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.

File Under 2018 #85: Borg vs McEnroe

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What it's about: Björn Borg was the #1 tennis player in the world and was gunning for his 5th consecutive Wimbledon championship. Borg was a model sportsman, cool and calm under pressure, never showing any emotion that his opponent could use against him. During the 1980 Wimbledon, a new challenger emerged: a brash and loud athlete by the name of John McEnroe. They may have seemed like completely opposite men and athletes, but Borg could understand McEnroe better than anyone as a troubled and emotional teen. And Borg's serene facade was supported superstitions and routines, with his toughest challenger testing whether he could hold it together. Their rivalry would go on to define the sport over the 1980s, but their first meeting in the Wimbledon finals was legendary.

Unorganized thoughts:

  • I don't know why but I expected Borg vs McEnroe to be a comedic romp. The time period, the personalities at the center, films like Battle of the Sexes and 7 Days in Hell recently showing off the funny side of the sport. As soon as I heard the somber music playing over the Blu-ray menu, however, it was clear this was a serious drama.

  • Despite the casting of Shia LaBeouf as John McEnroe, this is predominantly Björn Borg's film. Their storylines are told concurrently, but the Swede's backstory is fully flushed out. Made by a Danish filmmaker, Janus Metz, this isn't entirely a surprise.

  • For as dramatic a tone, though, I'm not sure Borg vs McEnroe really justifies it. The childhood flashbacks don't really offer that much drama -- we see Borg getting tough training away from his family, on a mission to become the best in the world, while McEnroe was something of a wunderkind. As adults, they are serious men but I don't know if the film really captures them with any complexity.

  • In one cool touch, Björn Borg's own son plays the tennis star as a teenager.

  • McEnroe's antics don't come off with any humor, which is wild because you can't help but laugh at highlights of McEnroe storming around a court, cursing out unprepared officials. He's shown as a desperately sad and angry man who wants people to focus on his tennis game rather than his behavior. It doesn't at all champion him, however, which giving it a comedic tone would inevitably do.

  • Borg vs McEnroe is structured around their runs through the 1980 Wimbledon tournament with flashbacks to the competitors' youths and their lives away from the court. There isn't much tennis until the third act. I'd almost classify it as a dramatic biopic set around sports than a sports movie in itself.

  • I usually find tennis to be a pretty cinematic sport even if it isn't the most TV-friendly live. Editing is vitally important during a tennis match and the action can be displayed in many ways. In Borg vs McEnroe, a traditional camera frame from one end of the court is used with closer quick cuts of the action. Overall, it works fine, but can be a little incomprehensible at times. Like an action scene, it is often better to see the full action as much as possible. The use of overhead shots are the most cinematic and creative, the small touch of the worn grass adds is a nice visual.

  • Given the ultra-high stakes, the film doesn't effectively build much of a narrative over the course of the match. It is a nice recreation but any specific moment of the match isn't easy to feel within the presentation. There seem to be twists and turns but not necessarily a story.

  • At one pivotal point, commentators and spectators remark how much tension there is and how they can't bear to watch. During real-life sports, the emotional investments lets this happen and, arguably, cinematic presentation can enhance this. Borg vs McEnroe tries to convey this by slowing down and getting inside the heads of the athletes -- it even cross-cuts in images from the flashbacks to give a "it all led to here" feel. Overall, though, the action of the match was still a little too choppy to fully build the scene.

  • Borg vs McEnroe smartly defies expectations in its tone and gives a proper stage to the sport by the end. There is a lot to appreciate in the film, though I don't think it can quite reach the level of an epic character study that it wants to be.

File Under 2018 #84: Ant-Man and the Wasp

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What it's about: Scott Lang is under house arrest for breaking the Sokovia Accords following his involvement in a certain superhero civil war. Unable to contact his former associates Dr. Hank Pym and his daughter Hope, he spends his days hanging out with his daughter, playing drums, and spending too much time in the bathroom. But Hank and Hope must recruit Scott once again to use his connection to the subatomic quantum realm, in hopes of finding Hank's wife who has been stuck there for the past 30 years. A figure from Hank's past, however, has her own reasons to find Janet Van Dyne and a strange power to challenge Ant-Man and The Wasp.

Unorganized thoughts:

  • It didn't make sense to me to release Ant-Man and the Wasp after the monumental Avengers: Infinity War. The scale-changing events in the finale of Infinity War made it seemingly hard to go back to a silly little superhero story involving a character who wasn't even in Marvel's biggest blockbuster yet. Who would care anymore? Turns out, Ant-Man and the Wasp is a perfect palette cleanser.

  • I haven't revisited Peyton Reed's Ant-Man since seeing it in theaters -- I didn't feel any impulse to do so. I remember enjoying it as a small, quippy, disposable, mid-tier Marvel film. Honestly, the two things I remember most are the train-set action sequence and Michael Peña's amazing Drunk History-style storytelling scene [we get another one here, thankfully, and it is awesome and adequately points out some of Ant-Man's biggest character flaws].

  • The film's sequel steps up the action, comedy, and character beats while keeping its identity as a relatively small-scale and personal superhero story. Ant-Man and the Wasp is thoroughly enjoyable. It's not without flaws, but the inevitable managed expectations really serve the film well.

  • It might be a smaller story, but the film is full of constant special effects that are executed really well. The shrinking/expanding works seamlessly within the action scenes and the villain's phasing power is perfectly realized. After Infinity War, it is also nice to see these effects consistently interacting in the real world instead of open fields and CGI-created landscapes.

  • The film also uses the full scope of Ant-Man's powers: shrinking, growing, even more mind-controlling of insects which I understand is a major part of his comic book powers. I would have expected this to be pretty hokey, but it works well within the film.

  • The main plot involves a lot of confusing and stupid science mumbo jumbo but it keeps itself bound nicely in relatable emotion. And it is able to poke fun at the obvious ridiculousness -- at one point, Scott asks if the scientists around him just put the word "quantum" in front of everything.

  • Hope Van Dyne [Evangeline Lilly] is thankfully given much more to do, not just in the most important emotional narrative but as a kick-ass action star. The hand-to-hand action sequences involving The Wasp are a lot of fun, quick but clear.

  • Of course, Paul Rudd is also a highlight. The film doesn't overplay his character as a fish out of water amidst much more intellectually capable company, which was more the case in Ant-Man. His natural charms come through the screen, especially in non-verbal reaction shots that Rudd has perfected over the years in silly comedies.

  • Ant-Man and the Wasp continues to show that Marvel has solved their villain problem. Well, sort of. There are two major villains here and one of them works well. I love Walton Goggins but his street-level criminal could have been completely cut from the film. The supernatural villain Ghost, on the other hand, has a well established backstory and plenty of motivation. The more important thing, though, is the character design is extremely cool and her superpowers are unique and amazing on screen. Unlike many Marvel villains, Ghost has real staying power within the larger story.

  • I'll try to talk around it but some spoilers involving the post-credits stinger ahead. I was anticipating the twist seen in the stinger to come and was curious how they'd execute it. With time away from Infinity War, I've come to terms with how its ending was handled and I think it was integrated smartly here. Ant-Man and the Wasp didn't need to unfairly revel in the emotional impact of the rapture yet again -- we've already been put through that once. It does, however, nicely showcase the implications for Scott Lang, which are massive. It actually helps build the story, giving us a glimpse into the future of the series, not just leaving on a sour note.

File Under 2018 #83: The Endless

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What it's about: Aaron and Justin Smith are survivors of a cult which they escaped 10 years ago. But their lives haven't been great since. Since the crazy media attention of their experiences faded away, they found themselves trapped in crappy jobs with few friends and generally unsuccessful lives. After receiving a mysterious video tape from the cult, people they assumed were all dead, Aaron decides he might as well go back and see if he can find some meaning. Justin is a little less optimistic, more cynical and angry about his past experiences, but he goes along to make his brother happy. They find there that not only is the community still thriving, it doesn't seem like anyone has aged a day over the last decade. Aaron and Justin, now adults with a better level of social understanding, dig into the cult's secrets and begin experiencing strange phenomenon that is both frightening and alluring.

Unorganized thoughts:

  • As I've been putting myself through this daunting challenge of noting on every 2018 theatrical release I've seen, there have been some ups and downs, natural highs and lows of writing, but The Endless met me with something different. I haven't put off writing about the film [mostly because I don't want these things backing up before I see something else] but I'm here not knowing exactly what to say. The Endless is a strange and perplexing film.

  • This should have been expected as I somewhat felt the same about the previous film from directorial team Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead [who also star in The Endless], 2014 horror film Spring. While that film was getting really good buzz from those who saw it, I was a little lukewarm on it. While watching The Endless, though, the strange rhythms and tones felt a little more natural -- seeing Spring was an instructive experience and probably helped me like both films a little bit more.

  • To put it frankly, I had no idea what was happening through much of The Endless. I was desperately hoping the film had a long and extensive Wikipedia plot to help me suss out everything. I wasn't bored by the film, but I also found myself to get a little sleepy by the end, which didn't help matters.

  • The complexity of the plot and science fiction elements is both good and bad. Benson and Moorhead obviously want viewers to be uneasy and they really nail that tone. On the other hand, I was constantly trying to find any answers to questions I'm not sure were even pertinent. It could be a frustrating experience.

  • In some ways, besides Spring, the film that The Endless reminded me most of was Shane Carruth's Primer. This isn't quite as heady but it hits on a similar emotional and intellectual place. There are also elements of something like time travel [though differentiated in a clever way].

  • The Endless is more successful when it tells its strange story visually and there are definitely enough captivating visuals throughout to carry the sci-fi mystery. Toward the end of the film, however, there is more philosophical thought and scientific explanation happening and most of it just went over my head. Still, the big concepts were shown [in addition to being told] in creative ways -- I never fully understood the looping, for lack of a better term, but it was a cool effect.

  • This sits in an interesting ground of clearly being a micro-budget film without exactly looking like a micro-budget film. It is really impressive how some of the effects were conceptualized while still being a little rough around the edges. It has a distinctive charm.

  • Narratively, the cult sci-fi/horror subgenre has received a boost in recent years, especially on the indie side. The Endless does some things differently with the concept to both positive and negative results. One of the biggest differences is that there is no big personality at the center of the community, which keeps the focus on the outsider protagonists and the supernatural. The community feels kind of small, though, only a handful of characters, which gives it a limited scope.

  • I never found myself invested in the journey of the two lead characters as brothers, though individually I found them compelling characters. Given that the film starts with an unattributed quote about how friends reveal their feeling toward each other while brothers can't, this should have had more of an emotional impact.

  • Ultimately, I'm curious how The Endless will stay with me. I definitely feel like it is a film that would benefit from a second viewing and I might give it another shot around the end of the year. I can't help but feel this is a film that should have hit me harder, it is totally in my wheelhouse. Already, the specifics are a little fuzzy. The sheer weirdness of everything keeps me afloat.

File Under 2018 #82: The Workshop

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What it's about: Olivia Dejazet is a popular thriller writer who spends a summer leading a writing workshop for a group of diverse teens in a small French town. The group argue over what kind of novel they should collaboratively write, focusing on a thriller but unsure of who should be the villain. Over their discussions, politics inevitably comes up, with a disaffected young man with alt-right leanings named Antoine provokes his peers with anti-Muslim rhetoric and shocking views on violence. Olivia sees something in Antoine that she can use in her work, so she often singles him out, challenging his worldview. Getting too close to her pupil might put Olivia in harm's way of a rapidly radicalized and angry young man.

Unorganized thoughts:

  • The Workshop's high concept of setting the characters into a classroom setting is an effective way of having an open dialogue on the racial and economic problems in France and the rapidly changing political sphere. Secondarily, how these issues can be addressed through art. The kids have the right mix of passion and naivety, with Olivia able to channel their beliefs and feelings into something more cogent.

  • Using the thriller as a medium to explore these issues isn't accidental, either, as genre filmmaking has become a primary source of unpacking political discourse [hell, the newest Purge movie just came out].

  • After increasing arguments about the motivations of their still undefined fictional killer, Olivia explains to the group that a writer can use controversial characters without endorsing them. It feels like a genuine breakthrough and becomes one of the most important themes of the film through its second half, which moves a bit away from the workshop setting into a more traditional character study of one of its members.

  • The use of what seems like documentary news footage of the town's once-vibrant shipyard [a possible setting for the workshop's collaboration] is another interesting tie-in between fact and fiction within the film and the importance of art. The teens are told that research is vital when writing a novel, even if it is purely fiction, as realism will only be of benefit. The footage, though brief, gives a better understanding of the place this film takes place in, one that has a complicated immigrant history that has become more volatile with economic deterioration.

  • The Workshop no doubt is at its best in the long workshop discussions. The characters are vibrant, their arguments define them thoroughly. The political and artistic nature of these discussions also provide all the narrative tension the film needs.

  • The plot outside of these scenes, especially in the second half of the film, seem to reach too far for dramatic and thematic resonance. The Workshop tries to be provocative by tapping into the life of a seemingly normal kid whose isolation is tempted by radical political ideas. It is a similar story heard on the news after any mass shooting. Unfortunately, The Workshop doesn't actually say much, certainly not anything new, with Antoine.

  • Strangely, the film could maybe have used some of its own advice by making Antoine someone the viewer truly has to reckon with. He's an interesting character, certainly, and a realistic one. The film spends a lot of time showing how seemingly normal he is -- normal family, he has a good relationship with his young niece and sister, etc. But the dramatic turns the film takes toward the end feel unearned.

  • Granted, The Workshop clearly builds to its ending, I just couldn't find it all that compelling. It seems to want to explode and yet it falls flat. On the surface, The Workshop itself turning into something of a thriller is another interesting parallel to the workshop. But when the motivations of the complex characters become simple and strange, it just doesn't work as well.

  • I haven't seen director Laurent Cantet's previous film, Palme d'or winner and Oscar nominee The Class, but The Workshop seems to be within the filmmaker's wheelhouse. I was interested to see as the credits rolled that Robin Campillo served as co-screenwriter, as I've really appreciated his work with Eastern Boys and BPM (Beats Per Minute). I can definitely see his storytelling in the film but that only makes The Workshop a little more disappointing. I'm not sure what may have been lost in translation, but this film doesn't have the same clever observational style -- at least not when the film turns into a broader story.

File Under 2018 #81: Three Identical Strangers

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What it's about: Bobby Shafran was a college freshman arriving on campus for the first time when something strange happened: people he had never met before were greeting him as if they were close friends, someone even mistakenly called him "Eddy." A random stranger popped his head into Bobby's dorm room and asked him if he was adopted. The stranger took Bobby to meet Eddy that night and the resemblance was not only clear, it was extraordinary. Their story was told in a New York newspaper and attracted the attention of a third brother, David. The three young men, separated at birth, quickly became a national media sensation. But the circumstances of their birth and adoptions caught up with the joy of their meeting.

Unorganized thoughts:

  • It seems like every few years a documentary comes out that quickly becomes notorious for its "stranger than fiction" craziness. I remembered hearing the same kind of buzz for Catfish and Tickled that I heard on Tim Wardle's Three Identical Strangers leading up to its theatrical release. The basic story is something incredible, even unbelievable, and the film's marketing really showcased that. But the buzz suggested the intriguing set-up was only the beginning.

  • Three Identical Strangers is difficult to talk about in any meaningful way without getting into the twists and turns, so be warned.

  • That said, the film does a lot to foreshadow where the story eventually goes. Who tells the story and who doesn't tell the story gives some clues. What people are saying and what people aren't saying does, too. Though Three Identical Strangers starts pretty clearly as a fun and uplifting story, it never really hides that there is some shady stuff behind the story.

  • Because of that, I was never truly shocked by its turns, though they do offer a lot of intriguing questions. Three Identical Strangers definitely isn't the same kind of class as Catfish or Tickled that had me on the edge of my seat wondering what could possibly happen next.

  • Three Identical Strangers is filled with old photographs, home videos, and news footage shown over and over again. Some of this is part of its revelation structure [remember all these things that were said that point to this new specific point?], though it also seemed to need to keep the visuals as busy as the story being told.

  • OK, so on to some specifics. One of the most complex questions at the heart of the film is the nature of scientific study. I don't think anyone would argue that the study which involved the triplets and other identical twins was performed ethically or appropriately -- there was not enough transparency for those involved, there didn't seem to be a consistent question to be answered, the methods of collecting data were extreme, etc.

  • That said, Three Identical Strangers struck me of having a pretty anti-science stance, like it took one [extremely] poor example and blew it up to argue that any extensive scientific study that might explore similar questions wouldn't have any value. At the very least, I'm confused about what the film is exactly trying to say about the bigger picture in this story.

  • As it becomes crazier, the film tries to crystallize over the "nature vs. nurture" debate but never can really make a cogent thought. By the end I think the film is more balanced on the side of "nurture" but it definitely misses opportunities to narrow in on a point-of-view. Specifically, there is a line said by someone [I don't recall who] that really struck me, something to the effect that everyone focused in on the triplets' similarities and they really never cared to notice the differences. In ways, the film does the exact same thing.

  • Seeing the brothers express their anger based on their experiences is a potent emotional punch. It is impossible to disagree with their thoughts on their lives because they are the ones who've lived through it. It is undeniably a tragic story.

  • In that way, Three Identical Strangers is very effective as a specific emotional story about three brothers and their families. As a broader exploration of bigger issues around scientific responsibility it just isn't as successful -- in part because of its point-of-view, but also because of the unfortunate circumstances that the study has never been completed or published to have any real scientific value. It's an unenviable position.

  • The questions the film raises are really important and can definitely lead to some really good discourse [my wife and I disagreed about the film but had a really good conversation over it] but I'm not sure the film competently raises those questions on their own. I can't help but think that if Errol Morris had the rights to this it would have been a much more thought-provoking and explicitly about the questions underneath the tabloid and shadowy story.

File Under 2018 #80: Journey's End

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What it's about: Captain Stanhope leads a group of soldiers at the front lines in the trenches during World War I. Because tactical battle has ground the major conflicts to a standstill, groups of soldiers are cycling in for six day shifts. Even without much battle, the tours are long, grueling affairs against the elements and fear of battle. A young man named Raleigh, who idolized upperclassmen Stanhope while in school, enters the war and requests to join his old friend. But Raleigh hasn't realized that Stanhope has been completely changed by his war experience, no longer the upstart young man who shared time with his family. In these extreme circumstances, their relationship is tested and changes under the cover of war.

Unorganized thoughts:

  • Journey's End is a war film that isn't exactly about battle -- rather, the long and excruciating waiting for battle. It captures the spirit of World War I, the muck, the standstill, the never-ending feeling, quite well. It takes place over the course of six days, but feels like an eternity through the characters.

  • The state of the war is completely boiled down early on by the company's marching song repeating "We're here because we're here because we're here," etc. to the tune of "Auld Lang Syne." It perfectly captures the hopelessness of their situation.

  • When there is battle action [the first sequence comes in over an hour into the film], it is unspectacular, shot mostly in close up with a shaking camera. I'm guessing this is due to a relatively small budget, but Journey's End should be appreciated for sticking to its narrative strengths.

  • Much of the film is basically a chamber piece taking place in the captains' quarters where Stanhope gets drunk and angry and sad. There are times where it is more Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? than it is Saving Private Ryan. There is a lot of fighting over the awful quality of their food.

  • The film's structure of introducing Raleigh into Stanhope's company gives a sharp look at how endless war can change a man irrevocably. Because Journey's End takes place in a short and specific amount of time, pre-war Stanhope is never shown, only talked about. He can be pictured, though, through the eyes of Raleigh, who hasn't lost the hope or love for his former friend. The film smartly delays their meeting, letting Raleigh's optimism live on long enough to be devastated by who he finds.

  • The three years age difference between Stanhope and Raleigh is a little deceiving as actors Sam Claflin and Asa Butterfield are almost ten years apart. It emphasizes the effect to an extreme degree, which is what Journey's End is ultimately trying to do, so it works fine. Personally, too, I've not yet put Claflin out of the YA actor stable, so I wouldn't have guessed the was already beyond 30.

  • Claflin gives a really good and centered performance with the opportunity outside of a Pirates of the Caribbean or Hunger Games story. He is properly beaten down, living on a fine edge of depression and insanity. He's also appropriately rugged, believably able to lead a group of men into battle.

  • Paul Bettany plays Osborne, the old man of the company, second in command to Stanhope and the captain's confidant -- consider Bettany is now able to be the "old man" is a little strange, but we're all getting older. He's the film's only spot of comic relief -- granted in a very serious, droll, British sort of way. Strangely, he's also a big part of the story's heart, with one of the most defined characters arcs and tragic figures.

  • Journey's End is an incredibly measured and austere exploration of war's effect on young men. Thematically, this isn't new ground. From a stylistic standpoint, the film doesn't capture a new look at warfare, either.. And so, Journey's End might not be an essential World War I film. It is, however, wonderfully crafted and almost delicate in its character study. There is a real and honest emotional core here and if you don't mind a very dower time, it is worth seeking out.

File Under 2018 #79: Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom

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What it's about: Claire Dearing has moved on from the failure of her Jurassic World theme park to a life trying to protect the last remaining dinosaurs. A once dormant volcano has become active on the island of Isla Nublar and competing interests are working to evacuate the majestic [and very valuable] creatures to safety. Hired by a wealthy stakeholder of John Hammond's original vision, Claire re-unites with Owen Grady to track down his specially trained Velociraptor Blue. Once on the island, however, they quickly realize that not everyone has the same intentions to protect the inhabitants. There is also a new breed of dinosaur that could pose a threat to everyone's safety.

Unorganized thoughts:

  • I wasn't particularly enthused to see Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, not being a fan of its predecessor. I wasn't even planning on seeing it in the theater but with the holiday break, I had some free time and I caved. My expectations were not high despite J.A. Bayona, a filmmaker I respect, taking over the franchise. I'm not sure they were even met.

  • Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom was surprisingly unfun. For being a huge production, the epitome of the summer blockbuster, I generally found it dull, bland, emotionally empty, with nothing in particular to latch on to. It might not be fair to put it on the same level as a Transformers film, as Fallen Kingdom has the ability to pare itself down for a coherent setpiece, but the franchises share incredible thin characters, massive narrative holes, a harried script with logic problems. I feel like I could nitpick Fallen Kingdom to death, so I'm going to try and resist that as much as possible, but bare with me if I revel a bit.

  • There is so much stupidity in the film's cold open scene: humans acting irrationally, technology that doesn't make any sense, dinosaurs used solely like a reverse deus ex machina, no indication of what is happening on a narrative level, and a hurried tone that doesn't make understanding any easier. And, honestly, this is one of the more distinct scenes of the film.

  • I can't get past the main plot line. In the span of just a few years, Claire [Bryce Dallas Howard] has gone from one of the most important figures in the disastrous opening of the Jurassic World theme park [what was her actual job anyway?] to a non-profit lobbyist to protect the dinosaurs as an endangered species. Let's think about this for a second. A woman responsible for dozens [maybe hundreds] of deaths and $800 million of litigation [as told by the movie] now talks with members of Congress about passing legislation to use taxpayer money to transport and care for the murder machines. Would any serious non-profit group want anything to do with her?

  • I'm pretty far left on most environmental issues but the questions of animal rights the movie tries to explore with total seriousness is a bit too much for me.

  • One character mentions John Hammond's dream of letting these magnificent creatures live in peace is a serious next-level retcon.

  • Mid-way through the movie there is a reveal of a new science fiction element that is a logical step for the Jurassic World franchise and could have some big implications. Unfortunately, it is completely botched by tip-toeing around the subject to death -- even when the reveal is fully confronted, the explaining characters don't even use the precise word, using euphemisms and strange expressions for some reason instead.

  • There is a major plot point around breaking into a secure underground laboratory only to later show that it is easily accessible by a dumbwaiter that we've seen a child character use to get from one part of the estate to another.

  • I was shocked by how little humor there was in Jurassic Park: Fallen Kingdom and the few laugh lines didn't work at all -- there wasn't anything above a few chuckles from my decently full matinee audience. A big spectacle like this absolutely needs some laughter to go hand-in-hand with the wonder and terror and thrills. This definitely came out severely unbalanced.

  • This is definitely one of Chris Pratt's least humorous turns, on the level with the problematic Passengers. Owen is such a bland tough guy Clint Eastwood wannabe. None of the actor's usually easy charisma comes through. As someone who didn't like him much in Infinity War, either [though he's better there], I'm starting to worry about Pratt.

  • On the opposite end of the spectrum, Ted Levine is excellent casting for the hammy hunter villain that has become a type well worn out in the Jurassic Park films. The character is involved in one of the most memorable moments of the film, but I still wish he'd been given more of the film to carry.

  • I'm wondering what J.A. Bayona really brought to this movie. There are a few sequences that dip into horror but nothing to the degree of The Orphanage -- obviously, a big Hollywood film wouldn't want to get that scary, but these scenes feel like a neutered version of its creator. The spectacle may not even be as great as The Impossible, which is a disturbingly bleak film but had infinitely more stakes.

  • It isn't really fair to hold this against Bayona, who undoubtedly has better work ahead. I can't see any filmmaker coming in to save this franchise, bring it back to its amazing beginnings. It might not be possible. It might be too big, too broad, too thin at this point. Someone is going to get a shot, though.

File Under 2018 #78: Hearts Beat Loud

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What it's about: Frank Fisher is a record store owner who has long had dreams of being a rock star. With his only daughter Sam off to college on the west coast in a matter of weeks, she is pressured to perform jam sessions with him. When Frank uploads their latest collaboration, a song called "Hearts Beat Loud," it starts to get some recognition. This sparks his interest in making a genuine go at making music, but Sam is hesitant, solely focused on medical school. But with his business closing, his mother in poor health, and a complicated relationship with his landlady, this might be his one and only shot at his dream.

Unorganized thoughts:

  • Hearts Beat Loud wouldn't work without the music and the music has to be good. Fortunately enough, it is, and maybe more importantly, it feels authentic to the characters. It is quickly established that they are really good musicians, maybe not pros, but they understand songwriting and form. When Nick Offerman plays the guitar or bass or drums, it doesn't cut around to make it look easier -- it is clear the man can play. When Kiersey Clemons sings, she can really sing. They both show legitimate star power.

  • The first jam session of the film evolves into a full songwriting montage. Yes, it is a little improbable that they could write and record an completely polished song in the matter of a few hours but the editing on the montage is clear and fun and shows the process really well.

  • In its execution, the "Hearts Beat Loud" sequence is on the level of the musical sequences of Once. There isn't the same amount of emotional connection to the characters at this point in Hearts Beat Loud, but the showcase of the artistic process is incredibly charming.

  • Features probably the best version of the hearing my song on the radio for the first time plot device ever.

  • Hearts Beat Loud isn't afraid to name drop musicians, a few even show up in the film. It is always a little annoying when films feel like they have to establish the characters' tastes by them talking about hip and trendy artists. And Hearts Beat Loud doesn't really need it -- their musical chops are established by them simply playing music.

  • There is a fun extra layer in the songwriting process with it being a father-daughter duo. Intentions within the lyrics are read in a different way by the characters because of their relationship. When Sam writes a love song, for example, she is hesitant to call it a love song so she doesn't have to talk about the relationship it is based on. Frank, on the other hand, is excited to know about the context within the lyrics.

  • Their emotional connection and the songwriting live on the same level in the narrative and it can naturally build the themes, narrative, and relationships. This is what musicals are supposed to do and Hearts Beats Loud utilizes the form well.

  • Offerman simply sitting on a stool, playing a sad sounding guitar riff has all the emotional resonance the film needs. It is a nice shorthand and difficult to pull off.

  • Seeing Toni Colette show up as a totally normal person only a few weeks after seeing her in Hereditary took a second to get over.

  • One of the best clues that Hearts Beat Loud is working on a narrative and emotional level is that I genuinely wanted the characters to pursue their band while completely understanding pragmatically why they couldn't.

  • Perhaps because director Brett Haley is known for films where older people find a new lease on life [I'll See You in My Dreams is his other film I've seen], this might skew his thematic interest in Frank's direction. Sam's realistic outlook isn't looked down on, however, even if she is less of the major focus of the film.

  • Maybe it is because I associate Nick Offerman so strongly with Parks and Recreation's Ron Swanson, but I've never really considered him to be a real actor, whatever that means. Hearts Beat Loud gives him a pretty good opportunity to show a little bit of range and really carry a movie with both comedy and drama. I'm not going to think of Offerman at the end of the year, but that shouldn't discount what is a fine central performance.

  • Kiersey Clemons, on the other hand, may have already had something of a breakout with Dope, but this shows that she can be a star. I always feel wary of giving actors bonus points for singing, but it is such a key to the character and she performs so incredibly well.

  • The two actors together is what makes the film really sing [pun intended]. Offerman and Clemons wouldn't have been anyone's idea of an ideal screen duo, especially as a father-daughter pair, but they work perfectly together. Hearts Beat Loud is charming and cool because these actors are charming and cool. It is exciting that a film cast them together in these roles.