Film Fanatic

Film Fanatic: ‘Free Solo’ Review

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There’s a moment in Free Solo, the new documentary about free solo climber Alex Honnold, when fellow professional climber, Tommy Caldwell, compares free climbing to an Olympic sport. If you succeed, you win gold. The big difference is that if you don’t, you die. These are the stakes at play for Honnold.

He’s attempting to do what no one has done before; free solo climb (climbing without safety harnesses) up Yosemite’s 3,000-foot high El Capitan wall. But while everyone around him, including his girlfriend; Sanni, worry for his safety, Honnold expresses calmness and excitement that would beguile the average person.

Free Solo works best when directors Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi focus on the climbing and Honnold’s methodical approach to ascending El Cap. Honnold performs several practice runs up the massive slab of granite and the filmmakers document his assessment of the challenge as if he’s a dancer working out the choreography. Whether it’s certain hand movements, feet placement or specific areas of the pitch on a climb, Honnold lights up when discussing the process.

But there is also a psychological aspect to the story the filmmakers have to analyze. Why would someone risk their life doing this? This is where the film falters somewhat. Honnold isn’t exactly a captivating figure when he’s not hanging off the side of a cliff. The doey-eyed free-spirit comes off as aloof and a little selfish.

A self-proclaimed loner, Honnold admits to getting into free solo climbing because he didn’t know anyone to climb with and didn’t want to talk to anyone. In the course of one year, he went from being a nobody to one of the most well-known free climbers in the world. And El Cap is the final (Or next) challenge he has yet to accomplish.

If you like staying on the ground, maybe avoid this one. | (National Geographic)

There’s an attempt to delve into his childhood and his relationship with his father, but Honnold is an empty book when it comes to his reasoning behind such a dangerous and harrowing feat. They literally give him an MRI scan in the middle of the film in an attempt to solve this puzzle. But it simply concludes he requires more stimulus than most people. I’ll say.

Perhaps if the film focused more on his obsession with greatness rather than the danger of it, the scenes on the ground would have been more interesting.

However, some of the best documentaries are ones that go down an unexpected path. Free Solo gets increasingly interesting when interrogating the ethics of filming Honnold on his climbs.

“I’ve always been conflicted about shooting free soloing just because it’s so dangerous,” says Chin. “It’s hard to not imagine your friend falling through the frame to his death.”

The film features multiple cameramen within reach of him as well as drones to capture impossible angles. Honnold is apprehensive about all the attention he’s getting to the point where he quits.

Of course the entire film is leading to his eventual ascent up El Cap. It’s equal parts thrilling and terrifying. And yet Honnold works his way up the treacherous mountain with ease. He’s even grinning at a few points. The scene intertcuts between Honnold and the cameramen on the ground afraid to watch. It affects the tension somewhat, but it’s understandable considering they don’t want to get too close.

As a document to one of the most incredible athletic feats in history, Free Solo is mesmerizing. The photography, scale and queasy voyeurism make it captivating for thrill seekers and scary for anyone afraid of heights. The film drags a bit when psychologizing, but in the end, Free Solo is as thrilling as any blockbuster you’ll see.

 

Film Fanatic: ‘Escape Room’ Review

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Escape rooms became a thing a few years ago. The basic definition is, a physical adventure game in which players solve a series of riddles and puzzles using clues, hints and strategy to complete the ultimate objective which is to escape the room.

It was only a matter of time until such a concept became a horror movie and thus, we have Escape Room.

The film follows six strangers who are all given an invitation to an escape room where, if they escape, they win $10,000. Unbeknownst to them, each room (There’s more than one) is a death trap and they must solve the puzzle of escaping each room or else they die.

But despite being strangers to one another, the six contestants all share one common bond. This is a neat little trick by director Adam Robitel and the screenwriters. It forces us as the audience to solve not only the puzzles in each room, but figure out the past of each character. It also makes us attempt to care and sympathize with each of them as the film progresses. Some more than others.

Not everything is as it seems in ‘Escape Room.’ | (Sony Pictures)

Not enough attention is paid to their backstories. Each room has specific triggers for each character flashing back to their past. But if the filmmakers had relied a little more on their commonality and the psychology of it, the film could have been a little more substantive and compelling.

At its core, Escape Room is a mashup of Saw, Final Destination and Cube, a little horror movie from 1997. How can we come up with even more fun and creative ways to kill off each character?

The difference here is that Escape Room is PG-13. At first glance, this might disappoint horror fans who look forward to the gory pay-off. But by keeping it PG-13, Robitel finds inventive ways of scaring the audience by having each room not only unique, but a ticking clock that must be solved or else. The rooms are the star of the film, not the actors.

Another comparable film is The Cabin in the Woods. But that film embraces its clever concept by injecting humor throughout the story. Escape Room has virtually no humor which is a missed opportunity.

When it’s  just about trying to solve puzzles to survive, the film works. One room in particular is upside down with a floor that slowly collapses. It’s an entertaining and visually interesting scene with Robitel moving the camera in creative ways to mess with our depth perception.

But as the film progresses and the bigger reveal becomes more clear, Escape Room becomes less and less inventive and unique and more like the other movies I mentioned. The final 30 minutes are utterly preposterous and you can practically see the studio proclaiming, HERE’S YOUR NEXT FRANCHISE!

Escape Room works best when it’s ambiguous and tightly wound. But then it literally traps itself into setting up future installments and feeling like every other franchise in the genre.

 

Film Fanatic: ‘Blindspotting’ Review

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Collin (Daveed Diggs) is on edge. With three days left on his probation, Collin is trying his best to stay out of trouble. But when he witnesses a cop shoot an unarmed black man in the streets, he questions not only his place as a black man in a city like Oakland, but also his lifelong friendship with troublemaker Miles (Rafael Casal).

Collin and Miles work as movers. They go from place to place moving people out of homes they can no longer afford. It’s a perfect plot device by director Carlos Lopez Estrada. It not only showcases the great chemistry and friendship between Collin and Miles, but as a love letter to Oakland and its evolution.

Blindspotting is one of the smartest independent films to come along in quite some time. Written by Diggs and Casal, the film tackles everything from racism, social media and police brutality to start-up culture and the justice system.

But it presents these themes organically through the decisions the characters make as well as the environment they’ve already grown up into. Blindspotting sounds like a heavy film, and it is at times, but it’s also one of the funniest films of the year.

Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal shine in ‘Blindspotting.’ | (Lionsgate)

With shades of both Friday and the apex years of Spike Lee, the film tackles heady topics in an entertaining way while never coming off as preachy. The incident that lands Collin in jail best encapsulates this. While working as a doorman at a bar, Collin gets into an altercation with a white hipster type. Miles, who is there with him, escalates the situation which leads to Collin being arrested, a man in the hospital, and Miles getting off scot free.

The scene is presented as a flashback through the eyes of a witness who was there and it had me laughing out loud several times due to the smart writing. But then the scene flips on a dime and becomes the elephant in the room for Collin and Miles.

Collin is smart and articulate. He’s also black with braids in his hair. Miles is white but he wears a grill in his mouth and talks like he’s Eminem. They’ve been best friends for years and have seen Oakland as both an urban and diverse community slowly succumbing to gentrification.

The color of their skin has never been a problem until Collin’s arrest highlights not only Collin’s constant fear and insecurities as a black man in 2018, but also his friendship with Miles who wears his “thug” persona as a badge of honor.

As the feature film debut for Estrada as well as being Diggs and Casal’s first screenplay, Blindspotting is as impressive as it gets. Estrada directs with confidence. The colors pop, the camera moves and the environments are rich and lived-in.

Diggs is a compelling lead who can manage both the humor and serious aspects to the story. Casal is a revelation. The trailer presents him as a horrible friend who Collin should have left behind years ago. But when you watch the film, he’s a loving father and husband who can talk his way out of any situation (For better or worse) and provide for his family. He certainly can drag Collin down at times, but he’s loyal which makes him endearing.

Blindspotting surprised the hell out of me. It’s a film of its time that tackles serious issues with urgency and confidence. But also manages to entertain and inform thanks to Estrada’s direction, a colorful and woke screenplay from Diggs and Casal and breakout performances from the two leads.

Blindspotting is available to rent on Amazon for $2.99.

 

 

Film Fanatic: ‘Halloween’ Review

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The genius of the original Halloween is its minimalism. Style over substance is often the criticism directors receive when making films. But in the case of Halloween, director John Carpenter made the decision to strip away plot and character development. His focus was mood and tone.

The result was a chilling horror film about a murderous rampage on Halloween night. But it was also different. This was a story that took place in suburban any-town USA. Where simple white-picket fences and locks weren’t enough to save you from the boogeyman.

The boogeyman of this story, Michael Myers, isn’t so much a man, but a manifestation of evil. The who and why of Myers is irrelevant. He’s an indestructible force whose only purpose is death.

Halloween was released in October, 1978 to rave reviews. Made in 20 days on a shoestring budget of $300,000, Halloween would go on to gross more than $70 million worldwide. It also spawned countless sequels and created a sub-genre within horror known as the Slasher film.

‘The Shape’ returns in yet another iteration of ‘Halloween.’ | (Universal)

But forget about the nine sequels or re-imaginings that have been released since Halloween. The new film, directed by David Gordon Green, ignores everything that came after the original.

Jamie Lee Curtis returns as Laurie Strode, the woman who barely survived Myers’ killing spree four decades ago. But Strode has no intention of ever being a victim again. She’s spent decades preparing and training for Myers eventual return. But at what cost?

That fateful night defines her life resulting in her estrangement from her daughter and granddaughter. Strode is now a recluse waiting for something that may never happen.

But she’ll get her chance. While being transferred to a new facility (Never a good idea in horror movies), Myers escapes with the intention of finally killing Laurie Strode.

The new Halloween exists because of nostalgia. It may also exist as a makeup for all of those awful sequels. Is it better than those films? Yes. But it still didn’t need to be made.

The minimalism and ambiguity is what makes the original work. It was revolutionary in its storytelling because it didn’t have grand ideas or underlining social commentary. It literally cut through what a traditional horror film looked like up to that point.

Ambiguity goes out the window with sequels. Now we get to know Laurie Strode and what’s happened to her since that night 40 years ago. Although I would argue we don’t really get to know her. Green only hints at ideas of trauma, PTSD and the MeToo movement. Curtis isn’t given the opportunity to explore these aspects to her character because Green’s focus is moving on from the space in between to get to the blood and guts.

Green is known more for his independent dramas and despite his inexperience in the horror genre, he manages to do a decent job of crafting tension and suspense. The highlight being a scene in a bathroom that is both brutal and terrifying. The scene ends with Myers finally putting on the iconic mask. The way Green reveals this had the hair on the back of my neck standing up.

Jamie Lee Curtis is no longer playing the victim in these movies. | (Universal)

He also pays homage to the original with a long tracking shot of Myers walking toward a shed to grab a hammer and into a woman’s home to murder her. The murder is off camera and left to the imagination. Although he does include horrifying sound effects to amp up the scene.

But there isn’t enough of this. The original relied not only on first-person perspective, but also long and lingering Steadicam shots. That type of slow movement created a sense of a ghostly voyeur stalking its prey. Carpenter’s ability to fill the frame with empty space and blend it with his eery musical score created an atmosphere that was palpable.

Green co-wrote the film with Danny McBride and they do inject some much-needed humor that was lacking in the original. One scene in particular involving a babysitter and a little boy is hilarious. But Green and McBride also have completely random scenes of humor that undercut tension at the worst moments. Do we really need a scene where police officers are talking about what they brought for lunch?

The entire film builds to an ending that is kind of disappointing. Strode has created a Home Alone-like (Or Saw for the horror fans) fortress filled with booby traps and a panic room. But Green doesn’t really know how to pull off this final scene in an inventive way. The panic room also proves to be irrelevant when characters make dumb decisions.

In the end Halloween seems to act more as an apology to those thankless sequels rather than something to stand on its own. There’s suspense here and there, but it’s mostly a forgettable slasher film to please the fanboys of the original.

 

 

 

Film Fanatic: ‘Venom’ Review

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Venom feels like it was made in the mid-’00s. Back in those days, superhero movies were a little goofier, shorter and unironic. They had directors like Rob Bowman, Mark Steven Johnson and some guy by the name of Pitof. And shout out to Tim Story who managed to get two Fantastic Four movies released.

This was a time period when studios were desperate to buy up superhero properties and get them into theaters regardless of quality. Sure, we had Spider-Man and X-Men, but they were made by capable filmmakers (Sam Raimi, Bryan Singer) who put an emphasis on character and story above set pieces. But even they had their moments of over-the-top scenes to remind audiences that they were still watching a comic book movie. Go back and watch Raimi’s Spider-Man movies and they will almost feel dated when compared to today’s crop of superhero IP.

That’s because superhero movies have become far more sophisticated. They’re deeper, longer and meta. They’re made by filmmakers like Christopher Nolan, James Gunn and Taika Waititi. Ryan Coogler is another name to mention as his film, Black Panther, has a legitimate shot of not only being nominated for Best Picture at next year’s Academy Awards, but actually winning it.

Venom is something else entirely. It’s an outlier in today’s superhero landscape and it’s because of this that I don’t really know how to react to it. It’s not nearly as bad as the critics are making it out to be, but it’s also not particularly good. It might be the definition of a “so bad it’s good” movie.

Venom finally gets his own movie. | (Sony Pictures)

Tom Hardy stars as Eddie Brock, a Vice-like reporter exposing corruption in San Francisco. He’s an on-camera reporter too which doesn’t really make much sense considering it’s…you know, Tom Hardy.

But The Eddie Brock Show is successful. Which is why he can land a beautiful lawyer girlfriend like Anne (Michelle Williams). They’re engaged and share not only an expensive-looking apartment, but a cat named Mister Belvedere.

Everything in Brock’s life is going great until he sticks his nose in Carlton Drake’s (Riz Ahmed) business. Drake is the founder of the Life Foundation. Rather than preserving life however, Drake concerns himself with perfecting it by sacrificing human life with an alien parasite known as a symbiote. Brock breaks into Drake’s lab and exposes himself to the symbiote which latches onto him. This bond leads Brock to possess superhuman strength and power in the form of a creature known as Venom.

It takes what feels like an hour before Brock becomes Venom and this is when the film embraces the silliness. Hardy, who’s not known for comedy, goes all in on the physical gags of something commandeering his body. Brock tears his apartment apart munching on frozen tater tots and half-eaten chicken wings from the trash. He even goes so far as to jump in a tank full of lobsters and begins eating them in front of an entire restaurant full of customers. Hardy is having a blast in these scenes and they are reminiscent of Jim Carrey in The Mask or Upgrade from earlier this year.

But we haven’t bought a ticket to see Hardy be Robin Williams. We want Venom and when he finally arrives, the movie is a whole lot of fun. A Keystone Cops apartment fight scene followed by a terrific motorcycle chase through the streets of San Francisco (Obvious Bullitt homage) act as Venom’s introduction. But what makes these scenes memorable isn’t so much the action, but Venom and Brock’s back-and-forth.

The duality of Venom and Eddie Brock is the best part of ‘Venom.’ | (Sony Pictures)

Brock is obviously reluctant to have his body turned into a wrecking ball, but the bromance going on between Brock and Venom is fun and their dynamic lifts the film from being an ordinary anti-hero origin story.

It’s certainly better than whatever is going on between Brock and Anne. Hardy and Williams have zero chemistry. Williams doesn’t seem to know how to navigate her way through a popcorn movie. She’s here for the paycheck.

Drake is your standard moustache-twirling villain. He’s just a guy in a suit who has power and wants more of it. The villains are always the weakest element in superhero movies, but this is one of the worst.

The inevitable third-act CGI-fight scene (Deadpool 2 called it) is unmemorable for the most part and director Ruben Fleischer commits a common superhero sin by having the villain inherit the same powers as the hero in a matter of minutes without the same difficulty as the hero (See: Iron Man, Ant-Man and Black Panther).

But despite Fleischer’s unremarkable direction and an awkward first act, Venom kind of grew on me. It’s so different from the superhero movies of today and that makes it kind of charming in a weird way. Hardy fully embraces both Brock and Venom and that’s what puts it over the top. For better or worse.

 

Film Fanatic: ‘BlacKkKlansman’ Review

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Here’s the synopsis for BlacKkKlansman, the new film from Spike Lee:

Ron Stallworth, an African-American police officer from Colorado, successfully manages to infiltrate the local Ku Klux Klan over the phone with the help of a fellow white police officer, who eventually becomes head of the local branch.

That sounds like a too-good-to-be-true story. But it actually happened and who better to tell such a story than Lee, a director known for pushing boundaries on race and politics in his films. Despite a seemingly perfect fit however, Lee manages to mishandle this story on a number of levels resulting in a film that feels like a wasted opportunity.

Let’s start with the characters. John David Washington (Son of Denzel) portrays Stallworth with an odd mix of charm and ignorance. He literally walks in off the street to become the first black police officer in Colorado Springs and within fifteen minutes of screentime, he goes from rookie in the records room to a detective leading an investigation. He is not given any room to grow because the plot needs to move forward. But he’s “ambitious” according to the screenplay so it’s fine.

Adam Driver and John David Washington have great scenes together. There just isn’t enough of them. | (Focus Features)

Adam Driver is Flip Zimmerman, the white officer posing as Stallworth. Driver is great as always and his scenes with Washington are the best in the film. But he’s just a Jew pretending to be a Neo-Nazi and nothing more.

There’s so much to explore there and instead Lee wastes Driver’s talent with scene after scene of Zimmerman going to Klan meetings and proving his worth to their cause. It reminds me of a much better film involving a cop infiltrating a Neo-Nazi group, Imperium. That film tackles the cost of going against everything you believe in to get the job done. I don’t know what Zimmerman believes in because we don’t get to know him.

A love interest in the form of Patrice (Laura Harrier) begins with Stallworth after his first undercover assignment involves attending a civil rights rally. She’s a student activist leader unaware that he’s a cop. They talk about black culture, white power, civil rights and police brutality. That last subject would make for an interesting dynamic between the two, but instead it acts as another fleeting subplot that goes nowhere.

Besides the one-note characters, the film is all over the place on a tonal level. BlacKkKlansman has four screenwriters (including Lee) credited on the film and you really feel it. Scenes bounce back and forth from downright goofy to super serious. In one odd scene near the end, Stallworth, Zimmerman and Chief Bridges (Robert John Burke) perform a sting operation to out one of their fellow officers who is a corrupt racist. This entire scene feels misplaced and tacked on just to give the audience some form of gratification. Everyone is high-fiving at the end and this is immediately followed by a scene where Bridges tells the entire team to drop their investigation into the Ku Klux Klan due to “budget cuts.” What? He also tells them to destroy their findings. Why?

The story also doesn’t evolve organically. One character acts as a bodyguard for David Duke (Topher Grace) and it makes absolutely no sense. It only happens so that that character can discover something. And the way he obtains this information is also ridiculous.

Topher Grace as David Duke in a nice change-of-pace role. | (Focus Features)

Lee is attempting satire or blaxploitation or something and it gets in the way of telling a compelling true story. Lee also can’t help but interject current events into the screenplay that are absurdly unsubtle. One shot lingers on a poster of Richard Nixon. Another scene blatantly turns into “this is where we indirectly talk about Donald Trump without actually talking about him.”

There’s great individual scenes in BlacKkKlansman. Perhaps the best intercuts between a KKK ceremony and activist Harry Belafonte reminiscing about a young black man whose savage murder was presented as entertainment for a white audience in the early 20th Century. It’s powerful.

There’s also clever comedic moments like Stallworth having to apply for a membership in the KKK like he’s signing up for a new credit card. Even the KKK has hidden fees in the application. You want a white hood and robe? You’ll have to pay a little extra for that.

But Lee can’t decide which movie he wants to make and the screenplay isn’t sophisticated enough to balance both. There’s a great buddy cop movie in there somewhere. When was the last time we had a great buddy cop movie? If Lee had made that the main plot with all of these prescient ideas surrounding it, BlacKkKlansman could have been great.

Instead we get what feels like the outline of a potentially great movie that tackles relevant topics that were as important in the ‘70s as they are today. The ending is a gut-punch. But it doesn’t feel earned based on everything that comes before it.

The fact that BlacKkKlansman exists in 2018 is a win. Is it timely? Sure. Is it polemic? Absolutely. But Lee is capable of so much better.

 

Film Fanatic: ‘Mile 22’ Review

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Mark Wahlberg has never made a truly great action movie. He’s made a lot of decent cable-watch action movies like Shooter, Contraband and 2 Guns. He’s also made three pretty good action dramas in Lone Survivor, Deepwater Horizon and Patriot’s Day. All three of those films were directed by Peter Berg, who helms Wahlberg’s latest effort, Mile 22.

Wahlberg plays James Silva, the leader of an elite task force within the CIA. Silva and his team are in Asia looking for a deadly chemical agent. With no credible leads, in walks Li Noor (Iko Uwais), a local officer who says he has information on where to find the chemical agent. But he won’t give up this information unless Silva and his team can escort Li from the U.S. Embassy to an airfield where Li will seek asylum in America.

Escort a shady individual with sensitive information 22 miles through a southeast Asian city unharmed. Sounds like the workings of a straightforward and competently made action movie. Instead, Berg, Wahlberg and screenwriter Lea Carpenter have made a truly forgettable and ugly film with no redeeming qualities. Mile 22 is easily Berg’s worst film.

Wahlberg’s wheelhouse is shooting guns, not thinking. | (STX Films)

Let’s start with Wahlberg. He’s playing a manic genius. We’re told this because he does things like complete “The World’s Most Difficult Puzzles,” quotes Lincoln’s second inauguration and author John Hersey’s book on Hiroshima and constantly snaps a rubber band around his wrist to keep his mind from overloading(?).

All of these “character traits” are in place to make him seem interesting, but instead, he comes off as not only annoying, but perhaps the worst leader ever. He’s constantly yelling at his fellow agents, barging into offices and female shower rooms of fellow superiors and agents and leaving not one but two soldiers behind on the battlefield.

His unpleasantness seeps into his team as well. Lauren Cohen plays Alice Kerr, a character who is constantly dropping F-bombs towards her ex-husband through a divorce app(?). Sam Snow (Ronda Rousey) doesn’t even get an ex-husband. She just scowls a lot. There’s even a character who is in charge of manning a drone. Instead of this person being presented as a soldier with some small shred of empathy, here he’s a frat boy playing video games constantly begging his boss to blow some people up.

Berg doesn’t seem to have any interest in establishing camaraderie among these people so that we care about them in difficult situations. This is shocking considering Berg’s affinity for the military rivals only Michael Bay as a director.

If the characters are forgettable, what about the action? Remember those Berg movies I mentioned earlier? Those had the advantage of being based on real people and events. Berg handles the action in those films with care and bases them in reality.

In Mile 22, Berg not only reverts back to mid-aughts shaky-cam nonsense, he also wastes the considerable talents of Uwais. Instead of showcasing the Indonesian actor’s exceptional work from the Raid movies with well-choreographed stunts and wide shots, Berg drowns the actor in incomprehensible quick cuts where you have no idea what’s going on. Uwais isn’t 60-year-old Liam Neeson trying to scale a fence! There’s even a scene in a diner shot in darkness and smoke. Great way to film a fight sequence. Rousey doesn’t even get to fight. Why else is she in the movie?

If you cast Iko Uwais in your movie, use him. | (STX Films)

How about the plot? Totally nonsensical. There’s a subplot involving Russians (It’s 2018 after all) and the film flashes ahead several times where Wahlberg is spouting off to some government lackey about the mission and the cost of war. I couldn’t even understand half of what he was saying because he was talking so fast.

And if Wahlberg’s character is such a genius, why are the villains always a step ahead of him and his team? The lesson here is: never let Wahlberg play a smart guy. See: The Happening, The Gambler and two Transformers movies. He’s a good actor, but he doesn’t have considerable range. Just give him a gun and let him shoot things.

Despite being a brisk 95 minutes, Mile 22 feels like a sludge to get through. And they have the audacity to tease a sequel at the end. Maybe some more thought should have been put into this one before thinking about a franchise.

 

Film Fanatic: ‘Eighth Grade’ Review

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Can you imagine being a kid in the age of social media? I graduated from high school in 2003 and in less than a year, Mark Zuckerberg would launch Facebook. I don’t even remember kids having cell phones when I was in high school. Does that make me old?

Kids today are not only well-versed in technology, they’re bred into it. Give a five-year-old a tablet and within 10 minutes, they’ll be conquering Candy Crush. Give them your phone and they’ll probably be maxing out your credit cards on Amazon.

The worst time to experience social media is when you’re a teenager. You’re already dealing with awkwardness, anxiousness and acne. You have no idea who you are as a person and social media can shine a light into how “boring and unoriginal” your life truly is. Unless you cultivate it.

Elsie Fisher shines as a painfully awkward teenager in ‘Eighth Grade.’ | (A24)

13-year-old Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher) is one of those awkward teenagers. But as Eighth Grade, the debut film from comedian Bo Burnham begins, she’s posting a video on her YouTube channel about how to be yourself no matter what. She posts videos throughout the film giving fellow teenagers advice on how to navigate the tricky world of adolescence in 2018. Call it a digital diary.

The irony however is that she doesn’t have the faintest idea who she is or what to do. She’s a walking contradiction. She’s about to finish middle school which means high school is on the horizon. She has very few friends (If any) and social situations are the worst.

But as the film progresses, she attempts to finally gain confidence and use some of that advice she’s been giving in her videos.

Eighth Grade is a lovely, sweet, and often funny commentary on the youth of America today. Fisher gives a wonderful and endearing performance as Kayla and her relationship with her single father, played by the always great Josh Hamilton, is portrayed with tenderness and nuance. Every scene they share together is painfully pitch-perfect. If that makes sense.

Eighth Grade isn’t exactly plot driven. Instead, Burnham presents a slice-of-life drama. Kayla crushes on a boy, with phenomenal musical cues, but it doesn’t resolve itself like we normally see in coming-of-age stories. There’s also a pool party that is as uncomfortable as it gets, but doesn’t act as an essential or revelatory scene to move the story forward.

Burnham’s interests lie in examining the current life of a 13-year-old girl through the prism of Kayla. And while that could come off as raunchy and immature, Burnham’s comedic talents shine through to present a biting and sometimes political satire. In one scene, Kayla goes through a school-shooting drill that is both frighteningly eye-opening and strangely one of the funnier scenes in the film. In another scene, Kayla deals with sexual advances from an older student. It’s a scene that could have gone terribly wrong. But Burnham captures it in a way that doesn’t shy away from the dark truths that have been revealed in the MeToo movement.

Josh Hamilton is pitch-perfect as the well-intentioned dad trying to connect with his daughter. | (A24)

Kayla is alone through much of the film and that’s a conscience effort Burnham makes. The presence of social media establishes the illusion of knowing other people without actually speaking to them to learn more about them. Kayla’s social anxiety is a commentary on our diminishing ability or desire to interact with people face-to-face.

Despite being a first-time director and writer, Burnham shows great confidence and intelligence in his storytelling. He doesn’t concern himself with presenting traditional archetypes in his film which would classify as a “teen film.” There’s no bullies, no supportive teachers or even the homecoming dance at the end. Sorry John Hughes lovers.

It’s just an intimate portrait of one teenage girl. In one of the better scenes, Kayla finally opens up to her father about everything she’s dealing with. It’s the only time her mother is ever mentioned, but that’s not what the scene is about. It’s about her hating herself and being terrified that no one will ever see her for who she really is. Hamilton’s parenting in this scene is truly heartwarming and essential viewing for any parent with a teenager.

Some may see Eighth Grade as a “rough draft” for a coming-of-age story. But Burnham presents it in a documentary-like way that is refreshingly unflattering and realistic. It captures “moments” that are sometimes hilarious, sometimes painful and even a little touching.

 

Film Fanatic: ‘Mission: Impossible – Fallout’ Review

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There’s a moment in Mission: Impossible – Fallout  when Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt is being chased by police through the streets of Paris on a motorcycle.  He eventually makes it to the famous Arc de Triomphe roundabout where he’s forced to enter to elude authorities. He’s without a helmet and swerving through oncoming traffic with immaculate precision. It is jaw-dropping, breathtaking and any other adjective you can think of.

It’s one of many scenes in Fallout, the sixth entry in the Mission franchise, that instantly became the best action scene from any movie this year. And Cruise did his own stunts in all of them.

He does all of them because he’s A: insane and B: willing to do anything to entertain an audience. It’s what drives him. And he’s outdone himself this time because Fallout is without question, the best action movie since Mad Max: Fury Road.

A unique aspect to the Mission franchise is that it’s been a “One Director’s Vision” concept. In each of the first five films, you could see that director’s personal stamp on the film for better (Brad Bird with Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol) and for worse (John Woo with Mission: Impossible II).

Look at what Tom Cruise does to entertain you. | (Paramount Pictures)

But in Fallout, director Christopher McQuarrie returns to continue the story he started in Rogue Nation and gives the franchise something it hasn’t had before: continuity.

After successfully capturing Solomon Lane, leader of the terrorist organization known as The Syndicate, in Rogue Nation, Hunt and his team face a new threat called The Apostles. They are looking to acquire plutonium for nuclear bombs and after a botched mission by Hunt and his team allow the Apostles to obtain the plutonium, Hunt must find them and take down their mysterious leader who goes by the alias, John Lark. His failure to secure the plutonium results in him having to work with an unknown agent, August Walker (Henry Cavill), whose objective is to ensure the plutonium is recovered at any cost.

Fallout is a true sequel to Rogue Nation. It emphasizes the cost of human life and Hunt’s relationship to the people he cares about more than any other Mission movie. He saves Luther’s (Ving Rhames) life at the beginning of the film, but it results in the loss of the plutonium. He has nightmares about Julia (Michelle Monaghan), the love of his life who he must distance himself from in order to protect her.

On more than one occasion, he has to tell Benji (Simon Pegg) that he won’t let anything happen to him and then of course there’s Ilsa (Rebecca Ferguson), the mysterious woman who asked him to go away with her and leave behind a world of spying and fighting.

Hunt can’t lose even a single life because he knows what kind of burden and regret it will leave on him. This extra wrinkle makes Fallout the most personal Mission since the first and third entries in the series. It adds more weight to the story.

It may be Cruise’s show, but the team is just as essential. | (Paramount Pictures)

It also makes the story a little more convoluted with numerous twists, turns and double-crosses. It can even be slightly confusing at times which is something you never want to see in a Mission movie.

But that weight is necessary because whereas previous Missions seem to worry more about getting Hunt to the next set piece, Fallout focuses on those storylines from previous entries and builds upon them.

Of course, these movies are essentially half macguffins and half Cruise performing death-defying stunts and you know what, I don’t care. The man is in his mid-50s and shows no signs of slowing down.

Cruise jumps out of an airplane at 25,000 feet, has a brutal fight in a bathroom, jumps across buildings and runs along rooftops like he’s Batman and hangs from a helicopter that he’ll eventually commandeer to chase down another helicopter. And it’s all real (For the most part).

In a summer where we’ve gotten not one but two mediocre Dwayne Johnson movies (Rampage, Skyscraper), a ludicrous Jurassic World sequel and a forgettable Star Wars movie, you can still rely on Cruise to deliver.

Mission: Impossible – Fallout is why we go to the movies. For the spectacle, the exhilaration and the utter desire to see it again almost immediately.

 

Film Fanatic: ‘Tag’ Review

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Do kids still play tag? In an era where video games, smartphones and streaming are at their fingertips, a game where you run around outside trying to touch someone seems not only trivial, but archaic.

A quick Google search reveals things like, “Top 10 Versions of Playing Tag” and “Why are Kids so Bad at Playing Tag?” How could someone be bad at playing tag? I guess if you’re slow or perhaps asthmatic. Watch out for those pollen counts.

The Google search also reveals multiple headlines of schools banning the game because it’s unsafe. I once collided with a friend resulting in them breaking their collarbone. I think we were playing football, but it was a freak accident.

That was 20 years ago. The only conceivable reason for me to play tag today, in my mid-30s, would be if I had children. If I was doing it with fellow adults, that would be kind of weird, right?

The cast of ‘Tag’ are all likeable. | (Warner Bros.)

And yet, that’s the premise of the latest comedy, Tag. Based on a true story of a group of friends who have been playing the same game of tag for 30 years, Tag follows Hogan (Ed Helms), Bob (Jon Hamm), Chilli (Jake Johnson) and Kevin (Hannibal Buress).

The four of them reunite every May to play the game. Not only because it’s still fun, but because it gives them a chance to catch up on each other’s lives.

There’s another member of the group, Jerry (Jeremy Renner), who’s never been tagged in all the years they’ve been playing. Not once. I guess all that Avengers training finally paid off for Renner. Although not without a few injuries.

Jerry’s perfect score(?) has made Hogan desperate. Jerry is about to get married, so the gang heads to Washington to attend the wedding and finally tag Jerry while his guard is down.

The concept of Tag is great and the perfect premise for a comedy. The fact that it’s based on a true story only adds to the allure.

And the scenes involving the game are satisfying. Characters disguise themselves as janitors and old ladies and the physical comedy is consistently funny. It works because the filmmakers are parodying action movies in these scenes. Slow-motion, golf-cart chases and hand-to-hand combat are among the highlights.

But when the movie slows down, the pacing and story slow to a crawl. The characters are constantly reminding us that the game has kept them close all these years, but what we don’t get enough of that comradery. The characters are all likeable, but none of them are developed so you don’t get a sense of their great bond.

The tag scenes are heightened, self-aware and entertaining. | (Warner Bros.)

There’s a love triangle subplot involving Chilli, Bob and a character played by Rashida Jones that goes nowhere. Johnson is basically playing another version of his character on New Girl, the mid-30s guy who can’t escape his college days, and the movie attempts to mature Chilli through Jones’s character, but it doesn’t work at all. Every one of her scenes could have easily been cut from the movie which is sad because she is a great comedic actor.

There are a couple of bright spots. Helms, who usually plays the straight man, is delightfully unhinged thanks to Jerry always being one step ahead. And Isla Fisher as Hogan’s wife steals every scene she’s in. It reminded me of her breakout role in Wedding Crashers.

Renner can do the physical stuff with ease, but his attempts at comedy mostly fall flat and Buress, who is normally very funny, is underutilized.

There’s a great comedy somewhere to be found in this. They’ve got the premise and cast to pull it off, but it all feels like a missed opportunity. You don’t know any of the characters which results in themes like friendship, staying connected and reliving the glory days feeling irrelevant.

The film attempts to sprinkle in some sentimentality near the end, but by then it’s too late resulting in an awkward tonal shift.

If you want a comedy with a clever plot, well-rounded characters and likeable actors, check out Game Night instead.

 

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