop soundtrack of easily identifiable songs [many of which are perfectly fitting into a rom-com] but with Chinese vocals.

  • If you haven't watched the very funny sitcom Fresh Off the Boat, this is probably your first time seeing Constance Wu -- but if you have, you already knew how great she was. Wu's really shines in Crazy Rich Asians, she comes off as a movie star. The glitzy production helps with that [the clothes and settings quite literally sparkle] but her performance isn't lost in it. She's funny, charming, a more-than-capable romantic lead, and can balance being caught between an intelligent woman and a naive fish out of water.

  • The entire cast, fully made up of Asian and Asian-American actors, comes off as a star, truthfully. Michelle Yeoh is great as the silently tough villain, Ken Jeong is given the perfect amount of screentime for his over-the-top comedic style, and every small member of the crazy family gets a moment to shine. Awkwafina delivers her second great comedic sidekick performance of the year in what is becoming a big breakout -- what is perhaps best about her performance is that it comes from a character completely shoe-horned into the story to satisfy the rom-com best friend.

  • The cast works so well together because of the storytelling. Crazy Rich Asians sets up the huge ensemble early on, literally introducing them to the viewer as they are introduced to Rachel. Form there, as the plot becomes more streamlined with the wedding festivities, the characters intertwine throughout, popping onto the screen for just enough time to deliver a funny moment before. This creates a really full narrative experience with more beats than the pretty long 2-hour run time would naturally have.

  • Thematically, the most resonant plot is Rachel's identity as an immigrant -- this is definitely a different kind of immigrant story than we're used to at this point, but it is still instructive as one. Rachel, who immigrated to the United States with her mother when she was a young child, has to live between being an American and Chinese. Crazy Rich Asians doesn't spend time showing how Rachel doesn't quite fit as a "true American" but we already get that. More interesting, part of her difficulty overcoming the family matriarch's tough exterior is that growing up in America makes her an outsider to her culture. So, while Rachel looks Chinese, can speak the language, and has a direct connection to the culture, she is perceived to hold the same values. This is a deep and fascinating discussion about cultural divisions that Crazy Rich Asians truly doesn't need to be the entertainment it is, but it helps the film transcend into a more personal piece of filmmaking than the production would suggest.

File Under 2018 #97: The Bleeding Edge

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What it's about: The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is charged with the oversight of medical devices with an approval process involving scientific study. In comparison to the approval of food and drugs, however, the process of testing and approving medical devices is incredibly limited. From birth control instruments to hip replacements, putting foreign objects into bodies is a scary proposition that has become a medical norm. While there have been thousands of successful breakthroughs involving medical devices, horror stories are out there, too, problems that may have been avoided.

Unorganized thoughts [New Father Edition]:

  • The Bleeding Edge is as scary a body horror film as I've ever seen, a rare documentary that transcends its form. There are stories told that are so incredibly devastating that I had visceral reactions to them -- we're talking like colons falling out of bodies, sexual organs becoming lacerated during intercourse, terrible, horrible, nightmarish stuff.

  • It takes really exciting, innovative technology and lifts the veil, showing the dangers of scientific achievement without proper oversight.

  • It isn't unusual for a documentarian to become [for lack of a better term] pigeonholed by specific subject matter and with her previous two films, it seemed like maybe that could happen to Kirby Dick. The Hunting Ground and The Invisible War, both films about rape and sexual assault in two different areas of the world [college campuses and the military, respectively], are both extraordinary films. The Bleeding Edge is a turn into new territory, but what Dick shows is that he is one of the most empathetic documentary storytellers working today.

  • Even before getting to the painful personal stories, director Kirby Dick properly sets the stage by thoroughly describing the complicated procedural background that created a wild west environment. He has two major focuses: first, the grandfathering in of devices before a 1970s law set the approval procedures because reviewing every device already on the market would be far too costly; the second emphasis is on something called a 501(k), an exception for new medical devices to be approved if they can argue they are similar enough to a device that has already been approved -- this includes these grandfathered devices that haven't gone through rigorous scientific testing AND devices that are similar to devices that have been shown to be ineffective or dangerous.

  • The bulk of the documentary revolves around a permanent birth control device called Essure, a small metal instrument that closes the Fallopian tubes. After going through a short trial, the device was put on the market. In the coming years, many women began experiencing intense pain and chronic pain. In some women, the device broke or inadvertently entered the uterus. When devices were removed, more complications occurred. In many cases, the pain and complications led to hysterectomies in women as young as 30 years old. The Bleeding Edge follows a group of women that started a Facebook support group that bubbled into a large organization that have put the pressure on the manufacturers of Essure.

  • The documentary is thoroughly researched and presented through talking heads spanning from medical professionals, patients, in one case a medical professional who was also an implantee, former FDA representatives, medical researchers, and even medical device lobbyists.

  • While not explicitly doing so, The Bleeding Edge is a call for more scientific study in a political environment that is moving toward de-funding scientific oversight that will only make these problems more prevalent. Unfortunately, the onus is increasingly put on healthcare providers who aren't experts in studying the devices they are using and the healthcare recipients who implicitly trust their healthcare providers.

  • The Bleeding Edge is incredibly provocative for examining a field that most people would be in favor of -- who doesn't want science and technology to improve basic life? A similar spotlight has been put on pharmaceutical drugs for decades, exposing the corporate greed and bureaucratic issues. But there is something about the shiny new nature of science-based medical devices that has escaped the same widespread public criticisms.

  • The Bleeding Edge unravels in a way that seems pretty familiar as a public awareness documentary. But because of the specificity of its subject matter and especially the incredible stories told by its profiles, it is something essential.

File Under 2018 #96: Keep the Change

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What it's about: David is a New York bachelor from a wealthy family functionally living with autism. He enjoys dirty jokes, crawling through online dating profiles looking for a match, and living the good life. When one of his dirty jokes gets him into a bit of trouble with a police officer, he is mandated to spend time in a community center program for adults with autism. His "too cool for school" attitude immediately causes problems, his unwillingness to believe that he could benefit from social training creates strife with others in the community. Then he meets Sarah, a young woman with a completely opposite outlook on life. She's positive, curious about others, open to different experiences, and she naturally begins to chip away at David's pretentiousness. But just as David begins to fall for Sarah, his crudeness and self-consciousness rear up, putting their new relationship in jeopardy.

Unorganized thoughts [New Father Edition]:

  • Keep the Change is a unique romantic comedy in the shell of a very established New York set subset of the genre. Setting the story around a group of people with autism could have been a gimmick, but writer-director Rachel Israel uses the signifiers of the Woody Allen-esque NYC rom-com to ground the film. The characters, despite having autism, feel like they belong in this world. Keep the Change grows, then, from being a rom-com about characters with autism to just a rom-com about characters. It is a beautifully subtle shift.

  • What's more, Keep the Change establishes the sweet tone you might expect from the premise while never shying away from being incredibly dark in its humor and characters. This isn't a film with only the intentions of warming your heart. David is increasingly unlikeable without allowing him to be redeemed.

  • Samantha Elisofon as Sarah is the breakout star of the film. Her positive presence is absolutely infectious, a perfect counter-balance to the more cynical and darker protagonist. Even as Sarah is primarily shown through David's point-of-view, which can see her as annoying or too open, there is no doubt that she should be an influence on how David should see the world -- maybe not to her fullest extent, but at least in some aspects.

  • Keep the Change is also an assuredly adult romantic comedy. It is frank about sex and doubles down with how those without autism react [a similar reaction to what some viewers may have]. David's bad behavior toward women gets awkwardly uncomfortable on multiple occasions.

  • When David isn't in his own way, making things difficult on himself, Jessica Walter as his mother is the predominant villain of the piece. Is there a better actress to play an overbearing and unloving mother? She's not in Keep the Change much, but she is obviously well cast.

  • Keep the Change is wonderful way to address a well-worn genre. The story keeps the aspects of the genre that have made the genre great while introducing these tropes into a new community with a character perspective that isn't often seen in cinema, let alone the romantic comedy. In her feature debut, Rachel Israel shows that she understands narrative storytelling and with a unique voice to tell that story.

File Under 2018 #95: Mission: Impossible - Fallout

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What it's about: Ethan Hunt is a super spy, the lead agent of the shadowy government agency the Impossible Mission Force. He chooses to accept his next mission: secure three cores of radioactive plutonium on the black market, keeping it out of the hands of a terrorist organization The Apostles, who are working with a physicist who is known to have the ability of making nuclear weapons. Of course, it doesn't go down so well. Hunt is forced to team with C.I.A. enforcer August Walker to track down the plutonium in a complicated transaction that involves old friends, old enemies, and new dangers.

Unorganized thoughts:

  • The Mission: Impossible franchise has established itself as the summer blockbuster for people who actually care about the craft of filmmaking. As the tipping point for sequels and reboots has already been passed, Mission: Impossible has become the exception -- even The Avengers are affected the tiniest bit by superhero fatigue. Like many, I was incredibly excited for Mission: Impossible – Fallout. From a "I can't wait to see what happens" stance, it had no rival this summer.

  • And even with these crazy expectations, boy does it deliver. I wouldn't say that it is the best of the series but in some ways it feels like the most full, the best blend of drama, insane action, spy thriller elements, and character progression.

  • As it has become the bread-and-butter of the franchise, I'll start with the action. Mission: Impossible has put itself into a tough corner in creating a precedent of upping the stakes each time out. I still don't know if any setpiece can stand up to Ghost Protocol's amazing Burj Khalifa sequence, but there are no less than 4 beyond amazing action scenes all of an incredibly diverse nature. The bathroom fight scene is probably the best combat of the series, a ferocious and brutally draining scrap. The finale, a helicopter chase through the mountains of Kashmir, is certainly the headliner and unique in saving the best for last.

  • The added stakes of its billion dollar star Tom Cruise performing his own death-defying stunts in highly publicized and as potent as ever in Fallout. Even relatively mediocre sequences like the second act motorcycle chase through Paris become more exceptional because of the clarity of filming -- it makes damn sure you realize Cruise is really actually speeding through the streets. The helicopter chase doesn't need this extra layer of realism to be insane but it highlights the stakes in its shooting style. Action films have generally become more muddy and difficult to parse. If Mission: Impossible didn't have as capable and willing [crazy?] a star, the scope of its setpieces wouldn't have the same effect.

  • For its plot, Fallout is a movie in the art of misdirection. It's not surprise that there are always more layers to the plot than it is letting on. But Fallout knows you know that. To use a tired metaphor, the spy plot is a game of chess, except every piece on the board is working independently. At one point a character screams "Why did you have to make this so fucking complicated?" and some people in the audience are going to feel that, too.

  • Fallout is unquestionably at its best as a pure action film, though. There is enough intrigue to keep the film interesting and the characters are especially fun, but yeah, it is a mess if you think about it. The plutonium is a classic McGuffin but its place on the chess board is never really clear. The chase for the thing is less interesting than how the characters relate to each other at any given point.

  • Once all the particulars of the mission are finally and clearly on the table, the final act is somewhat freed to be just be a crazy big action scene. The film probably wouldn't work without the political intrigue -- they work hand-in-hand.

  • I want to like Henry Cavill more. He's definitely a presence -- the meme of him cocking his arms before engaging in fistacuffs is awesome for a reason. But his character lacks all plausible credibility because Cavill can't sell the more complicated aspects. The character turns aren't surprising but once they happen they aren't satisfying, either.

  • Wolf Blitzer showing up in a prominent role [granted in one of the more clever non-action scenes] is bad. I understand Fallout wants to blur the line of realism with the news presenter playing himself but blurring the line between real news and entertainment in this political era is messy and potentially harmful.

  • The finale's 15-minute countdown lasts for more like 20 minutes of screen time and it certainly would have taken much longer in real time -- when the action scenes come off so realistically, you have to find the nitpicks somewhere.

File Under 2018 #94: Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind

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What it's about: Robin Williams was one of the most beloved comedic actors of his generation. His career was full of ups and downs, personal highs and tragedies. From his early days as a unique stand-up comedian who relied on characters and energy more than punchlines through his breakout on TV's Mork and Mindy, his early struggles breaking into Hollywood and his success in childhood classics and dramatic work, his life is fully explored through his own words and with the help of the friends and family that knew the real Robin Williams the best.

Unorganized thoughts:

  • Marina Zenovich's Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind is a standard but solid biographical documentary of an artistic legend. If you love Robin Williams as many do, you'll greatly enjoy the wall-to-wall footage of him on stage, behind the scenes, and in the entertainments that you love. If you are indifferent to or largely unfamiliar with Robin Williams, you'll learn a bit about him and understand why so many love him.

  • Though the lows are fully explored, Come Inside My Mind's goal isn't to challenge or shake up anyone's perception of him. This is a fully loving, intimate journey through his personality.

  • Even before the title flashes on screen there is footage from all the following sources: Inside the Actor's Studio, an appearance on David Letterman, stand-up from what appears to be a different late night talk show, Awakenings, and Whose Line Is It Anyway?. The breadth of his appearances on television and in films really drives home just how ubiquitous he was. And that's ignoring all the headlining credits one would first mention.

  • About 13 minutes into Come Inside My Mind and the only voice-over is from Robin Williams from archival footage or interviews he conducted later in his life. It is actually a little disappointing when it shifts to a college friend talking about Robin. Obviously, others' perspectives are so important to building the picture of his life but I began hoping that the film tried for that extra degree of narrative difficulty.

  • Robin's first wife is a major talking head contributor throughout the film, especially in the period where the main narrative was how many drugs he was doing and how many women he was sleeping with. Interestingly, she doesn't have a bad thing to say about him, even during this period. In a way, that's basically the tone of Come Inside My Mind.

  • Even when we see Williams in an angry or sad rant, [playfully] antagonizing his co-workers, talking about serious issues, it is always delivered with a positive energy.

  • Come Inside My Mind is made up of more out-takes than actual footage from his work. We've all seen the films and television he's done so the off-the-cut bits improvising as Genie or using colorful language as Mork is much more interesting. It is these moments that capture Robin's personality and what the film wants to celebrate.

  • There is more time spent on his Critics' Choice loss for One Hour Photo [in a three-man field where Daniel Day-Lewis and Jack Nicholson tied for the win] than anything involving the Academy Award he won. Watching Williams being brought on the stage by Nicholson and going on a vulgar impersonation of his victor is again more indicative of what Come Inside My Mind chooses to explore.

  • This marks the second time this year [unofficial count] where Koko the gorilla meets an entertainment icon. Big year for Koko.

File Under 2018 #93: A Ciambra

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What it's about: Pio is young boy that lives in the eclectic Romani community in Calabria, southern Italy. His family makes a living from small time crime, stealing cars and electronics and selling them to African immigrants. Pio idolizes his older brother, constantly following him around and desperately wants be part of the family business. He gets the chance when his father and brother are arrested, but no matter how much Pio thinks he is an adult, the criminal life proves to be difficult. And when his brother returns, Pio decides he needs to step up his contributions, putting himself in greater danger.

Unorganized thoughts:

  • Given the Italian community and young protagonist, A Ciambra is clearly inspired by the Italian neo-realism films of the 50s and 60s. And there are some notable similarities: the compression between youth and adult drama, lower class struggles with money and the morality of crime, a cast of amateur actors playing out of their real-life environment. A Ciambra's style, however, is completely modern: handheld camera, bleak tone, complicated politics from a global perspective.

  • The most appealing aspect of the film is how it depicts the stratification of society. The Romani people [colloquially, and slightly problematic, known as "Gypsies"] aren't typically the focus of a film and A Ciambra does well at showcasing some aspects of their culture -- of course, setting them in a criminal context may be a bit stereotypical.

  • The social structure of the family is shown through the status of Pio's grandmother, who serves as the head of the family even if she doesn't contribute economically. She is a strong center and her relationship with Pio is a mix of caring and controlling.

  • Pio's family are clearly below the Italian citizens on the social ladder. They are often targeted by the police -- in one scene Pio's grandmother pleads why the police always show up to their house first when they are looking for someone to arrest. And still, they are clearly above the large African immigrant community in the area. Around dinner, the Romani family talks about the Africans in typical racist ways, that they are dirty and ugly and criminals.

  • Because of his age and social status, Pio is able to easily travel between the social strata, making him a good guide to this diverse community. At times, A Ciambra has to overcome him being just a cipher to make the narrative more seamless, though Pio is probably more comfortable within the immigrant community, which treats him more like an adult than his own family.

  • This is an interesting take on the boy stepping up to provide for his family narrative in that it is wholly Pio's desire -- it might be a necessary risk, but his major conflict is his family rather than the police or other social structures.

  • A Ciambra is a stealthy sequel to director Jonas Carpignano's previous film Mediterranea, connected by Koudous Seihon's character Ayiva. In Mediterranea, Ayiva is the major focus in a story about the difficult transition from Africa to Italy. In A Ciambra, he is an ancillary character, something of a mentor to Pio as the boy lives within the immigrant community.

  • Though A Ciambra is a sprawling drama and look at a vibrant community, it pales in comparison to the striking Mediterranea, a story with much more heart and genuine human interest. Especially considering the global political climate, Mediterranea simply has more to say.

  • Pio isn't as distinct or compelling a central character as Ayiva, even as the latter's appearance spices up A Ciambra. The coming-of-age narrative is well handled, but his story has far fewer dramatic stakes.

  • On its own, A Ciambra is a solid film from a rising director with a unique perspective. It is at its best when it is world building, exploring a community that the filmmaker clearly cares about more than society, and his warts-and-all narrative has a docu-style realism. Otherwise, as a traditional story it goes on for too long -- the more winding elements of A Ciambra will be what I end up remembering.

File Under 2018 #92: Ocean's 8

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What it's about: Debbie Ocean is a professional con artist newly released from a five year prison sentence. Her time behind bars gave her plenty of quiet time to hatch a perfect heist following her release and the opportunity to get a little revenge from the thin-skinned partner whose testimony put her away. Ocean puts together a team of eight strong and skilled individuals, including her long-time crime partners Lou and Tammy, diamond expert Amita, hacker Nine Ball, street hustler Constance, and fashion designer Rose Weil. Their mission won't be easy: it only involves infiltrating one of the most highly publicized fashion events of the year and steal a necklace so expensive it is typically locked away in its own vault in broad daylight.

Unorganized thoughts:

  • First of all, can we figure out what the title of this movie is? It is listed as Ocean's Eight on the Internet Movie Database [which I usually take as the "truth"] and Ocean's 8 everywhere else. While Ocean's 8 is sleeker looking, it goes against the Ocean's films that came before, which never used numerals. OK, this is silly to argue about.

  • No matter what it is called, Ocean's 8 is meticulously designed to be as entertaining as possible. At times, it feels more like generalized pop culture than a movie. The constant music, flashy editing style, breakneck straight-forward heist plot, and endless cameos [I'll get back to that] are half irresistible-half cringe inducing. With this style, it can't help but come with a moderately fun, charming, uninspired, solid result.

  • Some might say the same about the original Ocean's trilogy [OK, not the original, but the ones that Ocean's 8 takes it cues from], but I actually wouldn't know -- they are complete blindspots for me. From that perspective, jumping into Oean's 8 is mostly pretty easy. Characters and prior events are referenced, actually do a pretty annoying degree early on, but the main plot stands alone.

  • The cast of characters is Ocean's 8 biggest strength and it really strikes the movie star quality well. Sandra Bullock is great in the title role -- no necessary build needed to believe she's got this under control. Her right-hard Cate Blanchett is typical Cate Blanchett, perhaps even more impressive in that her character is much less defined [I'm not even sure why she's there]. Anne Hathaway is perfect casting for the Hollywood A-list stand-in who is a bit of a rube. Helena Bonham-Carter is extremely funny as a washed up designer in a little over her head.

  • I don't know the last movie I saw that had this much product placement. Some of it is manageable, maybe necessary concessions of the film's overall narrative. Others instances, however, are grossly distracting. Was an entire transnational scene at a Subway necessary? [The camera placed behind the counter during the order, no less]. In another scene a garage is inexplicably filled with giant boxes with prominently placed corporate logos [GE, iRobot, Keurig all from the top of my head].

  • This gets into the wonky nature of the pop culture world on prominent display. The heist sequence is set around the First Monday in May gala at the Metropolitan Museum. It comes off mostly without being an advertisement for the event, though prominent fashion figures like Anna Wintour and Andrew Bolton are seen around. It is perhaps a necessary trade off to giving the film some realism. If brands like Cartier and Dior were replaced with made up knock-off sounding names, it could have been more of a distraction in the end.

  • The last half of the film, a majority of it taking place at the Met, offers plenty more opportunities for cameos and stars. Hey look, there is Kim Kardashian inconspicuously walking behind Debbie! Oh, Heidi Klum is going to make a silly comment about Debbie's fabulous dress? Now Olivia Munn is complaining about a delay in the festivities. Serena Williams talks about being a mom. There are more. Given crowd responses at random times throughout the movie, there were many that I didn't place. Some are awkward, some are fun.

  • Since Ocean's 8 was grounded in this world, why didn't they take the opportunity to have Anne Hathaway play Anne Hathaway instead of Anne Hathaway stand-in Daphne Kluger? There are all of these meta moments throughout the film that it could have been a cool way to bring this self-referential attitude into the actual narrative. And I'm sure Hathaway would have been game, too. Given that this was the first thing my wife said to me when we left the theater, I'm guessing this isn't a unique point which makes it feel even more like a missed opportunity.

  • Another pop culture superstar that isn't in Ocean's 8 but becomes something of a specter over the whole movie is George Clooney. Again, having not seen Ocean's Eleven, Twelve, or Thirteen I don't know anything about Danny Ocean or how he ended up. Ocean's 8 really wants to make sure that he isn't forgotten, basically opening and closing with an in memoriam as if Clooney himself died and so couldn't be in the movie.

File Under 2018 #91: The Devil and Father Amorth

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What it's about: Father Gabriele Amorth served as the official exorcist of The Vatican for over 30 years. On May 1, 2016, he granted legendary filmmaker William Friedkin a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity of attending and filming the live exorcism of an Italian architect who believes she has been possessed by a satanic force. Friedkin uses his footage to dive into issues of faith, psychology, neurology, evil, and the Catholic Church's exorcism ritual through interviews with leading scientists, members of the Church, those who have experienced exorcisms first-hand, and Father Amorth.

Unorganized thoughts:

  • There probably shouldn't be another filmmaker given this extremely rare opportunity to make this film than William Friedkin. Obviously, The Exorcist remains the cultural touchstone for demonic possessions, in a lot of ways shaping the way we think exorcisms work. Father Amorth himself told Friedkin that The Exorcist was his favorite film and that despite the special effects being a little over-the-top, it went a long way to explain what he did for his life's work.

  • All that being said, The Devil and Father Amorth is a big disappointment. My expectations were probably too high but why shouldn't I expect incredible out of this?

  • The film opens with Friedkin standing in front of the camera, pointing at different locations that were important to the story that inspired William Peter Blatty's novel. Almost immediately I realized that this was a shoe-string budget documentary that wouldn't be out of place on A&E. Given the serious nature of the documentary, with a tone that should be straight out of The Exorcist, this is particularly strange.

  • Even with an almost corny set-up, The Devil and Father Amorth's saving grace should be the centerpiece footage from the real exorcism. This sequence, which lasts about 15 minutes all in one take, is definitely the most captivating part of the film and yet it still disappoints. Maybe there is too much bias in what to expect, taught over the years by The Exorcist and the dozens of copies. In this case, the process plays out dramatically differently.

  • The most immediate striking thing is realizing that the exorcism takes place in a small office-like room, well lit, during the day, and completely packed with onlookers [mostly family of the possessed]. The room recites scripture and Father Amorth speaks to Christina, most of which isn't subtitled. Christina pleads and shrieks in a voice that does have a creepy and strange quality. Overall, though, the footage is meant to be anthropological, not shot like a horror movie scene, so it doesn't have that effect at all.

  • After the footage is shot, much of the second half of the movie consists of Friedkin speaking with scientists and theologians about the footage and the idea of exorcism more broadly. The scientists, including top neurosurgeons from UCLA and the Tel Aviv Medical Center, are all game, they deal with Friedkin's pointed questions with a mix of scientific integrity, wonder, and side-stepping.

  • A discussion with a group of Columbia University psychiatrists is a bit more fruitful, as the field actually looks at demonic possession as something of a "real" phenomenon -- basically, if the patient believes they are being possessed, they treat it with seriousness and care. They even believe that the ritual of an exorcism can even have a positive effect in these cases.

  • The potential problem, however, is that The Devil and Father Amorth doesn't do anything to make me trust what I'm seeing during Christina's exorcism is "real." Friedkin is an able provocateur, but none of his compelling questions find any answers.

  • The finale recalls an interview between Friedkin and Christina which was unfortunately not filmed. Friedkin met with the woman in an old city on a mountaintop outside of Rome and he recounts the bizarre story of Christina writing around and violently threatening -- something more akin to an exorcism movie than what we previous witnessed. It just feels like a lot opportunity.

  • Or perhaps this is more of Friedkin's provocation. If this is all an embellishment, like the fictionalized story seen in The Exorcist, he got it right the first time.

  • In an interview with The Ringer, Friedkin spoke about his long talks with Father Amorth on his own religious beliefs and questions and also provided a bit more insight into Amorth's strange and controversial life. Unfortunately, none of this is in The Devil and Father Amorth. This points to how a broader biography of Amorth set around the exorcism and scientific explanations could have been a little more fulfilling.

File Under 2018 #90: Eighth Grade

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What it's about: Kayla Day is a rather ordinary 8th grade student in the 21st Century. She's shy and quiet around her peers but she opens up about herself on social media, video blogging self-help advice for kids just like her. While her social skills may be lacking with the "cool kids" in her grade, she has more emotional maturity than those around her. With only a few weeks left in school before making the scary transition into high school, Kayla begins to realize that her best years are ahead -- how could they be any worse? But that doesn't mean it isn't going to be tough growing up.

Unorganized thoughts:

  • We've reached a point in the summer where the theaters are stacked with wonderful things to see. The blockbuster season may have peaked early [I think Mission: Impossible is the only big summer flick I'm looking forward to the rest of the season] but the last few weeks have become the time to release the early-year festival hits. And none of them have had as much praise so far than Bo Burnham's Eighth Grade.

  • It is a little strange watching this directly after Sorry to Bother You, because despite the Sundance acclaim, they couldn't really be any different. Eighth Grade is far more conventional as a coming-of-age dramatic comedy that has a pretty standard episodic structure. But somehow it doesn't feel rote or staged or overplayed. That's a pretty big achievement.

  • Eighth Grade works because of its specificity. The world it takes place in is one that we all can imagine -- primarily, kids spending all of their time on their phones, in social and digital media. But this world still feels vibrant in the vlogs and the endless scrolling through Instagram and Twitter. It could be a hyper-real world or a boring slog of watching screens on a screen but it is undoubtedly cinematic.

  • But the real thrust of the film is Kayla and the performance from Elsie Fisher [who, interestingly, is probably best known as the "it's so fluffy" daughter in the first two Despicable Me films]. In a pivotal scene toward the end of the film, Kayla's father remarks that people constantly tell him that he has such a lovely daughter. The word "lovely" is basically perfect for Kayla and Elsie's performance and a lot of Eighth Grade in whole.

  • Personally, I'm somewhere in the middle of this movie. I'm well older than Kayla at this point, I would have been in 8th grade about 20 years ago, but I'm also on the verge of becoming a father for the first time. Probably not a coincidence, I'm close enough in age to director Bo Burnham [I'm 6 years older]. I remember these formative years being so drastically different than how they are now, though technology still being a natural part of my life. On the other hand, it's beautiful to see what is exactly the same [the awkwardness, the self-doubt, the social stratification] and how technology and social media have had an impact.

  • On the other end, I was able to connect with the father-daughter relationship extremely well, even though I'm pretty far from these moments. Josh Hamilton's performance is really nice, playing up the dorky dad bits while always coming off as someone who cares. By the end of the film, it is important that the story acknowledges how good of a job he's done being a single father while also relaying that Elsie became a good person on her own.

  • There is an active shooter drill scene that is portrayed in a totally banal way. There is a little humor added to the situation which makes it even scarier in some ways.

  • The way the film presents the boy who Kayla has a crush on is one of its best running gags. You can see why she finds Aiden attractive but he is such a boy. He's scrawny, has the blankest possible perpetual dumb look on his face, has absolutely no personality. The Kayla-gaze shots are a fun reversal on how this usually plays out in a boy-centric film.

  • For as much as I've presented Eighth Grade as a nice, lovely film, let it be known that it gets increasingly dark. As Kayla begins to put herself out there more, especially after getting a high school mentor, the world opens up a bit too much too quickly. One particular scene that takes place in the back seat of a car is almost too tense for the film around it, but you have to appreciate the film not shying away.

  • After some of the darker or emotionally wrenching scenes at the start of the third act, Eighth Grade does something brilliant in having perhaps the most outwardly comical and charming scene of the entire film follow up. On its road to leaving on a high note, a first friends' date over Chicken McNuggets is a step back into a less experienced world where Kayla can be herself. And Gabe is just the kind of goofy suitor that brings out the best in her.

File Under 2018 #89: Sorry to Bother You

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What it's about: Cassius Green is down on his luck, living in his uncle's garage, looking for whatever kind of work he can get. When he scores a telemarketer job, he becomes intensely motivated toward the allure of becoming a "power caller," an elite and secretive society made of the best of the best. With this drive, Cassius has to make moral sacrifices which hurt his relationship with his activist artist girlfriend and his co-workers who are starting a groundswell to unionize. Once Cassius is invited to become a power caller, he quickly dives into a world of vast success and questionable morals. His new position gets him entwined into a conspiracy involving a mega-corporation, new age slave labor, and something ungodly bizarre.

Unorganized thoughts:

  • Sorry to Bother You is one of those films that are built up through word-of-mouth as being something completely insane and unique ... and actually delivers on that. I'd genuinely suggest knowing as little as possible coming into the film, because if I told you where Sorry to Bother You ends up, you shouldn't believe me.

  • The film actually does a pretty good job through its marketing to keep its extended plot a secret, greatly benefiting from the high concept of its first half being strange and strong enough. The "use your white voice" conceit is incredibly funny throughout the film, with an insanely talented voice cast including David Cross, Patton Oswalt, Rosario Dawson, and Forest Whitaker.

  • As Sorry to Bother You gets crazier, it doesn't spiral out of control because the tone actually shifts more seriously. The final third of the film could have easily become goofy, but the cast sells it perfectly -- Lakeith Stanfield's complete shock and awe and Armie Hammer, as the beloved head of the mega-corporation/cult, approaches the most bizarre aspects of the narrative pragmatically.

  • And it isn't just the big moments that are memorable -- there are so many weird small things that don't really do anything to further the story that are just as fun and interesting. Cash's mentor as a power caller, for example, having any mention of his name bleeped out is a totally unnecessary touch but is simply funny.

  • The film that I'm reminded of the most is Terry Gilliam's Brazil -- which is one of my favorite movies of all time. I'm not sure if that was a direct influence on directly Boots Riley, but the films share a bureaucratic setting, a weird streak, overwhelming style, a few particular plot turns, and some sneaky social messages.

  • I'd need to watch Sorry to Bother You again to fully take in these social messages and not be overwhelmed in the style and narrative. The film has some poignant moments on cultural appropriation, human rights, fighting power. One of the strangest and most palpable sequences of this is when Cash is told to rap in front of a group of white people -- the hook he eventually comes up with is a vague but literal statement that becomes a tidy metaphor for how society claims black art and thought.

  • The only mild criticism that I can mount against Sorry to Bother You is that, aside from a few scenes like this, the film might be a bit too scattered and broad to know if any of the specific social messages would really stick. In whole, though, the film is a force. Again, though, I am sure I would pick up on more within the narrative when I watch the film again.

  • When I first saw Lakeith Stanfield in a small but important role in Short Term 12, I knew he was someone to watch. I had no idea he'd become as polished and as diversified an actor only a few years later [of course, seeing him in another co-starring role in Atlanta showed he had the chops for this film]. 

  • The rest of the ensemble is just as strong as the leading man. Tessa Thompson continues to build her filmography with strong and fierce women. I've already mentioned Hammer, who has a tough role as a charismatic villain who doesn't think of himself as the villain. Terry Crews, Kate Berlant, Steven Yeun, Jermaine Fowler, Michael Sommers, and Robert Longstreet all provide color to the diverse and fun cast.

  • Debuting writer-director Boots Riley really has something. He puts an undeniable stamp on the film, there is no doubt that Sorry to Bother You was made with someone who has flair, a minority point-of-view, and something to say. I expect him only to get better as a visual storyteller, too. If he wants to continue to make films, Riley could become one of the preeminent black filmmakers in a growing group working today.

File Under 2018 #88: Sweet Country

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What it's about: Sam Kelly is an indigenous Australian who works as a farmhand for a tolerant man, overseeing his land and house. Harry March, the new owner of a neighboring farm, comes to ask Sam's employer to loan his staff for a little extra work that needs to be done. March is a cruel and lustful man who mistreats Sam and his family before telling them to leave. March then turns to another land owner to use his working men, including a young boy named Philomac, who March chains up outside overnight. When Philomac escapes, a drunken March violently confronts Sam looking for the boy. In self-defense, Sam kills March and goes on the run with his wife through the unforgiving Australian wilderness.

Unorganized thoughts:

  • Sweet Country gets its title from a line of dialogue, spoken by the sergeant tasked with finding Sam in the wilderness. The journey across northern Australia is certainly beautiful [director Warwick Thornton primarily works as a cinematographer and it shows], but the environment is far from sweet -- certainly, there is a bit of irony in his statement.

  • This is an untame, unrelenting world. Both nature and men are cruel. From the perspective of a racial minority, this is only amplified. The opening scenes before Sweet Country becomes a search film are increasingly difficult to watch. I don't know if the film ever reaches a moment of grace as counterbalance, but it thankfully doesn't keep up its early pace.

  • Sweet Country is made like a classic American Western. There are shades from The Searchers to Deadwood in the characters, the community, and the vast desert. This story could have been made in 1940s Hollywood, though probably letting up on some of the violent tones.

  • With this classic genre framework, archetypal characters and plot, the film adds its purely Australian specificity. Indigenous Australians don't often get their stories told on screen and I've certainly never seen one in this context. While the American Western isn't without stories on the racial divide between white and black men, Sweet Country is a unique take on a culture losing their identity in service of another.

  • The film dives deeply into issues of race, masculinity, justice, family, sexual assault, and how they all intertwine. In the form of a Western, these themes are explored in a world that is drastically changing -- Sweet Country ends with a character directly questioning whether this world has a chance to survive, and certainly it doesn't.

  • While Sam is the film's prominent character, the film takes significant time exploring others. Perhaps the most interesting is Philomac, the young boy who essentially instigates the events leading to Harry March's death. Philomac is in an interesting position socially as the son of his white employer and an unknown black mother. He represents the dying culture of the indigenous culture as well as the violence from their white masters.

  • One intriguing stylistic flourish which brings the film out of the classic Western style are a few brutal quick flash forwards to what looks like the aftermath of a horrible massacre. At times, a character will be introduced and then a quick cut of that character covered in blood will be shown. I'm not sure if the technique is entirely successful or if it pays off particularly well, but the images stick. They keep the violent and dower tone in mind when things seem to be heading in a more positive direction.

  • The final third of the film shifts into the trial of Sam for the murder of Harry March and it is a surprising turn. After seeing the black characters consistently being treated as subhuman, the finale is taken seriously. There is no indication that once Sam is caught he wouldn't be immediately shot, let alone be given what seems like a fair and balanced trial. It is also a clear way for the various subplots to come together, for characters to directly reckon with their actions and the actions taken upon them.

  • I'm all-in on late-stage grisled Sam Neill character actor. He isn't a large part of Sweet Country, but his characters is incredibly important. As Sam's employer, he offers the film a bit of humor while being one of the only white characters with any redeeming qualities. He definitely has some fun in that role.

File Under 2018 #87: Skyscraper

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What it's about: Will Sawyer is a former FBI agent who is hired as a security assessor for the world's tallest building, a Hong Kong structure that will soon open its doors to residents. With his family the first guests to stay in the swanky building, they are soon caught up in a terrorist plot to retrieve something valuable locked inside. As one of the only people who know how the building's security measures work, Will has to risk his own life to save his family, breaking into the towering inferno to get them out alive. Not only is he in danger from the elements and the well armored men inside, but also by the Chinese officials who think he might have something to do with the plot.

Unorganized thoughts:

  • Skyscraper already has been granted the mantle of big dumb fun for its insane [and mindless] action. It's true: a lot that goes on in the blockbuster is ridiculous. And dumb. I'll admit that I, too, had a good time with Skyscraper, but don't think this is on any shortlist of Hollywood entertainments.

  • Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson stars and again puts in a solid performance. Sadly, though, Skyscraper doesn't give him a lot of fun riffing to do, just tasking him to be a generic action hero. It is a little surprising given director Rawson Marshall Thurber used The Rock as well as anyone in their first collaboration, Central Intelligence.

  • The "fun" of Skyscraper is limited to the crazy huge action sequences [jumping off a super-crane into a burning building is the centerpiece one found all over the film's marketing, but there are others to match]. There are surprisingly few laugh lines. Again, with Thurber and The Rock involved, it is surprising.

  • What is Will Sawyer's job exactly? It seems like he is just brought in as a consultant to give the final go-ahead that the building is safe, but he sure is granted a lot of access. It would be acceptable that he was the head of security, but there is another character who is called that. He's basically in a magical position to set the plot in motion without any actual defined role.

  • Neve Campbell plays Will's wife Sarah and is one of the bright spots of the film. Skyscraper revolves around Will doing whatever it takes to save Sarah and his two adorable kids, but Sarah is no damsel in distress. She's smart, skilled [a Naval doctor], willing to take risks, and can beat up Noah Taylor when she has to. It is a nice way to give a traditional character type a little more agency -- Sarah is involved in nearly as much action as Will.

  • Skyscraper's McGuffin, like Will's job description, is completely and laughably incomprehensible. When the film actually takes the time to explain the doodad that the baddies are trying to obtain actually is, it becomes even worse.

  • Given the film takes place primarily in one location, it does well to make the titular skyscraper pretty cool. The highlight is the top of the structure, called "The Pearl," the most expensive looking observation deck/VR experience ever created. The amount of tech shown off almost makes Skyscraper a sci-fi flick.

  • On paper, the ending is a creative twist on the house of mirrors chase scene. Unfortunately, the design of the room is too hi-tech, giving it a completely green screened look. It is still a fine sequence in its construction, but it looks too fake to completely work.

  • Aside from The Rock and Campbell, there is an impressive supporting cast. Chin Han plays the billionaire proprietor and continues to make a nice career out of being a random Chinese businessman in big Hollywood blockbusters [I'll always think of him in The Dark Knight, though]. Matt O'Leary, who was great in Brick and Natural Selection, plays a short-lived hacker with the most hacker-ish costuming ever. The aforementioned Noah Taylor is great as a sniveling insurance man.

  • If you told me that half of the production budget was paid for by the duct tape lobby, I wouldn't be surprised. In some ways, it is true hero of Skyscraper.

File Under 2018 #86: Leave No Trace

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What it's about: Tom is a young girl who lives with her father Will deep in the woods of a public park outside of Portland, Oregon. They keep their lives simple, only going into the city when they need to, and they don't stay in one place for long. When Tom is spotting by a jogger, their lives are turned upside down. They are forced into society, given a place to stay in exchange for Will's work on a tree farm. Possibly for the first time in her life, Tom has a place in a community with other people her age. But will her father be able to handle following society's rules or will his instinct to run affect his daughter once again?

Unorganized thoughts:

  • Where films fit in with the year tends to change over the course of the year but at this moment Debra Granik's Leave No Trace is my favorite film of 2018 so far. It is glorious, devastating drama that is also strangely life affirming. The long-awaited narrative follow-up to Granik's Winter's BoneLeave No Trace shares a similar environment and stakes, but is a much richer and diverse emotional experience.

  • The film didn't immediately strike me as a coming-of-age drama, though it technically fits in the genre, with Tom's journey of coming into society. Tom is at an interesting age given her strange circumstances. She's starting to become an independent person, able to question her father and find her own interests. She is still completely loyal and trusting in his decisions, but that is starting to change.

  • Thomasin McKenzie's performance probably won't be on my end-of-year lists but she is quite good and is able to stand across from the venerable character actor Ben Foster. Their chemistry is great, especially in non-verbal moments.

  • Even without an incredible amount of plot, there isn't much explicit backstory given to the characters -- it is all there, though nothing you learn about Tom or Will comes out unnaturally. Really, how they came to this situation isn't as important as spending time with them and seeing where they are going.

  • When Will decides to leave the farm house there is a mix of emotions. In a way, it is heartbreaking because they could have led a good life there and Tom clearly was interested in the socialization. But, of course, Will's pain and perspective is completely understood.

  • It is an interesting plot turn that it is only when they actively decide to leave a more comfortable life when things begin to fall apart.

  • The natural response from everyone they meet is that they are running from something or are in some kind of trouble. It would probably be easier to understand, a more digestible story. It probably would have been easier for the film to make that the case, as well. It could offer some inherent stakes or character motivates, even making the film more like a thriller. Leave No Trace doesn't need it though to be compelling.

  • In a very strange way, Leave No Trace is really life affirming. It returns constantly to the idea of kindness of strangers, even toward a man who can't trust others. There are no villains in Leave No Trace despite a slew of potential ones -- no one takes advantage of their struggle, attempts to break them apart. Honestly, there is hard to think of anyone in their situation being treated so fairly.

  • Toward the end of the film there is a pretty clear metaphor of a bee colony that could have soured the emotional complexity. It works, however, because Tom understands the metaphor and can use it to help her father understand the world a little better, too.

  • Some potential spoilers on the ending ahead. The ending moments are really challenging on an emotional and character level. I don't know if the characters make the right moral decisions and I don't know how much I can judge them. It is such a pivotal developmental moment for Tom, one of the first times she makes a completely independent decision and so there is something beautiful about it. It could have been a tragic ending and in some ways it is. Tom and Will are no doubt better together. It isn't "happily ever after." But it makes so much sense within the context of their story.

  • I desperately want Granik and Kelly Reichardt to collaborate, maybe make a film with two parts that connect in some thematic or narrative way. They have clear common interests of struggle and nature and they draw their characters so beautiful. While Leave No Trace seems very similar to films like Wendy and Lucy and Old Joy, they aren't the same filmmaker. I think Reichardt works more in the effect of a harsh nature on people where Granik focuses a bit more on how people work with each other in a harsh nature. It would be fascinating to see their approaches coming together. But I'm also cool if they both just continue to make more of their beautiful films.