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First Man (2018)
Far Too Dour To Be Anything Close To Inspirational
There is no doubt that the moon landing was a seminal moment in United States history. However, that landing took place in 1969. Since that time, it has been covered in more books and forms of media than can probably even be counted. So, in order for "First Man" to tell an original or engaging story, it would seem to have to find an angle, whether that be cultural or character-based. Sadly, neither of those things happen here.
For a basic plot summary, "First Man" is a biopic of Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling), especially focusing on the events leading up to and transpiring during his infamous moon landing mission in '69. Key factors in his backstory include the death of daughter Karen (Lucy Stafford), relationship with wife Janet (Claire Foy), and just his overall attitude and demeanor as an individual.
The problem with "First Man" is very easy to diagnose: it has absolutely no soul, instead choosing a very mechanical beat-by-beat description of the Gemini and Apollo missions that led up to the moon landing. Two main missteps really hamper the proceedings here:
1. Only lip service is paid to the social conventions or frustrations of the day, and that is a shame. Had this movie focused on, say, the controversy over the space program itself or its place in a culture going through the civil rights movement, then maybe it would have had something emotional to examine. As it is, this is about as mechanical of a film (just plodding forward) as you'll ever see.
2. Even a bigger faux pas is portraying Armstrong and his wife as so dour and lacking in any real emotion. I'm not sure if this was just bad writing or an interpretation of the real-life figures themselves, but either way it is inexcusable. Emotional moments are telegraphed left and right only to fizzle out with Gosling's Armstrong looking dour and serious and Foy's Janet coming across as cold in comparison. It's been awhile since I've seen a film with so little emotion, especially odd considering they are trying to describe a cultural touchstone moment that everyone who saw remembers vividly!
I had been anticipating "First Man" for quite some time. Director Damien Chazelle's "La La Land" is a favorite of mine, as is Gosling, and the trailers/concept seemed incredible. I left the theater feeling incredibly disappointed, however, at such a wasted opportunity. One can't really call this film "bad" in the sense that it was technically deficient, but it just lacked any reason to care about any part of it.
Might Be Good, Might Not, But Probably Won't Be Worth It Either Way
I only watched the first two episodes of "Manifest" before I bowed out due to boredom and being thoroughly unimpressed. As such, I obviously can't say whether this is going to be a hit or not. Here's what I can say with reasonable certainty, however: "Manifest" is a pretty standard-issue network show trying to skate by on concept.
The setup is incredible: a plane takes off, experiences turbulence, and then seemingly lands successfully. The catch? On the ground, 5 years have passed, while the passengers on the plane have only experienced the flight time. There are so many interesting ways this story could go...but of course it's a network show, so none of them are able to be adequately explored.
No, unfortunately that intriguing setup is quickly pushed aside to follow passengers hearing voices guiding them to complete certain tasks. I can also guarantee how this will play out: little details about what we all want (the plane mystery) will be parceled out extremely slowly, and a big revelation will come at the very end if the full season order gets picked up.
To its credit, the show does try to delve into the family dynamics this odd scenario sets up, but sadly none of the acting stands out and all the actors are remarkably bland (sometimes enough so that I had trouble telling them apart or remembering why they were important).
Is the concept the writers are cooking up truly good? Maybe, maybe not. But I would argue it may not even matter because the journey towards that discovery will be so ponderous.
"Manifest" is the kind of show that had a good chance to catch on in the 80s or 90s, or for those who watch TV drama much more casually in terms of overall investment. However, many viewers are now spoiled by the cable or streaming dramas that now dominant the genre, and are all-around superior in acting, production value, writing, pacing, etc. If the "Manifest" concept premiered on one of those services, it would immediately jump into "the good stuff" instead of having to appeal to a wide base, test the waters, parcel things out, wait for a pickup, etc.
Bottom line: I'm spoiled when it comes to TV dramas, and now (more than every) extremely leery of any network fare. While that may be sad in certain aspects, at the same time it is also just a fact of the business at this point.
A Star Is Born (2018)
High Floor; Low Ceiling
After watching this iteration of "A Star Is Born" (I actually had not seen any of the others previously), there's no way I could give it a ranking lower than seven stars. It's too solid of a film, featuring so many great auxiliary things happening, to go any lower. At the same time, however, there's also really no way I would rank it higher than maybe eight stars, either. To me, this was one of those movie experiences where the floor is very high, but the ceiling is relatively low.
For a basic plot summary, "A Star Is Born" tells the romantic tale of Jack (Bradley Cooper) & Ally (Lady Gaga). Jack is an on-the-way-out music star with a drinking problem and a bad case of tinnitus, but when when he chances upon Ally working at a drag bar and is completely enraptured with her voice, the chemistry between the two is immediate. He needs her to keep him out of the bottle, while she needs him to stay true to herself and remember to be confident. The relationship is tested to the brink, however, when Ally's own burgeoning career takes her further and further away from Jack.
Perhaps the most interesting part of this film experience for me was seeing Cooper (also the director) produce a very gritty, down-to-earth, "now-feeling" flick using a concept ripped from the glitz-and-glamour dramas of Hollywood's Golden Era. Cooper takes this simple, relatively straightforward story and perfectly adapts it for these modern times. Jack & Ally are both characters that feel very relatable to the audience, the types one could find carrying on a similar romance even outside the cinema doors. This part of the equation is done perfectly.
Part of the reason why I can't quite call this film a true "great" (pulling the punch just a bit), though, is rooted in that very simplicity. I'm not going to say that every film's plot needs to be twisty or mysterious, but I will say this about "A Star Is Born": I feel like it was more a labor of "let's turn this old story into something updated/better" than anything. An emotional speech from Sam Elliott towards the end of the film really sums this up. While I respect that approach, it just isn't going to vault the movie into my film stratosphere. Hence, the 7/8 star rating is very much subjective to my own personal likings.
I don't want to sell the movie short at all, though, because it does so many things right:
-The music is indeed truly incredible. If you aren't listening to the soundtrack almost immediately after exiting your theater seat, you may not have a soul :)
-The acting is also top-notch. Cooper's performance might be award-worthy, and Gaga is practically just playing herself (which works because she's such an interesting individual even off camera).
-Never once did I find myself bored or disinterested while watching, as Cooper always infuses a sense of energy or forward motion into the proceedings. I also legitimately did not see the ending coming that was given to us.
So, despite perhaps not ranking extraordinarily high on my "Best-Of" lists, there are still a lot of things I will take away from this film, most notably the music and Cooper's performance. As I said in the opener, it's a little odd to see a film with this high a floor have such a potentially low ceiling in contrast.
Into the Dark: The Body (2018)
Interesting Enough To Stay Onboard
I usually review television content by season, not individual episode, but Hulu's "Into The Dark" anthology series is something altogether unique. Each month for a year, presumably, a new episode will drop centered on a holiday theme. As such, it is probably best to review them episode-by-episode considering they are mini-movie length (this first one being nearly an hour and half).
Kicking things off in the series is "The Body", which sees an assassin (Tom Bateman) lugging around the corpse of his latest victim in order to get paid for the job. What better time to blend into the crowd than Halloween! Somewhat comically, he gets mixed up with a group that includes a smug party connoisseur (Ray Santiago), a preppy idiot (David Hull), a fiercely independent woman (Aurora Perrineau), and a slightly-unhinged-herself history buff (Rebecca Rittenhouse).
While not being the most compelling fare I've ever seen (even recently), "The Body" is interesting enough to hold one's attention easily all the way through, and is very smartly-written (as per usual for a Blumhouse production). I actually very much enjoyed the first half of the episode, even as the resolution let me down just a bit.
There's a little bit of everything in this one: gore, drama, action, humor...you name it. It also fits into its holiday theme (Halloween) perfectly. While the main issue of the piece might be that its plot is kind of all over the place, the acting and atmosphere are good enough to keep it watchable all the way through.
At this point, I'm still probably as intrigued by the concept of "Into The Dark" as I am the execution. That being said, "The Body" did just a good enough job to make sure I'll be returning in November for whatever Blumhouse has cooked up for Thanksgiving.
Doesn't (Or Perhaps Can't) Really Settle On Anything
I usually am open to new concepts in TV series. However, one thing I really struggle with is when they are a bit scatter-brained and can't quite "settle" into any kind of storytelling approach. "Maniac" is the epitome of that type of show...hence the 4-star rating.
For a basic plot summary, "Maniac" tells the story of Owen (Jonah Hill) & Annie (Emma Stone) in a noir-esque future where they are undergoing a psychiatric drug trial led by Dr. Fujita (Sonoya Mizuno) & Dr. Mantleray (Justin Theroux) (along with troublesome super-computer GRTA, voiced by Sally Field). This drug trial has three stages, with the end result being the cure of a psychiatric ailment. What's odd, however, is that while all the other participants experience the trial's effects separately, Owen & Emma keep finding each other in the simulations, forming a unique bond. As their minds are thrust into 80s crime capers, elvin forests, and mafia family dramas (all part of the process), they form a connection that may or may not survive once the entire experiment is over.
While this comparison might seem a bit odd, I see "Maniac" as a lot like "Blade Runner" in the sense that they both are very future-noir crafted. "Blade Runner" takes the super-serious dark approach, of course, while "Maniac" prefers goofy comedy and sight gags, but at the end of the day the effect is the same: for me, I failed to become fully invested in Owen and Annie as characters because of all the weirdness going on. Sure, it is funny at times, but I felt all the "odd stuff" was more of a distraction than a helpful tension-breaker.
To be honest, the only thing that kept me watching past about 3-4 episodes (I did end up finishing the entire thing) was certain acting performances. While I was underwhelmed by Hill's character (not sure if that was the fault of script or acting), Stone carries large segments on her shoulders with ease. One could say she legitimately got me through this show. I was also intrigued by Theroux's comic turn here, as I am used to him as the super-serious "Leftovers" character. I had no idea he could do "goofy" so well!
Thus, overall, I was disappointed in "Maniac". While Hill, Stone, and even director Cary Fukunaga are big "gets" for Netflix, this one didn't hit me the right way like some of their other big originals. If you are expecting something serious with the show, I'd say perhaps stay away (or at least be warned). If you can put up with a lot of goofiness mixed in with your drama, you will like this one much more than I did.
The Indomitable Power Of The Human Spirit
"Rudy" was released to theaters in 1993. By today's Hollywood standards, that is getting on in age. For a film like this, however, time is (and will continue to be) almost a non-factor, as a movie so based in human themes and emotions will never cease to be relevant.
For a basic plot summary, "Rudy" is based on the real-life story of Rudy Ruettiger (Sean Astin), whose entire goal in life from childhood onward was to enroll at Notre Dame and play football for the Irish. The problem? His grades aren't up to snuff coming out of high school, his short stature makes football seem like a pipe dream, and father Daniel (Ned Beatty) doesn't encourage his dreams. Through hard work and extreme determination, however, Rudy manages to put himself in position for those dreams to come true. Will he be able to take that final step and run out of the tunnel in pads? That's what the film ultimately builds up to.
Much like, say, "Hoosiers" or "Dead Poets Society", "Rudy" is a film that almost gets an "average" knock now because it practically invented a genre that is now basically the standard for inspirational sports films. There was no "teacher standing on the desk" cliche before Robin Williams, no "measuring the basket" scene until Hackman, and no "power of sheer motivation" emotional tear-jerkers before "Rudy". So, while watching this film now it may seem like you've seen this type before, just remember that is only because "Rudy" started the trend!
As a football fan myself, it is tough to believe I hadn't seen this one all the way through until my 32nd year on this planet. To me, Astin was always "Samwise the Hobbit" from Lord of the Rings! Like I said previously, I think I was a bit scared away by the "done to death" cliches that it seems to represent. I'm glad I finally "caved", however, as this is a truly special and emotional film.
Overall, "Rudy" is one of the greats in both its own genre (sports) as well as of all-time. Even those who have no idea what football is all about can appreciate Rudy's inspirational story.
The Greatest Showman (2017)
A Unique Presentation Befitting Barnum Himself
The success of "La La Land" opened Hollywood up to the musical again, and "The Greatest Showman" is able to take full advantage. While traditionally the story of P.T. Barnum would be told as a biopic, here it is given a flourish that perhaps the old ringmaster himself would appreciate.
For a basic plot summary, "Greatest Showman" tells the story of how P.T. Barnum (Hugh Jackman) built his circus empire. This was largely accomplished by using "freaks" (bearded lady, dog-faced boy, etc.) to draw curiosity to his museum and later shows. Though initially deemed as catering to the "lowest common denominator", Barnum's shows eventually won over the hearts of people (especially children) around the world. Also focused on in this flick is Barnum's marriage to Charity (Michelle Williams) and partnership with Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron).
By positioning itself in the way that it does, "Greatest Showman" only deflects any criticism that can be thrown at it. Not entirely indicative of Barnum's life? The man himself would revel in the drama! Too over-the-top or schmaltzy? Have you ever been to the circus?! In this sense, the film is practically immune to harsh takes.
In terms of execution, the music is wonderful and the visuals are stunning and always offering something new. The tone is a good mix between relentless energy, but also being able to slow down and appreciate the softer moments when needed. The ability to accomplish this makes for high emotion with every song.
The cast is about as diverse as a circus show itself, what with the eclectic mix of Jackman, Williams Efron, Zendaya, & Rebecca Ferguson. They all perform very well and create a great chemistry on the screen.
Personally, "Greatest Showman" will never be among my favorite films of all-time. I actually prefer a more straightforward, character-drama biopic approach. However, I can very easily see the appeal of the musical tact here, and enjoyed it enjoy to be thoroughly entertained. If you are more open to this crazier approach than I, the star ranking will likely tick even higher.
Little Children (2006)
Too Much Here To Make Much Sense Of
The reason I was interested in this film is because its screenplay was partially written Tom Perrotta, who wrote the book "The Leftovers" that was later adapted into perhaps my favorite TV show of all-time. While I could definitely see his style all over "Little Children", it seems as if perhaps the rest of the production didn't quite understand what that style is all about.
For a basic plot summary, this flick focuses on suburban life. Sarah (Kate Winslet) doesn't fit in with the judgmental park-mommies, despite being married with a child herself, so she is drawn to a relationship with "Prom King" Brad (Patrick Wilson). Brad, of course, is married to his own wife Kathy (Jennifer Connelly). All the while, a pedophile (played by Jackie Earle Haley) moves in right down the block, which riles up neighborhood watchdog Larry (Noah Emmerich).
The easy way to describe this movie would be the deep suburban-life themes of "American Beauty" done in the style of "Crazy, Stupid, Love". The whole concept is deep emotional themes presented in almost sort of a madcap style. Even in the best of scenarios, this would be a tricky concept to pull off, and it doesn't work all that well here, either.
The major problem, however, seems to be director Todd Field potentially not understanding how to handle the material. There are indeed gems of emotion and interesting thought-pieces in this film (why I can't give it less than 5 stars), but the way in which it is presented robs the whole piece of those potent possibilities. With "The Leftovers", Perrotta's material was interpreted by one of the greatest screenwriters of the modern era in Damon Lindelof. "Little Children" doesn't nearly get that sort of treatment.
Overall, I have to say I was disappointed with this film. I didn't have huge expectations going in, but character drama (especially in suburbia) is a favorite of mine, and this one tried by patience over its nearly two hours and twenty minute runtime. There's good material here, to be sure, but you really have to dig deep to find it, and it ends up not being all that worthwhile in the end.
An Engaging Mystery In A Unique Format
A couple of years ago, an episode of the TV show "Modern Family" introduced the unique concept of doing an entire episode pictured either on mobile devices or social media. "Searching" takes that concept and runs with it, producing a film that tells an engaging mystery through the lens of social media and the internet.
For a basic plot summary, "Searching" sees father David Kim (John Cho) start worrying when daughter Margot (Michelle La) doesn't come home after a supposed study-group night with friends. This scenario quickly escalates to a missing persons situation, and Detective Vick (Debra Messing) comes onto the scene to lead the investigation. As the search for Margot intensifies, David digs into her social media and other online accounts and finds that the daughter he thought he knew wasn't necessarily the Margot presented to the rest of the world.
Because this is a film based around a mystery premise, I can't say too much about the plot for fear of spoilers. What I can definitively disclose, however, is that by no means is this a "gimmick" film. It would have been easy for that to transpire, as the visual concept (all technology) is so entrancing. Fortunately, director Aneesh Chaganty makes sure that the plot or characters are never overshadowed or pushed aside by the tech focus. Stripped away of all the phones, computers, and the like and done in a more traditional method, "Searching" still would be a solid, suspenseful mystery.
Another thing I appreciated about this movie is that it doesn't moralize about technology or social media at all. I'm not saying that such an approach would be bad, necessarily, but I do feel like it has been done to death in recent years. Here, the technology is used for both good and sinister purposes, and never once explicitly commented on. It just "exists". This approach felt refreshing to me, as it presented the material as "what is" instead of "what should be", and in this case I think the film was better for it.
Overall, I very much enjoyed "Searching" for its ability to tell an engaging mystery tale full of interesting characters, and do it in a completely unique fashion. This can appeal to a wide audience, and is something you can pretty much take the whole family too (right down to the pre-teens) and everyone can find something to relate to or think about.
Gets The Tone Of The Book Wrong, But Still Manages Respectability
In terms of adapting Joe Hill's book onto the big screen, there are a number of things that go right for "Horns". Sadly, this effort also does not seem to realize what the tone of the novel is all about, rendering it an adequate film and no more.
For a basic plot summary, "Horns" tells the story of Ig Parrish (Daniel Radcliffe), who wakes up one morning after a wicked bender with horns growing out of his head. Not only that, but these horns seem to have the power to influence other people based on Ig's conversations with them. Suspected in the recent death of longtime girlfriend Merrin (Juno Temple), Ig tries to put his life back together and reckon with his new protuberances at the same time. Interactions with best friend Lee (Mix Minghella) & brother Terry (Joe Anderson) help start connecting the dots as to what actually happened to Merrin.
The main problem with this Alexandre Aja-directed flick is that it doesn't understand that Hill's novel isn't really about the horns. I understand that they are obviously the visual standout of the story, and perhaps work better on the big screen than even in print, but they are not the driving force of the story. Rather, Hill constructs a story where the horns are little more than the impetus for Ig to figure out his shady past and move forward.
In this adaptation, however, it is very clear that Ig's interactions with the horns are paramount, and the character interactions are thrown in as best they can be. This leads to a film that technically adapts the nuts-and-bolts of Hill's novel pretty well, but loses most of its literary soul, if you will, in the process. Whereas the story should be absolutely brimming with deep character relationships and interesting observations, it instead is rather bland on that front because the focus is on the visual gags or off-beat humor.
Also, I'd only go so far as to call the acting in this one "so-so". Sometimes, Radcliffe nails the role (especially when he is in a drunken stupor). Other times, however, he seems far too goofy to be taken seriously. The auxiliary cast is okay, but again not really given much room to shine because the whole thing is built away from them.
I understand why this film was made in this particular fashion (it's the easiest way to do it), but I wish it would have built from the characters outward instead. Hill's novel is one of my favorites of all-time, and I wish this film could have given it a better cinematic reputation instead of a solid "meh".
Sharp Objects (2018)
Incredibly Intense With A Unique Style
If you would have told me, after two episodes, that I would be giving "Sharp Objects" 10/10 stars, I would have laughed in your face. In the early goings, I was completely lost (jarred by the jagged cuts/flashbacks) and thought the show was a bit of a mess. As it continued, however, it all came together and gelled into one of the most intense and dark series I've ever seen.
For a basic plot summary, "Sharp Objects" tells the story of reporter Camille Preaker (Amy Adams), who goes back to her old hometown of Wind Gap, MO, to investigate the murders of two teen girls. While home, Camille is forced to confront her tumultuous past, most notably with overbearing mother Adora (Patricia Clarkson) and younger wild-child sister she barely knows Amma (Eliza Scanlen).
Much like Gillian Flynn's inaugural novel, of which this series pretty closely hues, one thing that needs to be understood is that while it may be a murder-mystery that provides the plot impetus, this is really a story about family and growing up in a small town in the South. The sooner the viewer understands this, the better he/she can enjoy the series for what it is: some of the most intense and creepy character-building you'll ever see.
To start out, "Sharp Objects" feels like a bit of a mess. Flashbacks that seem crucial to the story/characters are cut in and out of so fast as to just literally be flashes of Camille's torturous past, instead of the full scenes I'm used to in TV shows. At first, I didn't know what to make of this and found it all very disorienting (and thus difficult to process). As the episodes continue, however, I learned that the character-building in the show is really a slow-burn (or, as slow as one can get over 10 episodes). This isn't a show that lays it all out for you at the very beginning, instead choosing (in director Jean-Marc Vallee's unique fashion) to keep ratcheting up the simmer until it reaches a boil in the final two episodes.
I've heard this series criticized as "nothing happens until the final episode", and I can see where that comes from...if one is only looking at things from a murder-mystery perspective. Like I mentioned earlier, however, the quicker you (as a viewer) understand that the murders mainly just provide the impetus for Camille to return to wind-up, the quicker you'll be able to just enjoy that slow-burn character development without worrying so much about the tertiary mystery.
Overall, "Sharp Objects" turned into one of the most dark, dramatic, and intense series I've ever watched. I can almost guarantee that if you watch through to the very end, you'll be emotionally shaken when the final credits roll on the finale. The acting is incredible, the tone and subject matter are creepily interesting, and with Flynn's remarkable story to pull from, that's a recipe for success.
The 2000s (2018)
A Solid Look At The New Millenium's First Decade
CNN always does a good job with these "decade" documentaries (60s, 70s, 80s, etc.), and that carries right over into this look at "The 2000s".
Covering politics, current events of the period, music, film, television, and pop culture of all kinds, this docuseries looks at the 2000s from a number of different angles. It's never boring, and the production values are very high. It's nice that at a lot of times (especially during the political sections), they talk to the figures themselves who were making the news in that decade.
The only reason I can't give this the full 10/10 treatment? It's too bad that the non-HD footage of the time period couldn't have been upgraded. When all the interviews and current footage are sparkling HD, it really stands out when the non-HD material shows up. I'm sure cost was likely the issue here, but still it was often very noticeable and jarring.
Overall, though, "The 2000s" was a fun journey through the decade in which I graduated both high school and college. Both in terms of nostalgic and historical value, this one can be watched for either reason and enjoyed accordingly.
Eighth Grade (2018)
Something That Everyone Can Relate To
Everyone has to go through adolescence. That is a fact of life. Because of this, it is a life period that everyone can relate to. While some may have enjoyed it more than others, I'd venture to say it wasn't the crowning achievement of anyone's life, either. The 8th-grade year is in many ways the apex of that entire experience, which is why this Bo Burnham film resonates on so many levels.
For a basic plot summary, "Eighth Grade" follows the story of Kayle (Elsie Fisher), a pretty typical 8th-grade student in today's world. I'd say more here, but in all honesty it is a bit difficult because the film doesn't really have a defined plot or mission. Instead, it more focuses on just showing the landmark moments of her life during this time period, including learning about sex, interactions with boys, a myriad of self-confidence issues, and relating to her father (Josh Hamilton).
The genius of this film is that in order to work, it has to hit these notes perfectly, because it is basically a reflection of themes we've all already lived. It has to be dramatic, because it's entertainment after all, yet at the same time it also has to be close enough to reality to elicit the emotional reactions that the whole premise is built on. Director Burnham does this nearly flawlessly. Even though I am a 32-year old male, I could still understand (and sometimes almost even viscerally feel) what Kayla was going through when she braves the pool party or tries to stand up for herself in front of the "cool kids" at school. It never felt like over-the-top ridiculousness, nor did it ever underwhelm.
A lot of this is on the shoulders of Fisher, and she is absolutely tremendous in this role. I know this is a very premature statement, but one wonders if this could be the rare child acting performance that garners an Oscar nomination. What makes it even more amazing is that she is only 15 years old herself. "Eighth Grade" is the type of movie that wouldn't support a 20-something trying to pass as a mid-teen, so it almost had to feature authentic-aged casting. That's often difficult, though, because how many 15-year old are tremendous actors? Fortunately, they struck gold in Fisher, and she carries this from beginning to end. I never once felt as if it were inauthentic in the least.
Also, I really like how the filmmakers don't preach to audiences one way or another. This is very much a "take it or leave it" sort of message movie. For example, it would have been very easy to make this a movie about "how technology makes it so much more difficult to be an adolescent than every before". That urge is (fortunately) resisted, and instead that topic is approached from a very nuanced way. While Kayla's heavy use of technology may stunt her conversations with her Dad, at the same time it also gives her confidence via her YouTube channel. The same can be said about her relationship with boys. On one hand, she lies to a contemporary about having dirty pictures of herself. On another occasion, however, she doesn't let herself get taken advantage of by an older boy. It's this give-and-take that really makes the viewer think about the issues at hand.
Overall, then, "Eighth Grade" is another A24-produced success story. That production company can always be counted on to tell a story from a unique angle, and that's exactly what happens here too.
Another Strong Link In The Chain
Your mission, should you choose to accept it: Sit back, relax, and watch the new king of action/adventure movie franchises continue on in its greatness.
I'd give a basic plot summary of the film, but that's tough for a film like this for a number of reasons. I don't want to give away any spoilers, and the "plot" of a MI movie is always going to be more of a conduit to the next action sequence than anything else. Suffice it to say that Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) & Co. are once again in top form, combining spy antics, tech gadgets, and high-octane stunts to complete their seemingly impossible tasks.
In my review of the previous film, I noted that (at least for me) the MI franchise has now eclipsed Bond in terms of being able to reliably churn out action thrillers. Nothing in "Fallout" will dissuade many from that opinion. It crackles from beginning to end with the perfect mix of action, character moments, sex appeal, and even some light-hearted humorous moments. Everything that Bond once was able to accomplish, in other words.
Personally, I'll say that this film's predecessor (Rogue Nation) is a tad better overall, for its perfect meld of everything. But this one is close. The major difference is the general move away from spy/tech gadgetry and towards bigger stunt pieces. Whereas it used to be all about the espionage, now it is just as much about "what mess will Hunt and the gang have to get out of next".
Overall, though, "Fallout" is still an excellent film that will keep you entertained from beginning to end. It looks like the type of film that everyone involved in had a blast making, and that goes a long way in how it comes off to viewers.
Ready Player One (2018)
Spielberg Can Still Make The Popcorn Thriller
At its heart, the story behind "Ready Player One" is a popcorn cinema thriller just waiting to be made. After reading the book, I remember thinking that it could probably be even better as a film, considering it is easier to see/feel being inside a video game than it is reading about it. Director Steven Spielberg proves himself more than capable of handling both those fronts, proving he still has the chops to make a terrific popcorn flick, and also make it even better than the source material.
For a basic plot summary, this film tells the story of Parzival (Tye Sheridan), who spends most of his time (like most people of this future) inside the OASIS (think of it like a massive multiplay online game that everyone is hooked into). On an Earth that has been decimated by plagues and riots, with many residents living in vertical ghettos, this digital realm is the closest to happiness that most people can get. Halliday (Mark Rylance), the creator of OASIS, has left three clues scattered around (based on his childhood nostalgia) that will give the winner of his little game essentially the keys to the kingdom. So far, no one has been able to crack even the first code, and that includes a team of nefarious drone-types put together by Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn). When Parzival, with the help of the mysterious Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), solves the first puzzle, it sets off a race to determine which faction will ultimately control OASIS.
Like I said, this is perfect fodder for summer action/adventure movie fare, and Spielberg captures it all perfectly here. The action/chases are pulse-pounding, the visuals are engaging, and the entire film is littered with "easter eggs", or callbacks to 70s/80s nostalgia. For anyone who grew up with that pop culture, this will be a real treat. Even younger viewers, however, should also still be interested in some of the technical concepts thrown around, while of course being amazed by just the sheer amount of things that transpire in every scene.
Even more impressive? Spielberg's take on the material is better than the novel source, and I honestly don't think it is all that close of a contest. Ernest Cline's book had some great ideas, but spent far too much time moralizing about them in the "real world". Here, Spielberg realizes that the real meat of the story takes place inside the OASIS, and thus that is where most of the movie is set. This makes for a much more engaging experience, coupled with video games/film being easier to replicate visually than via the printed page.
So, overall I was much more impressed by "Ready Player One" than I ever thought I would be (it's one of the best purely exciting films I've seen in quite some time). After a run of more personal or politically-themed epic films, this one proves that Spielberg can slip right back into "cool guy director" mode without a hitch!
The Tale (2018)
Important In Ways That May Exceed Its Actual Quality
When reviewing a film like "The Tale", I want to be careful in quantifying some of my statements. In an era in which women are much more empowered to tell their stories of abuse (sexual or otherwise) and confront their tormentors, movies like this are important to be made/seen. Even more unique/impressive is the fact that director & writer Jennifer Fox is actually telling her own story in this case. As such, despite the fact that I didn't find "The Tale" to perhaps be as gripping as I thought it could/should, I would never say it isn't important or made from a well-meaning place.
For a basic plot summary, "The Tale" tells the story of Jennifer (Laura Dern), a videographer who out-of-the-blue is drawn back into her past where as a 13-year old (played by Isabelle Nelisse) she was sexually coerced/assaulted by her track and field coach Bill (Jason Ritter). All the while, her equestrian mentor Mrs. G (Elizabeth Debicki) sat back and let it happen, while mother Nettie (Laura Allen & Ellen Burstyn) never quite put all the pieces together until it was far too late. Now an adult, Jennifer must deal with those events in order to feel authentic in front of her classes of students.
In terms of overall material and the emotion it contains, this is an excellent and heartbreaking film. It pulls absolutely no punches and really feels authentic (the costumes/sets of the 70s add realism). In short, the production value here is wonderful, as befitting a film with HBO backing.
My main problem with "The Tale", however, is that I felt the narrative tricks it used to tell the story were at best confusing and at worse distracting from the overall emotion of the piece. There are times where grown-up Jennifer will converse with young-Jennie, as well as other cross-time interactions that obviously aren't actually happening but are portrayed as Jennifer's inter-ruminations. Instead of deepening the emotion for me, what this ended up doing was confusing what the overall take-home message of the film was supposed to be. I really struggled to get much past "it was a horrible/wrong thing to have happen" even though I know Fox is hinting at more deeper themes.
One standout of the whole thing, though, is Dern absolutely acting her heart out in every scene she is in. None of my narrative confusion can be pinned on the acting in this one, as I found it to be really solid and, in Dern's case, spectacular. It's amazing to think that she has been working almost nonstop since Jurassic Park!
So, overall I put "The Tale" at 6/10 stars, with the caveat that I think the importance of what is being conveyed throughout the film likely transcends how objectively "good" it actually ends up being.
New Footage & Interviews Headline This Doc
Recently, I've noticed a particular pattern that HBO Documentaries tends to use for their productions: They aren't afraid to tackle an already-covered subject (like Andre the Giant or Robin Williams), and along with hitting all the important beats they somehow uncover new footage and conduct really impressive interviews.
This is exactly what happens in "Come Inside My Mind". Since his death in 2014 (and probably even before), Robin Williams has been the subject of many a documentary piece. This one covers maybe 70% of the same ground, but that other 30% is the key. In "Come Inside My Mind", I saw footage of both him and his work that I had never seen before. The interviews with his contemporaries are also riveting and seem to add new perspective rather than hit the same old beats.
The bottom line here is that it is tough to make a really good, original Robin Williams documentary these days, but HBO pretty much manages to nail it here. While a scene or two here or there might feel a bit derivative, for the most part this is a very well-produced look at Williams both in front of and behind the cameras.
We Blew It (2017)
No Thesis = No Finish From This Viewer
Like many Americans, I still struggle sometimes to fully comprehend the repercussions of the 2016 Presidential Election. As such, I have watched a number of documentaries on the subject to try and gain some further perspective. Unfortunately, "We Blew It" has been the worst of those experiences.
The problem with this documentary is overwhelmingly obvious: there is no central focus or thesis. It sort of just rambles on about the "Easy Rider" era and the current "Trump era" without any definition on where it was all going. Fifteen minutes into it, I thought it showed real potential. After about an hour, however, it turned so muddy and scattershot that I didn't want to even sink another hour into the proceedings.
Perhaps older viewers who lived through the 1960s/70s will find more interesting material, but this 32-year old viewer saw it primarily as a jumble of conversations that lacked anything tying it all together.
Super 8 (2011)
A Little Bit Of Everything
Despite being a fan of J.J. Abrams and what he does with his Bad Robot productions, I'll be the first to say it: At its core, "Super 8" is J.J.'s homage to his childhood cloaked in the storytelling techniques of Steve Spielberg. However, because JJ imparts so much of his own flare and personal charisma into the film, it ends up mostly transcending its "copycat" label and producing a result that is quite enjoyable on a number of fronts.
For a basic plot summary, "Super 8" focuses on Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney), a young teen growing up in the 1970s who loves making movies with his Super-8 camera and building miniature models. When viewers are introduced to Joe, he has just lost his mother in a factory accident, and father Jackson (Kyle Chandler) struggles to be a single father while also serving as town police deputy. While filming a movie scene with his buddies, and notably crush Alice (Elle Fanning), Joe witnesses a train derailment in which some sort of creature is released and the military intervenes. With the film in Joe's camera being the only evidence of the incident, "Super 8" unspools into a race against the clock both for the military (to destroy the evidence) and Joe's crew (to figure out just what exactly is going on).
I think the hallmark of "Super 8" is that it's a film that has a little bit of everything. It features tremendous action/adventure sequences, emotional family/character drama, and a mystery plot that keeps things moving forward. There is not one wasted scene in the entire film. Though it clocks in at about 2 hours, it doesn't feel "that long" because the action is always moving forward (a trait of Abrams films).
The use of the child actors in the movie are also spectacular. They carry long (and most) stretches of the film with absolutely no qualms or drop in performances that adults may have given. In a way, JJ was kind of ahead of the curve here on the "kids riding bikes around the neighborhood" type film that "It" & "Stranger Things" would later bring firmly back into fashion.
Oddly enough, the only reason I can't give "Super 8" an even higher ranking is a big part of the reason why it gets the 8 stars to begin with: The film is so slick and filled with relentless energy that I felt, at times, it doesn't take quite enough time to stop and savor the character moments (the highlight of the film by quite a bit). This is especially apparent in the ending, which should be even more touching than what ends up transpiring. This isn't a huge fault, but I think stems from the film coming from a Spielberg/nostalgia place instead of one of complete originality.
Overall, though, "Super 8" is a fun and compelling film that can be enjoyed by a wide swath of audiences. No one will ever be bored watching the film, and it dips into enough genres to find some nerve in every viewer. Not quite at the top of my "favorites of all-time" list, but certainly in the tier right below it.
Won't You Be My Neighbor? (2018)
As Touching A Documentary As Ever Was Made
A lot of times, the breadth or reach of a documentary depends on how large of an audience it can appeal to. So many times, documentaries focus on a niche subject with a similarly small viewership base. "Won't You Be My Neighbor" is able to bypass this problem, however, but focusing on a man that seemingly everybody knows: Fred Rogers.
For a basic overview, "Neighbor" follows both the life/career of Fred Rogers, as well as setting that in parallel to his iconic "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood" show on public television. Rogers' family (including his wife and two sons) are interviewed, as well as those who worked on and starred in the show with him.
In a political and social climate where hate and "mean-ness" seem to spew from every nook and cranny, "Neighbor" provides the perfect hour-and-a-half balm for that, as one of the strong suits here is showing just how genuinely "nice" of a man Fred Rogers was (which is what inevitably came out in the show and ultimately made it such a treasure). It was also interesting to learn that Mr. Rogers was an ordained minister, voted Republican, and championed inclusion and equal rights his entire life. Those things don't necessarily track in today's world, so it is nice to see someone who wasn't "one or the other".
"Neighbor" is equally fascinating on how Fred's show was so different than anything else on the air (public or otherwise) at that time. He practically saved the entire public television model (testifying before a commission about its worth), and then used it to tackle issues that are difficult for children to deal with, talking to them in a very straightforward yet kind way. He was absolutely fearless in this respect, also using silence and slow-pacing to intentionally counter-act the "pie in the face" and action/adventure Saturday morning kiddie fare he so despised.
Overall, this is a documentary that will strike a chord with nearly every one of its viewers. Practically everyone on this Earth knows something about Mr. Rogers, and for so many of those people he spoke directly to them (through the television) on a consistent basis. It's supremely emotional, incredibly informative, and just a refreshing reminder of the simple (yet extraordinary) value of human decency and kindness.
Woman Walks Ahead (2017)
Average At Best, And Also Severely Beaten To The Punch
The main problem with "Woman Walks Ahead" is simple: it just isn't that great of a flick. Even at just over an hour and a half, it seems to move at a glacial pace, and none of the performances are noteworthy whatsoever. A problem nearly as big: perhaps I have this opinion because it was beaten to the exact same punch by the extraordinary "Hostiles".
For a basic plot summary, "Woman Walks Ahead" tells the story of Catherine Weldon (Jessica Chastain), a widower who decides to leave her New York home for the Dakota prairie. The reason? She is a painter, and she wants to capture the personage of Sitting Bull (Michael Greyeyes), once the fearsome Native American warrior now turned potato farmer. Along the way, Catherine is caught up in a political battle over a treaty ratification, and spars with U.S. soldier Silas Groves (Sam Rockwell).
Earlier this year (2018), "Hostiles" really set the standard for how to make a modern-age Western. Gone are the "cowboys vs. indians" westerns of the 60s, and rightfully so (that style had become tawdry and played out). Now, the admittedly few westerns that hit the big screen are about more oblique, socially-sensitive issues revolving around Native/White relationships. The "problem" here, of course, is that "Hostiles" set the bar so high that similarly-themed movies are going to have trouble clearing it.
Thus, "Woman Walks Ahead" pales in comparison to that gripping, visceral film. Here, nothing important really seems to happen in terms of character interactions, performances, visuals, or anything else. The themes are there and all the right words are said, but nothing jumps off the screen in order to pull the viewer in. It all just kind of "happens" without much emotion or fanfare.
I can't say I was ever outright bored by this film, but it came close at times. One thing is for sure: It never sucked me into the atmosphere it wanted to create like "Hostiles" did. I hate to compare two films so closely in this fashion, but it was a legitimate issue for me from beginning to end while watching "Woman Walks Ahead".
The Hardest Game You Will Ever Play
In my lifetime as a "gamer", I have played challenging games (Mario, Zelda, etc.) on consoles ranging from the Nintendo Entertainment System to the XBOX 360, as well as being a huge fan of the "Myst" PC games. That being said, "Exodus" for the NES is easily the most difficult video game I have ever attempt (and am confident I ever will attempt).
This game, from the now long-defunct religious-based company Wisdom Tree, completely rips off the NES game Crystal Mines (apparently copyright laws were not enforced in the 1980s!), instead inserting Bible hero Moses as the main character in his quest to collect enough manna and question marks (yes, a strange game indeed) to complete each stage.
For about the first 15 (out of 100) stages, the game is relatively straightforward and quite fun, as you must use both your action skills and thinking cap to defeat each level. Very quickly, however, the game goes from fun to difficult, then to mind-boggling, and finally to downright impossible.
Two main factors make this game the peak of gaming difficulty: First, like many NES games, is the fact that your Moses is defeated with just one "hit", making you have to run a perfect level to succeed. However, what really amps up the difficulty is that each level is essentially a puzzle in order to collect all the requisite items and find the hidden exit. Items must be strategically moved, baddies strategically taken care of, and most of the time (at least in the later levels) there is only ONE solution...leading to hours of head-banging, controller-flinging frustration. Remember the old PC game Klotski? Imagine playing that on a clock with guys trying to kill you, and that is the gist of Exodus.
All in all, though, this is actually a pretty fun game for those of you who don't mind a challenge (i.e. Myst fans may be up to the challenge, while those who revel in first-person shooters will not). The highest level I have ever seen reached in the game was 97, at which point it takes Mr. Dream-like reflexes and mind to rival NASA scientists. Has anyone in the history of gaming ever actually beaten the game? If so, please comment!
The Dark Knight At His Pixelated Best
There is no denying the fact that the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) was, at its very best, a flawed piece of hardware. Gamers everywhere will remember all the tricks of the trade (blowing, pumping, squeezing, etc.) in order to get the games to boot up. Yet, for all its quirks, that system can never be accused of one thing: churning out classic games that entertained gamers for hours on end. "Batman" is one of those games.
Based on the 1989 film of the same name, this game follows the basic progression of the movie, including such levels as Gotham City, the sewer plant, Joker's television studio, and the Belltower. You play as the Caped Crusader who must dispose of a wide range of enemies (both on land and in the air) while also utilize some fancy jumping skills to scale tall buildings and reach key platforms.
I think that the real genius of the game, though, shines through in its perfectly designed difficulty curve. Though I consider "Punch-Out!" to be my all-time favorite NES game (with this one a close second), in that collection of pugilistic confrontations there is just too much difference between the hardest villain (Tyson/Dream) and the one that proceeded him (Super Macho Man). Basically, you can dominate the entire game and still get floored by Tyson/Dream quite regularly. Fortunately, Batman does not fall prey to that design flaw. Don't get me wrong...the game can be very difficult at times. Yet, the difficulty progresses in such a fashion that the skills learned in one stage will need to be mastered before you have any chance at the next one.
Also, on a bit of a side note, the music in this game is some of the best the NES ever produced. For those of you who are able to appreciate an 8-bit soundtrack, you will be able to listen to Batman's tunes all night long.
To conclude, I think that the true test of the success of this game comes from the fact that it has taken nearly two decades to produce another highly-rated Batman video game (the recently-released Arkham Asylum). All the iterations of the Dark Knight in between either suffered from bad controls, stupid story, or goofy graphics. Who would have thought that the best edition would come from a system as flawed as the NES?!
Happy Death Day (2017)
Leans Into The Cliches To Appeal To Younger Audiences
There are some movies that try to create a sense of realism within them. There are other movies that lean into character/situational cliches to play for comedy or hijinks. Simply put, "Happy Death Day" squarely falls into the latter category. As such, your enjoyment of this film will likely come down to how much you can suspend disbelief at the over-the-top characters to dig into a plot that can actually be intriguing.
For a basic plot summary, "Happy Death Day" focuses on the story of Tree (Jessica Rothe), a college student who wakes up one morning (her birthday, of all days) in the dorm room of Carter (Israel Broussard) after an apparent hook-up. Tree then goes about her "normal" routine, only to be stalked that night (on the way to a party) by a mysterious masked figure. When this figure stabs her and death looks certain...she once again wakes up in Carter's room. It is again her birthday, the date is the same, and the day repeats itself almost exactly the same. As such, the rest of the film entails Tree's struggle first to figure out what the heck is happening, and then finding ways to remedy it.
In terms of plot, there are indeed some interesting things happening in "Happy Death Day". It is very reminiscent of "Groundhog Day" (even outright admitting that fact at one point!) and has a number of fake-outs that shake things up and keep it from being too predictable.
Unfortunately (at least for viewers like myself), that plot intrigue is really just a front for a film made for teens heading to the multiplex on a Friday or Saturday night. As I mentioned in the opener, most of the characters are so over-the-top as to be cringe-worthy (at least for more "seasoned" film fans), an approach that will not phase younger viewers nearly as much. I watched the movie with a sibling 13 years my junior, and she loved it!
I know that "Happy Death Day" was probably never meant to be anything more than it is, so that's why I won't drop it down under a middling 5/10 stars. At the same time, the trailers for the film are a bit misleading, as they connote a film that looks like a serious thriller with a time-loop component. You just have to know going in that this isn't exactly the case, as "serious" is far from the adjective I would use to ever describe the film.
Pure Science Fiction
In today's moviegoing culture, I feel as if pure science fiction tales are heading the way of the dinosaur. Don't get me wrong...there are plenty of films that are set in sci-fi type environments, but most of those either lean heavily on the "science" in sci-fi or end up being little more than character pieces. I believe there is room for a return to science fiction in its purest form, and that is exactly what "Annihilation" provided me.
For a basic plot summary, "Annihilation" primarily focuses on Lena (Natalie Portman), an ex-Army veteran (now biologist) whose husband still serves. After being absent for close to a year, that husband (Oscar Isaac) suddenly walks through the door to their home. What Lena discovers is that he has been inside "The Shimmer", a top-secret project to find out just what in the world has materialized seemingly out of nowhere and is spreading at an alarming rate. Lena herself enters the Shimmer with a team of women (Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tuva Novotny, & Tessa Thompson) in hopes of finding answers both biologically and otherwise.
What I absolutely love about "Annihilation" is that it is filled with great visuals and "what-if?" moments, to me the essentials of strong science fiction. Does everything necessarily make sense or can easily be explained? Certainly not. But if it could, it would cease to be science-fiction. As viewers, I think we are so used to being over-explained or relying on hard science to bolster our enjoyment of these types of movies that we forget about that "what if?" factor. These are the types of films that aroused my curiosity as a child, and apparently they still do to this day.
Besides the great, intriguing visuals and interesting plot, the acting is also top-notch. It's especially great to see Portman back in a leading role, as she is such an incredible acting talent. "Annihilation" could actually stand up as almost the blueprint for making a female-centric film in Hollywood these days (very much a hot-button issue in the industry). Never once is it pushed or preached, but 80% (or perhaps higher) of the film's scenes feature exclusively women. Never once did I think "I wish this had more of a male presence" in the slightest. I think it just goes to show that if you conceive a good enough film and cast solid female actors, the results can kind of speak for themselves.
For the second time now, director/writer Alex Garland has caught my attention with a science-fiction flick (the first being "Ex Machine"). Like I've mentioned, these are the types of films I sought out as a younger man (full of wonder and possibilities) and am always "up for" even today. Garland's work, then, will continued to be closely monitored by this film fan.
Thus, I have nothing but praise for "Annihilation" and hope that it does well in streaming & home video rentals (it kind of got pushed out of cinemas fairly quickly). While perhaps not quite as good as "Ex Machine" or "Arrival" (similar-fare flicks), this one is very, very close.