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“Eighth Grade” a touching portrayal that will appeal to everyone

Very often, the portrayal of young people in media is stylized and stereotyped to the point of parody. The geek. The jock. The peppy cheerleader. All are tropes that at their basic level ignore the intricacies of a complex person. Writer and director Bo Burnham, recognizing that it is not how different kids are from adults but how similar, creates a full portrait of adolescence in “Eighth Grade.”

Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher) is an introvert, struggling to find her way as she transitions to high school. Her father, Mark (Josh Hamilton), tries to help her, but Kayla has trouble opening up to him. She can’t make friends, trying to blend in by being someone else rather than herself, and she pushes herself past her comfort zone to attract the attention of boys. Depressed and anxiety-stricken, Kayla’s life is a constant struggle.

Kayla’s journey is never belittled, the issues of youth treated as serious as the issues of adulthood. This is not some teen drama which panders to a simple message. This is an R-rated film that explores growing up, sexuality and societal acceptance.

Burnham’s script is masterful, building the right character moments and really digging into the mind of a early teen girl. Every high is so high. Every low is so low. One minute, you’re on top of the world. The next, you feel as though you can never climb out of despair.

What is most intriguing is how Burnham is able to view Kayla’s journey not as a young person’s story, but as a universal story. The viewer can empathize with Kayla no matter how old they are because we all go through periods of great personal change, and we all struggle with finding our place in the world. Her confrontation and eventual acceptance of her identity builds an elemental base for the audience’s empathy.

A well-crafted, emotional story, “Eighth Grade” is a magnificent portrait of personal change.


“Happy Death Day” and “Happy Death Day 2 U”

Horror films are cheap to make. They’re gimmicky, relying on a simple hook to generate a plot. They can create franchises. These are all tried-and-true tropes that show themselves in the “Death Day” franchise. “Death Day” though is not really a horror franchise. They’re comedies first and foremost, and this gives them leeway to explore situations a bit more than the simple kill-or-be-killed scenario employed by so many other films. So there are ideas in the films. Sort of. Both “Death Day” films have some elements of brain in them which is both good and bad.

Directed by Christopher Landon, the first film tells the story of Tree Gelbman (Jessica Rothe), a college student stuck living the same day over and over again. Her life resets every night when she is killed by a psycho killer in a baby mask. She has to narrow down the possible suspects whether it be the dweeby Carter (Israel Broussard), roommate Lori (Ruby Modine), prom queen Danielle (Rachel Matthews) or any other number of people and stop the loop from resetting before her body finally gives out.

The sequel picks up right where the first film left off, with Tree having stopped the killer and broken the loop. Or so she thinks. She discovers that one of Carter’s friends, Ryan (Phi Vu), has built a molecular device that started her frustrations with the time loop. He sets it off when a doppelganger tries to kill him, sending Tree back to the same day again, but in a parallel multiverse where her boyfriend, Carter, is dating Danielle instead of her and her long-deceased mother is still alive. And there’s still a crazy psycho killer trying to murder her.

The premise is a gimmick. They even directly reference “Groundhog Day” in the film. That’s fine. No one is looking for world changing cinema here. They’re just trying to have fun, and they mostly succeed at that. The horror isn’t gross. It’s funny. The filmmakers know what they’re doing. It’s just a matter of bringing out the inherent humor to create a worthwhile popcorn flick. In that respect, the first film accomplishes more than the second one.

The first film hits all the necessary beats of the standard horror-comedy. Setup, character motivation, escalating tension, payoffs. They’re all there in a somewhat fun, interesting way. It’s just strange enough to be amusing.

The second one is too similar to the first, not going crazy enough to warrant its existence. The whole multiverse angle is interesting, but Tree never visits other dimensions. Ryan himself says that there are six other ones so why not? You could have her bouncing around all of these crazy scenarios with six different psycho killers after her. Six different variations of Carter. Things could have been crazy wild, but we instead pretty much just get a rehash of the first film, with one interesting dilemma: Tree’s mom is alive in this parallel dimension, but if she stays, she’ll sacrifice her relationship with her boyfriend. What should she do? That kind of question, while interesting, is actually a little too dramatic for this kind of movie, and the film struggles with balancing that quandary with all the fun horror-comedy things going on around it.

Tree is a strong character. She’s not some damsel in distress. She’s strong-willed, thinks through her actions and develops a plan. She saves Carter more than he saves her. It’s refreshing and a more modern take on the horror-comedy. The other characters around her could be beefed up a little. Much like so many other films of similar ilk, they are unable to really break free of their stereotypes.

But hey, this is a film series where the protagonist is shot, stabbed, crushed, poisoned, electrocuted, burned or blown up every few minutes. What you get is good enough.

“Too Big to Fail” humanizes Henry Paulson for better or worse

There have now been many films on the epic economic collapse of 2008 as the struggles reverberating from it are still omnipresent. “The Big Short” focuses on the investors who saw it coming. “Margin Call” shows us the conscience of the higher ups dealing with the event in real time. Documentaries such as “Inside Job” examine how the collapse occurred. “Too Big to Fail” moves the narrative focus to Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and, for better or worse, dramatizes him as a savior of sorts on the frontlines.

Directed by Curtis Hanson and written by Peter Gould off Andrew Ross Sorkin’s book, the film follows the cascading dominoes of Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and on and on. Secretary Paulson (William Hurt) takes desperate measures that test the separation of state and independent business while also dealing with his own conscience for his contribution in slashing regulations that could have prevented risky investments. His staff pulls out all the measures they can to ensure that the infamous Wall Street bailout goes through.

In difference to other perspectives on the crisis, Hanson’s film displays the perpetrators as unknowing participants in the collapse. The resulting downturn in the market is as much a surprise to them as it was to us. For many, that is inherently problematic. The approach sympathizes pretty much everyone in the film to some extent, but it also undercuts the film’s credibility as it feels fake in the sense that “your boss actually cares about you” kind of rhetoric. Paulson himself can easily be villified in the correct context. Is he genuinely concerned about the ordinary person caught in the crosshairs of a climactic collapse? Or is he just trying to save his old friends from Wall Street with no discernible path other than a public bailout? The film certainly has one interpretation, but you may have another.

Much more in line with public perception is the constant distrust between the heads of the big banks and how they will attempt to screw each other even in the face of worldwide calamity. Paulson attempting to herd the CEOs together and keep the ship afloat is riveting action. The film employs a classic structure of escalating action testing the character’s mettle ending with a take it or leave it final plot point. The eerie last shot of the film is a haunting reminder of the price of power in the hands of the wrong people.

Whether the film is accurate or not, the action of the film is exciting in a talky sort of way. The buildup really makes you wonder just how close the entire world was to a much more catastrophic result.

“Cold War” a story told in the absence

Writer and director Pawel Pawlikowski’s exploration of love in “Cold War” is unconventional to say the least. Rather than fill his frame with the traditional heartache and joyful scenes of a young couple in the throes of passion, his film focuses instead on the little moments in between, bypassing the instances of intimacy that endear an audience towards empathy. It’s a somewhat curious, somewhat admirable, somewhat maddening, somewhat majestic exercise that lingers far after viewing.

“Cold War” starts in the 1950s with musical director Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) casting young Zula (Joanna Kulig) in his latest production. Their professional relationship blossoms into a romance. As Communism tightens its grip over Poland, the chance to abscond to Paris poses risks that may appeal to one but not the other. As the years go on, the journeys of both characters intersect and break apart for reasons just and mysterious, the toil of the Cold War a contributing factor to their love and identity.

With its tight box frame, the film is intimate and remote at the same time and with a sparse 88-minute runtime, it resolves almost just as quickly as it starts. Given that the story is told at the periphery, oftentimes after something momentous has happened in the characters’ lives, there is somewhat of a wall built between the viewer and them. It’s hard to empathize with their journey in the way we used to because we miss those crucial moments of recognition and identification. Yet somehow we still empathize with them. Somehow our minds fill in the blanks in their story especially as time passes, our memories flooding in the gaps in the narrative. It is a masterful technique.

With its gorgeous black and white photography and magnificent framing, the film feels expertly put together. Featuring a collection of different songs from folk to jazz to rock to emphasize the place in the time of the action, it brings the continuing eras to life in quick, efficient fashion.

It may not be accessible to all, but it is nevertheless easy to admire for its cinematographic chutzpah.

“20th Century Women” a strong portrait of feminism

There’s a general line between fiction and non-fiction film. On the one hand, you have completely fabricated stories with directors and actors and so forth creating a story. On the other, you have documentaries that focus entirely on real-life situations with (arguably) minimal intrusion by a filmmaker. But certain films tread that line such as films based on real individuals or, as in the case of “20th Century Women”, films that are fictionalized but based on past occurrences.

Written and directed by Mike Mills, “20th Century Women” focuses on Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), a teenage boy growing up in Southern California in 1979. Raised by a single mother, Dorothea (Annette Benning), she recruits two other women, Julie (Elle Fanning), his best platonic friend, and Abbie (Greta Gerwig), a fellow tenant recovering from cancer, to help Jamie grow up in an ever changing world. Together, they navigate a difficult road of love, hopelessness, joy and emerging feminism.

The film is anchored by its strong characters, each of them with quirky characteristics and flaws. Their struggles with the basic facets of life (love, trust, understanding) keeps the film engaging as each of their personal journeys intersects. It veers dangerously close to melodrama at times, but keeps its momentum going towards its inevitable conclusion.

What writer-director Mike Mills is able to channel is a sense of omnipotence and global perspective. He relates the histories of his characters and all their trials and tribulations and is able to see the joy in each of them despite their hardships. It’s an emotional journey that comes from the heart, because it’s his story.

Why Do Prequels Suck?

This past November saw the release of “The Crimes of Grindelwald”, the second installment in the Harry Potter prequel series. After the first entry, “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them”, performed somewhat admirably, “Grindelwald” has been panned by critics and has served up a general lackluster box office take nationally. There will always be Potterheads who will go to anything J.K. Rowling has penned, but it’s interesting to see another prequel series somewhat fail. It all begs the question: Why do prequels fail?

Let’s examine three big budget prequel series as our baseline: the “Fantastic Beasts” films as a prelude to “Harry Potter”, the “Star Wars” prequels and “The Hobbit” films as a prelude to “The Lord of the Rings.”

All of them had their fans to be sure. All still made servicable box office gains, but not as large as their predecessors (compared to inflation). But all are seen as lesser than the originals. Let’s delve into some possible theories why.

The first is rather obvious: they’re not particularly well-made movies. Perhaps the filmmakers felt they were given a pass because of their previous success and lacked that urgency to wow the audience. But the same thinking would apply to sequels as well, so why are “The Return of the King”, “The Empire Strikes Back” and “Harry Potter and Half-Blood Prince” still so good?

A more crucial point to consider is that we know how prequels will end. That critical element of suspense is missing as to who will survive, who will die, how will this turn out. In “Star Wars”, we know Anakin will turn into Darth Vader and betray the Jedi. In “Harry Potter”, we know Dumbledore will survive and Grindelwald will fall. In “The Hobbit”, Bilbo will be just fine along with Gandalf and Legolas. It’s harder to be emotionally engaged in a story where the ending is not a mystery. The only element of suspense we have is with characters we don’t know and the enjoyment of seeing how things came to be. Neither is as strong emotionally as an original story with new characters with an undetermined fate.

Perhaps it is that prequels feel the responsibility to explain everything. How did this character get that? How did this couple meet? Some things are better left unexplained. A + B shouldn’t always equal C. Anakin needn’t have had visions of his wife dying to turn to the dark side. Thranduril needn’t have told Legolas to seek out Aragorn so they could be friends. Dumbledore needn’t have made a no-duel pact with Grindelwald so they wouldn’t have a need to fight until later. Sometimes things just happen because they happen. Anakin turned to the dark side because he was seduced by power, Bilbo went on a great adventure because he wanted to and Dumbledore has many regrets in life because of his character. Motive need not apply.

Another possible reason is the audience’s ability to determine story for themselves. The human mind is incapable of not seeing a character and hypothesizing about their past. We see Darth Vader and learn that he is Luke’s father and fell from grace. For each of us as viewers, we imagine how that came to be and that becomes a part of the story for us. We imagine the rise of Lord Voldemort and the stories of James Potter, Lily Evans and Sirius Black and have our own ideas about these characters. We hear the tales about Bilbo’s past adventures and the friendship between him and Gandalf. Our ideas about the histories of these characters become ingrained in our psyches. Then when those assumptions are challenged after so long an amount of time, our reactions are negative. Wait, Anakin was a whiny brat? That’s not what I had pictured. Hold on, Dumbledore had a younger brother? That’s not what I had thought. Wait a second, Bilbo didn’t have that much to do with his story?

Our challenged assumptions decrease our enjoyment of a story. It’s something I like to call “the storyteller’s release.” Once a story is out in the public, it’s no longer the author’s or director’s anymore: it’s the audience’s. They interpret the tale for themselves and in so doing complete the narrative cycle. An author creates a story, shares it and the audience takes it and gains emotional value from it. It’s the joy of story, why we put such stock in them in the first place. Prequels undermine that pleasure by retrograding our involvement.

Similar to that, prequels often suffer when they introduce new themes or concepts that were not present in the original story. Take “Star Wars” for example. Luke’s journey is about recognizing the dark side of his nature and conquering it, redeeming his family’s history. The prequel series is about the graying of light and dark and the imbalance of the world. It illuminates inherently different themes than the original and muddles the theming. “Fantastic Beasts” carries some of the same themes from Harry Potter such as good triumphing over evil and the value of the natural world giving us inner peace, but the true theme of “Harry Potter” is that accepting death is the key to mastering life, a theme absent so far in the “Fantastic Beast” films which focus more on social concepts of accepting others. “The Hobbit” is not as guilty of this sin, but its narrative lacks punch. The world is on the brink of collapse in “The Lord of the Rings”, brought down by greed and desire, Frodo needing to resist the power of the ring to succeed. “The Hobbit” has a similar theme of greed and desire destroying hope, but that is exemplified in the character of Thorin, not Bilbo, diluting the film’s power.

This is not to say that new themes should not be introduced in prequels. Far from it. It is one of the ways that prequels can add to the story of the original. But they can not contradict the original’s themes as in “Star Wars” or be lessened as in “The Hobbit.” “Fantastic Beasts” actually seems to do a good job of illuminating new themes, a plus in its column.

But perhaps the biggest knock against prequels is their inherent need to be beholden to their source. How many asides are there in the “Star Wars” prequels to the first trilogy? You have Chewbacca showing up for no reason, the Death Star, R2-D2 and C-3PO, Boba Fett, Grand Moff Tarkin, Padme wearing white, an asteroid belt sequence, Jedis training with blast shields and on and on and on. In “The Hobbit”, the series is framed as an aside in “The Fellowship” as Bilbo writes his book. You have references to Gimli and Aragorn and Elrond and Frodo and Sauron on and on and on. “Fantastic Beasts” references Dumbledore and Professor McGonagall and Nicholas Flamel and Hogwarts and on and on and on. Nothing can stand up on its own. Everything is in service to the original, cutting the prequel’s credibility and making it instantly seem less than. The prequels become just an advertisement for the original, a retread that serves purely for nostalgia. It’s easy to see this occurring again and again as filmmakers such as George Lucas and Peter Jackson and writers like J.K. Rowling journey back and relive their glory. It’s human nature to idolize the past, and it seeps into their attempts to create new stories.

To look at a good example of a prequel, let’s actually examine a sequel: “The Godfather Part II.” While the majority of the film is a sequel to the original, it cuts back and forth with the rise of Vito Corleone, the patriarch of the first film.

“The Godfather Part II” navigates story structure to enhance the first film’s themes and characters while also standing up as its own film. We know how Vito’s story will end since we’ve seen the first film, but we don’t know how he achieved his tremendous power. Seeing that in comparison to how Michael loses his morality presents an interesting examination of family and choices, enhancing the first film’s message. Our preconceived notions of Vito are displaced because of the importance of his narrative. The storytelling is so strong, so vital, that it easily erases our previous ideas about his past.

And references to the first film are minimal. Yes, the flashbacks nod to Clemenza being fat, but there’s no “Gosh, Clemenza, you eat like a pig” line. We just see Clemenza eating constantly and getting bigger and bigger. There’s shots of Michael as a baby and lines of Vito coddling him, but they are in service to the plot, enhancing the pressure on Michael in the present, showing how his father’s love has morphed him. Every inference to the original enhances the plot rather than just serves as its own wink and nod.

Most important of all, if taken away from its predecessor, “The Godfather Part II” would still stand on its own as a great story. “Fantastic Beasts,” the “Star Wars” prequels and “The Hobbit” would not. They all have moments of ingenuity, but they are all beholden to the past.

The list of terrible prequels just keeps growing and growing. “Alien v. Predator”, “Dumb and Dumberer”, “Exorcist: The Beginning”, “The Flintstones in Viva Las Vegas”, “Hannibal Rising”, “X-Men: Apocalypse” (and to a lesser extent “X-Men: First Class”), “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning”, “X-Men Origins: Wolverine”… on and on and on.

The first for any prequel should be: is this a story that needs to be told? Far too many times, that answer is no.

“Hereditary” is like my love life- starts strong, has some good rising action and ends with a thud

Figuring out what the hell “Hereditary” was about from the trailer was a fun game in and of itself. A collage of creepy sequences, unsettling images and a heightened score. What was this movie? It seemed like a wild trip.

Now after having seen the movie, it’s somewhat disappointing that it all made so much sense.

Written and directed by Ari Aster, “Hereditary” is the story of a family working through the grieving process. Mother Annie (Toni Collete), father Steve (Gabriel Byrne), son Peter (Alex Wolff) and daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro) all have different reactions to the death of Annie’s mother. As secrets from the past begin to percolate, the question of the family’s sanity begins to unfurl and more tragic events lead to disaster.

Toni Collette shines as Annie, keeping you on the edge of your seat with her desperation, her depression and her horror. As the film transitions from her point of view to that of Peter, we are nevertheless engaged emotionally with her journey most of all.

The trick for any good horror-mystery film is to build progression, and “Hereditary” does that expertly. Without giving anything away, the mystery of the grandmother’s death leads to questions about the family’s sanity which leads to building fears about their safety which leads to etc. This builds tension throughout and engages the audience.

However, the other trick of this type of horror film is to surprise the audience with a twist ending that changes the meaning of everything the audience had thought up to that point. Think about the endings of “Psycho” and “The Others” and “The Babadook”. We had thought one thing, then everything was flipped on its ear. And more than that, it was an earned surprise that rewarded us for our involvement with the story.

“Hereditary” has a twist ending, but it feels removed from the actual storyline of most of the film. Without giving too much away again, the death of a certain character at the 30-minute mark should have had far more bearing on the outcome of the story. That seems to be its own plot while the plot about the grandmother goes off in its own direction, creating two separate storylines that don’t intertwine to the extent they should and leaves the ending feeling muddled. In addition, the ending makes far too much sense and trivializes the excellent questions it had built up to that point. In short, instead of a “Wow!” there’s a general feeling of “Oh, that’s what it was about.”

Perhaps an additional viewing of “Hereditary” is needed to really gain perspective on what it was trying to accomplish, but the split in narrative focus seems to weigh it down. For now, it feels somewhat like a wasted opportunity, strong most of the time, but teetering at the conclusion.