Blackkklansman(8/12/2018)

Warning: Review Contains Some Spoilers

More than any other filmmaker I can think of Spike Lee is a guy you want to see tackle as many issues as possible to the point where his filmography becomes a sort of unified exploration of every debate about the black experience in America (along with some side conversations about New York).  He’s often talked about as a filmmaker who rails against white racism, and that’s certainly something he does, but if you just look at his first six movies and you’ll see statements about historically black universities (School Daze), jazz (Mo Better Blues), interracial relationships (Jungle Fever), and drug use (Jungle Fever again) alongside movies about more conventional race relations both in the past (Malcolm X) and in contemporary times (Do the Right Thing).  One aspect of American racial strife that he has not up to now spent a lot of time looking into up to now are the actions of organized hate groups of the neo-nazi and Ku Klux Klan variety.  His reasons for not focusing on groups like this are many.  For one thing, these groups have often been seen as something of an easy target.  They were viewed as a small group of extremists that the intellectual whites who go to Spike Lee movies aren’t going to see a lot of themselves in.  Additionally movies about hate groups like American History X and This is England tend to be in the rather queasy position of being movies told largely from the perspective of white people about an issue that ultimately causes a lot of black pain.  Of course in the era of Trump these groups are as relevant as ever and far more powerful than they’ve been in decades and Lee has found the perfect solution for telling the story of an all-white group from a black perspective through the true story told in his new movie Blackkklansman.

The film is set in the 70s and begins with a young black man named Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) joining the Colorado Springs Police Department as their first black officer.  Officially his hiring is applauded and encouraged by the department but it’s never quite clear where the police chief (Robert John Burke) stands and he occasionally needs to deal with sneers from other officers.  Stallworth is not exactly a black power rebel however, despite his rather large afro, and even volunteers to go undercover at a speech by former Black Panther Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins) where he meets a woman named Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier) who is very decidedly “down with the cause.”  With that assignment complete Stallworth is given a more permanent position as an undercover narcotics cop.  While in that assignment Stallworth comes up with the idea of using these same undercover tactics to go after the Ku Klux Klan after he sees a recruitment ad for them in the newspaper.  Stallworth calls the number in the ad and begins to infiltrate them over the phone and then convinces his superiors to hatch an undercover operation in which a white cop named Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) will assume the cover and meet them in person to find out if they’re hatching any plots.

Ron Stallworth is a bit of a curious character to put at the center of a film like this.  He, like the real police officer he’s based on, is a black man who is more or less proud of his association with the police department and shows a degree of ambivalence about the black power movement and is even willing to wear a wire to the Ture speech even if only to advance his career.  The movie does not, however, dismiss Stallworth as some sort of “Uncle Tom.”  Stallworth proudly wears a large afro (a decision that I doubt Lee made casually), he fights back in his own ways against fellow officers who are abusive or racist, and of course he spends most of the movie trying to bring down the Klan.  His girlfriend in the film is in some ways supposed to stand in as a voice for a more radical approach to the issues in the film and she occasionally sort of acts as his conscience as a black man, though I must say that she at times feels a bit too much like a symbol for certain themes rather than a true character and her relationship with Stallworth occasionally feels like a setup for one of those clichéd rom-com “you lied to me!” twists in the second act.

The undercover operation in the film is a bit odd.  The plan in the film is to have Stallworth talk on the phone with the KKK members and set up meetings and for Zimmerman then show up in person.  I’ve looked up the fact checking articles and this does appear to be how the operation was conducted in real life but it still isn’t clear to me why.  Would it not be easier to just have Zimmerman maintain his cover both on the phone and in the field?  Wouldn’t that ensure that the voices match and that the two would never find themselves contradicting each other?  In the long run this is probably a quibble that just needs to be set aside, especially given that it’s apparently accurate and it goes to the whole “black klansman” concept, but it was still a bit odd.  Much of the investigation into this local branch of the klan is disturbing as you might expect but also comical in how stupid these guys seem to be.  The main white klansman we spend time with sort of represent different strains of hatred: there’s a guy who seems to be just filled with uncontrolled rage, another guy who seems to blame others for his failures in life, and one guy who’s just stupid to the point where you half expect him to forget to breathe.

The fact that this is set in the 70s is also a bit curious as that was probably the decade when the Ku Klux Klan was at its absolute lowest point.  It had already lost the civil rights clashes of the 60s and hadn’t yet reinvented itself through the use of the internet yet or found a sympathetic president either.  We do get introduced to David Duke who is played here by Topher Grace and comes off as a kind of Ned Flanders from hell.  Today Duke is a well-known boogieman whose name is supposed to be synonymous with the worst kinds of racism but the movie explains that his ultimate goal was to make hatred mainstream through politics and to replace cross burnings with rhetoric about “white rights” and the like.  Here though that is not explored too deeply as the klan members we spend most of the time with are rednecks who do not seem to have gotten the memo about dog whistling.  Instead the film ends with them engaging in a pretty traditional KKK hate crime and with our heroes chasing them down to stop them in a finale that cleverly mirrors D.W. Griffith’s infamous classic The Birth of a Nation but which also feels rushed and a bit too easy.  In the true story this was based on there was no bombing incident that the police could easily stop and arrest people for.  The film’s final shot before its postscript does at least acknowledge that hate can’t be so easily stamped out but there are still places here where this feels like a slightly more conventional thriller that’s been seasoned by Spike Lee rather than the undiluted goods.

Overall though I think Blackkklansman is a pretty good romp even if it’s a bit messy around the edges and isn’t quite able to tie up all its loose ends by the end.  In some ways I do think seeing the Spike Lee name on it and viewing the film within his body of work helps the movie.  The film finds a solid means of exploring some really rough territory in a way that feels accessible, almost fun in a way, and manages to connect it to some of the more disturbing aspects of our modern times.  It’s hard not to like that even if I think there are an abundance of rough edges that Lee maybe didn’t have the time to sand out in his rush to get the product out in time.

**** out of Five

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Skeptic Vs. Gen X Nostalgia: Round 8 – Pretty In Pink (1986)

Most of the movies I’m watching for this “Skeptic Vs. Gen X” series are movies that were targeted as Generation X kids who would have been about eight to twelve at the time of the films’ release, but I’ve made this one exception because no collection of over-rated stuff from the 80s would truly be complete without a little John Hughes.  Now, I don’t hate John Hughes exactly but I’ve always been on the outside looking in on the cult that seems to surround him.  There’s a whole generation of teenager that seems to view him as their bard and they will go on and on about how “universal” his films are and how much “everyone” relates to them.  Most of Hughes’ movies could be said to be “good” but they’re not as innovative as people make them out to be.  Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is a fun romp for the most part and The Breakfast Club is a decent enough exercise even if it is, as Pauline Kael put it, a movie “about a bunch of stereotypes who complain that other people see them as stereotypes.”  Sixteen Candles, on the other hand, has held up very poorly and I’ve never got much out of Weird Science either.  If people kept these movies in perspective instead of trying to sell them as “classics” or get them places in the Criterion Collection I wouldn’t have much beef with them but I think they’re widely oversold.  That brings me to the film at hand, which is the most famous film bearing the John Hughes name that I’ve yet to see: Pretty in Pink.

Now, Pretty in Pink was written but not actually directed by John Hughes, which is a technicality that smartasses will be eager to tell you, often in the same breath where they’ll try to blow your mind by telling you that Jason didn’t actually show up in the Friday the 13th series until Part II.  The actual director here is a guy named Howard Deutch who appears to be quite the hack.  Deutch’s first three movies were adaptations of John Hughes screenplays and it’s mostly been downhill for him since then.  His biggest credits since 1992 were Grumpier Old Men (not the original, the quickie sequel) and The Whole Ten Yards (again, not the original, the quickie sequel).  But Deutch really isn’t a problem here, in fact the film’s direction is basically indistinguishable from that of a real John Hughes movie to the point where I think it’s fair to view Hughes as the real auteur behind this thing.  The film has less of a high concept than Hughes’ most famous films and is probably most comparable to Sixteen Candles, which also starred Molly Ringwald as an awkward and disaffected teen girl and the film also features John Cryer in a role that was almost certainly meant for Anthony Michael Hall (who apparently turned it down in an attempt to avoid typecasting).

One of the things that has always kind of galled me about the notion of John Hughes movies being “universal” is that they’re really only “universal” if you grew up in the suburbs.  He was considered bold for making movies about people who were sort of on the outside of the in-crowd, but there was really nothing all that novel about that approach: teen movies from time immemorial have been about the underdogs and I think one of the reasons Ferris Beuler’s Day Off stands out as much as it did was because damn near the only one of these movies that actually was about the popular kid.  The star of Pretty in Pink is mostly considered the underdog because he looks a bit homely but also because she isn’t one of “the rich kids.”  Now that right there is a good example of John Hughes movies being less universal than they claim to be: what kind of public school has both exceedingly wealthy students and students who appear to be one rung above living in a trailer?  Maybe that happens more in the suburbs but the students at the public school I went to ranged from being “ghetto” to being just barely middle class, and those “barely middle class” students were not necessarily the cool kids who ran the place and certainly weren’t going around bragging about their relative wealth.  Maybe this was a special situation where Ringwald had a scholarship to some special Academy, but still, this dynamic does not seem natural to me.

The basic story of Pretty in Pink is simple to the point of almost being boring.  It’s basically the Cinderella story: the downtrodden maiden catches the eye of a prince, they get separated, then come back together at the end.  There’s not a lot to it outside of the trappings, and the “John Hughes” trappings were starting to feel kind of familiar by 1986 as well.  I normally think of John Hughes as having owned the teen genre throughout the 80s but looking at his output now I’m realizing that his “golden period” was basically confined to three years.  He made his first teen movie (Sixteen Candles) in 1984, put out The Breakfast Club and Weird Science in 1985, then put out Ferris Bueler’s Day Off in 1986 and outsourced Pretty in Pink the same year before basically moving on to other things for the rest of his career and never looked back.  He spent all of the 90s writing and producing but never directing lame movies for little kids like Home Alone and Beethoven and was basically M.I.A. during the 2000s before tragically dying of a heart attack in 2009.  I’m not sure why he more or less gave up on the genre he’s most known for, maybe he just assumed he wasn’t going to be able to connect with the same generation of teenagers or maybe he just got addicted to those sweet Home Alone checks, but maybe he was right to cash in his chips when he did because I think his brand of teen movie were on the track to start getting a bit stale if he kept going.

To the Scorecard:

This is an interesting one to score because I don’t think this is really a “bad” movie so much as I think it’s an exceedingly average one.  But scoring for this series isn’t just about whether something is “good” or “bad,” it’s about whether or not the nostalgia surrounding a movie is justified.  For instance, I thought the movie Labyrinth was not very good but I gave it a win because I got why people thought it was fun and remembered it fondly.  Pretty in Pink, by contrast, isn’t bad but it feels like a million other movies and just didn’t seem overly memorable to me.

Blindspotting(8/7/2018)

With increasingly becoming America’s “second city” it is perhaps interesting that their Harlem, Oakland, has been going through something of a renaissance of African American filmmaking in the last few years.  This perhaps goes as far back as the 2008 film Medicine for Melancholy, an early Barry Jenkins effort about two African Americans living in neighboring San Francisco who spend a great deal of time talking about gentrification in the bay area.  But the tread really seems to have taken off with Ryan Coogler’s 2013 film Fruitvale Station, about a real life case of police violence that occurred on a BART station in Oakland.  By necessity Coogler’s follow-up films (Creed and Black Panther) have been primarily set in Philadelphia and Africa respectively but given that he went out of his way to set parts of Black Panther in Oakland I think it’s fair to say that his roots still grow strong in the East Bay.  This year has perhaps where we have gotten our three points to make a trend because within a span of a couple of months we’ve gotten two movies that make a point of being set in Bump City.  One was Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You, which is admittedly a film so strange that it’s setting somewhat secondary, but it was nonetheless largely shot on location in Oakland.  The next and latest film set in that city is even more vocally about its setting, the new film covering both police violence and gentrification called Blindspotting.

Blindspotting begins with a man named Colin Hoskins (Daveed Diggs) being released from prison after a short but painful sentence and then flashes forward to the last three days of his probation.  While Hoskins is living in a halfway home he has a job as a mover and works with his best friend from childhood Miles (Rafael Casal).  Miles is a white guy but he’s Oakland born and raised and talks in the black vernacular.  He could be described using a word that is a racial slur that has had an “N” replaced by a “W.”  Neither Colin nor Miles appear to have ever been professional criminals but they are streetwise and can hold their own in a fight.  As the film begins Hoskins has only a couple of days left on his probation when he suddenly finds himself the sole witness to a police shooting of a seemingly unarmed man.  In many cases that would be the setup to a thriller with Hoskins acting as a sort of Serpico who acts as a bold witness to bring down the killer cop, but that kind of heroism isn’t going to happen here.  When asked if he’s going to go to the police with this information he simply says something along the lines of “what am I going to do, report the police to themselves.”  The tension here is instead about how witnessing something like that effects Hoskins’ psyche as well as the various other conflicts in his life coming to a fore.

Blindspotting is a movie with a certain theatricality to it in that it’s the kind of story where a lifetime’s worth of tensions all come to a head over the course of three days’ worth of conversations and things all just kind of come together according to theme rather than conventional plausibility.  The film was written by its stars, making it something of a throwback to the era of independent films like Swingers and The Brothers McMullen where writers would make very personal projects and wear a lot of hats in getting them made.  The downside of this is that this is that the script written by first time screenwriters who began their work while they were in their 20s and at times this really shows.  The film wants to tackle a number of themes and it does so in a really on the nose fashion when it didn’t necessarily have to.  For example, the film is largely about gentrification, which it tackles by having its characters explicitly talking about the subject and occasionally run into situations that illustrate the theme right on cue.  The film also reaches something of a nadir in its climactic scene which is something so stupid that I thought (hoped) it would turn out to be a fantasy sequence, but no, it’s supposed to be real and the film had not done nearly enough to set a tone that would make such a moment work as some sort of surreal touch.

Having said that, there’s still a lot I like about Blindspotting.  For one thing I thought the two main performances in the movie were quite good.  Daveed Diggs is an actor who’s primarily known for his stage work (he was in the original cast of “Hamilton”) so I wasn’t terribly familiar with him but he does have screen presence and clearly connects a lot with this character he’s created for himself.  Rafael Casal on the other hand was a complete nobody before making this, to the point where he doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page, and yet he’s able to make this character who could have easily come off as a rather pathetic stereotype seem plausible and even understandable.  I also found myself rather liking the way the film shoots Oakland even though obsessions with local geography can often be a rather cringey aspect of indies like this.  Blindspotting is ultimately a pretty good little movie that’s bogged down a bit by a couple of misguided flights of fancy and a couple of moments that just seem really on the nose in a slightly sophomoric way.  Certainly worth checking out but not exactly one for the ages.

*** out of Five

Mission: Impossible – Fallout(7/28/2018)

Once a man named Tom Cruise had a dream.  He had a vision that he would produce and star in a series of spy films that would be a rival to and yet in some ways the opposite of the James Bond series.  Where the James Bond films have done everything they could to follow a formula and try to fit within the same template for decades at a time Cruise’s films would take the opposite approach and shake things up dramatically with every installment and in doing so they’d be able to explore every kind of action movie as the years went on.  This plan lasted for about three movies as it went from the Hitchcockian thrills of the De Palma directed original, to the hyper-kinetic action of the John Woo directed second film, to the snarky meta comedy of the J.J. Abrams directed third installment.  However, after that third movie Cruise put the brakes on the consistent inconsistency plan and started to use that third movie as a sort of starting point for a more traditional film franchise.  Characters like Simon Pegg’s Benjamin Dunn started returning in every movie, plot points like Hunt’s previous marriage began to be acknowledged movie to movie, and the directors they chose to take on installments had less distinctive styles.  There were some upsides to this, the last film Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation is something of a series highlight, but I must say I mourn the loss of that original vision.  The most recent entry in the series, Mission: Impossible – Fallout, is perhaps the biggest break to the franchise ethos to date in that it has the director of that previous film (Christopher McQuarrie) has returned for a second film and has made what is more or less a direct sequel to it.

Mission: Impossible – Fallout picks up a few years after the previous movie and it appears that “The Syndicate” that Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) brought down in that movie has given birth to an anarchist collective of agents inspired by Solomon Lane (Sean Harris) known as “The Apostles.”  In the film’s opening scenes Hunt finds himself trying to intercept a black market deal that would have landed three plutonium cores in the hands of The Apostles but loses them to save his team.  IMF Secretary Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin) still trusts Hunt after that but CIA director Erica Sloan (Angela Bassett) sees him as a liability so she insists that he be shadowed by one of her own agents, August Walker (Henry Cavill), during his mission to recover the plutonium cores.  That mission will of course be a high stakes globe-trotting ordeal that will require Hunt to risk life and limb at every stage.

Mission: Impossible – Fallout has come out amid a barrage of hype as some of the early reviews were beyond ecstatic.  It’s sitting at 97% on Rotten Tomatoes and some of the quotes about it have really been out there including an oft quoted tweet by the always excitable David Erlich which called it “easily the best action movie since [Mad Max:] Fury Road. Just god level stuff.”  Frankly I think this hyperbole has done the movie a bit of a disservice because I think my expectations going in were a bit skewed by it all.  This defiantly isn’t the best action movie since Mad Max: Fury Road, in fact it isn’t even the best action movie since Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation.  That hype made the film’s first half particularly jarring, especially when the film first has Tom Cruise and Henry Cavill interacting with some really strained buddy cop dialogue.  There are also some moments that just do not hold up to scrutiny.  For example right after that aforementioned Cruise/Cavill argument the two of them do this big HALO jump from an altitude that requires them to wear oxygen tanks, which is a cool scene, but it’s all being done just to get into a Parisian building… a building which looks like it could have been much more easily infiltrated by simply buying a ticket to the giant rave that’s going on inside of it.

Around the one third point of the movie I accepted that the critics had overdone it and accepted that this was going to be less of a landmark action movie and more of a logical continuation of the long running series and started to sit back and enjoy myself. As expected the film delivers a lot of the gigantic action scenes and stunts.  That HALO jump I mentioned before is ruined slightly by context but it’s certainly an impressive bit of filming logistics and stunt work.  There’s also a climax involving Tom Cruise dangling from a helicopter that I’m sure was all kinds of difficult to make, and we all know about how he injured himself jumping between buildings in London.  Of course the incredibly high standards that this series has set for itself does become a bit of a problem.  For example, this movie has not one but two chase scenes involving motorcycles which would both be extremely impressive on their own but here they’re being compared to the iconic (if extremely silly) motorcycle chase from Mission: Impossible 2 and the also extremely impressive chase from Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, and while this chase might be a little better on paper it isn’t a giant leap that leaves those other chases in the dust.  Similarly the film never quite comes up with a stunt that’s as conceptually insane as the Burj Khalifa scene from Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol or the “dangle from an airplane mid takeoff” scene from Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation.  I suppose there’s that helicopter scene but that just doesn’t have quite the same purity of concept.

I must say I also found the storytelling inbetween the action scenes to be serviceable but noticeably weaker than what we saw in the first and fifth films, which remain my favorite of the series.  There are twists and turns galore in the movie but a lot of them don’t feel entirely earned and they don’t flow as naturally as they tend to in better spy movies.  Ultimately I do think the choice to bring McQuarrie back instead of following the series usual “one movie per director rule” is a big part of the problem.  That’s not to say there’s anything wrong with McQarrie himself but, he’s clearly quite competent behind the camera, but he isn’t really trying to go at the film in a new way at all and he isn’t even really trying to recapture the magic of the last film either.  Rather this is possibly the first time that a Mission: Impossible is solely interested in being exactly what people expect from a Mission: Impossible movie and not much more.  Outside of the stunts it does next to nothing that previous installments hadn’t done better and neither Hunt nor his supporting characters have really gotten all that interesting over the years.  Now don’t get me wrong, I’m certainly not suggesting anyone skip this movie.  A dude dangling from a helicopter payload is certainly something that’s worth seeing, but I feel like this could have been a lot better if they’d been a bit bolder with the style and put a little more serious thought into the script.

*** out of Five

Documentary Round-Up (Summer Counter-Programming Edition)

This summer some of the most successful counter-programming efforts have been by documnetaries rather than scripted independent films. Normally i’m not one to see docs in theaters but with MoviePass now a factor (while it lasts) it’s become easier to justify seeing these movies before they hit DVD and streaming. Here are my capsule reviews of the summer’s biggest non-fiction hits.

RBG (7/8/2017)

The new Ruth Bader Ginsburg documentary RBG fits pretty clearly into the trend of “profile documentaries” like Mavis!, Joan Rivers: Piece of Work, or Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You.  There are seemingly dozens of documentaries like this each year which follow a pretty rigid formula: follow an octogenarian around for a week and then intercut that footage of their still exciting life with talking head interviews which illuminate what makes them so important.  As such I was a little surprised when one of these profile docs managed to break out and become something of a sleeper hit at the box office.  For the most part this is exactly the documentary you think it is.  It probably is a slight cut above some of the other profile docs out there if only because Betsy West and Julie Cohen have a knack for cutting to funny excerpts from their interviews at smart moments and because they do a reasonably good job of summarizing the various legal cases into brief segments.  That said, the movie isn’t breaking much new ground or digging overly deep into Ginsburg’s career.  The interviews they do with Ginsburg herself appear to be rather surface level and aren’t very revealing, the film seems to gather a lot more information from interviews with her various friends and colleagues.  The film is also oddly disinterested in talking about how she interacted with other members of the court outside of her odd friendship with Antonin Scalia.  Keeping you documentary focused is one thing but it seems downright strange that the movie only spends about a minute mentioning Sandra Day O’Connor and even less time on Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.

I am not really the target audience for RBG as I’m something of a Supreme Court junkie (or at least I was before that hobby turned into a rather depressing exercise recently) and I already knew most of the facts that are being imparted here.  Rather, this seems to be directed at people who primarily know Ginsberg from the “Notorious R.B.G.” meme, which is a meme that always seemed to bug me for reasons I was never quite able to place my finger on until late in the film when it begins talking about her role as “the great dissenter” and cuts to interviews by people talking about how “awesome” her various rulings in descent are.  In short it feels like these people are making an icon out of Ginsburg less for what she’s able to accomplish on the Roberts Court and more for how woke she sounds while failing on the Roberts Court.  It’s like a perfect symbol for everything wrong with modern online activism where sounding righteous is valued more than actual political wins.  I deeply wish that Ginsberg’s fans had spent a little more time providing Ginsberg with likeminded justices than making her look “badass” but I digress.  If you don’t know much about Ginsberg’s career this is probably as good a place to start as any but for me personally something a bit more interested in legal reasoning than pure iconography would have hit the spot a little better.

*** out of Five

Whitney (7/13/2017)

I’m not exactly sure what made me want to see Whitney outside of the fact that I’ve been on something of a documentary kick as of late and can see things for free with MoviePass.  I wouldn’t call myself much of a Whitney Huston fan and I’m not even overly familiar with most of her music.  Her peak years were a bit before my time and outside of a few key singles she’s been off my radar.  That said I have always been somewhat fascinated by her downfall.  We’ve seen a lot of artists fall to drug use, but unlike the Janis Joplins and Amy Winehouses of the world Houston never really cultivated the “sex, drugs, and rock and roll” image, rather she always seemed like she wanted to be this classy “diva” singer but stories of her being a straight up junkie kept emerging.  Kevin Macdonald’s new documentary about the singer doesn’t exactly break ground with the form but it does answer a lot the unanswered questions and does so in an unflinching but dignified way.  The film is mostly told in a chronological narrative fashion through interviews with surviving family members, most of whom tell the story in guarded but honest fashion and through some pretty effective investigation director Kevin MacDonald does seem to get to the bottom of things.  The one thing that the documentary is never really able to do is draw a connection between Huston’s life story and her music, though I’m not exactly sure that those connections are there to be found given that she wasn’t really a songwriter and cultivated an image that was distinct from her reality.  The film has drawn comparisons to the Amy Winehouse documentary Amy, personally I think this one is a little stronger if only because Huston strikes me as a more substantial artist whose career lasted longer.

***1/2 out of Five

Three Identical Strangers (7/17/2017)

There are some news stories that stand the test of time and almost become legend and some that don’t. For instance, there was a documentary a couple of years ago called The Witness that sought to explore a famous murder case that was quoted over and over again over the years and had becomes something of a case study in group psychology.  The new documentary Three Identical Strangers does something similar in that it takes a human interest story that was once headline news and takes a deep dive into it and what it has to say about humanity.  That story is less famous than the one talked about in The Witness (I’d never heard of it) but it was apparently a big deal when it happened in the 70s and involved two people who encountered each other more or less by chance and realized they were long lost twins and once this became a news story they discovered that they were actually an entire set of triplets that had been separated at birth and adopted by separate people.  This would not seem to be a story that could easily be told visually but the movie does have some news footage from their time in the spotlight to work with as well as home videos and makes reasonably dignified use of reenactments to tell the story of how the three first met and a couple of other key moments.  Mostly though, the film uses talking head footage and you get the impression that the guy who made it is quite the Errol Morris fan given the movie’s form and tone.  I don’t want to give away too much about the film’s second half, but there is a bit of a twist that is worth keeping secret and what follows is a pretty interesting mediation on nature vs. nurture and medical ethics.

**** out of Five

Won’t You Be My Neighbor (7/22/2017)

Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood was a show I have some hazy memories of watching when I was a very small kid but it’s not necessarily something I remember as a childhood favorite.  Frankly I kind of feel in retrospect that it was a show my parents wanted me to like more than I actually did and compared to the flashy and entertaining cartoons of the era it was a bit dull.  However, this documentary about the life of Fred Rogers has gained massive acclaim, and its trailer seems to be promising that it would reframe Rogers as a true revolutionary on the air.  As an argument for Rogers’ show I found the film a bit lacking.  There’s a lot of talk about Rogers’ philosophy of childhood education but to me this philosophy just seemed like some rather run of the mill appeals to self-esteem, and while there’s nothing wrong with that exactly I’m not exactly sure it’s “revolutionary.”  The film is also interested in highlighting certain moments where Rogers’ show intersected with current events throughout the late 20th century, but it’s oddly light on the video of these reactions.  For example, there’s a moment where the film spends a few minutes setting up the Challenger disaster as a moment in history where Rogers’ would step up and inspire a nation, but then the movie only shows a couple of lines of what he had to say before moving on.  I would argue that a bigger part of his success was that he could act as something of a surrogate father for kids in an era where fathers were particularly distant and cold.  If I was a kid in the sixties and had some Don Draper type as a father I can see why having nice Mr. Rogers come in and act as a caring father figure in my mornings would be nice.  By the time I was personally in the target market Rogers had aged into more of a grandfather figure, which is probably part of why the appeal was a bit lost on me.  As for the documentary, its surprising box office success has largely been viewed as a response to the rise of Donald Trump given that Rogers’ kindly accepting wholesomeness is the exact opposite of Trumps’ mean-spirited assholery.  I can sort of see that, but Rogers’ appeal as a progressive hero is probably a bit limited outside of this particular moment and there are probably other heroes I’d prefer to put on a pedestal before him.

**1/2 out of Five

McQueen (8/3/2017)

The new documentary McQueen is not about Steve McQueen (either of them), rather it’s about a fashion designer named Alexander McQueen who turned out to be a rather tortured soul.  Needless to say McQueen is not a figure I was overly familiar with outside of the occasional Nicki Minaj shout out, but it turns out he was a fairly popular English designer during the 90s and 2000s who had his own line but also did work for other houses. He appears to be primarily famous less for his actual clothing that someone would actually wear and more for his extremely outlandish of runway shows, which he turned into these themed spectacles that intentionally set out to shock and disturb.  It was exactly the kind of stuff that Sasha Baron Cohen was making fun of with his Bruno character.   I can tell why the film would focus so heavily on these runway shows as they are pretty visually interesting even for someone like myself who is rather hostile to the very concept of haute couture, but I’m not sure they really get to the heart of McQueen’s work and they only gave a rather superficial insight into what made him tick as a person.  While the film is on the long end for a documentary I still don’t think the film ever quite got to the bottom of what made McQueen tick as a person or to fully explain what led him to kill himself at the age of forty.  I think part of the problem is that almost all the interview subjects here are McQueen’s friends and colleagues and I would have liked to hear from someone with a more critical take on his work and a more objective take on his life.

*** out of Five

Eighth Grade(7/21/2018)

I didn’t really realize it at the time but the early 2000s, when I was a teenager was something of a low point for teen movies and coming of age films.  The 90s weren’t a whole lot better of course, that was the decade of the “teen movie starring WB Network actor” with stuff like Cruel Intentions and Varsity Blues but there were some highlights as well like Welcome to the Dollhouse and Rushmore and even American Pie was a bit more insightful than its reputation would suggest.  The 80s were also seen as something of a golden age, mainly because of Cameron Crowe and John Hughes, but the early 2000s?  Total wasteland.  There was Mean Girls I suppose, which I’m not the biggest fan of but certainly has some thought behind it.  I guess there was also Ghost World if you want to count that, but that’s pretty far from the mainstream.  Outside of that though there was mostly crap… I think.  Honestly I’ve never seen a lot of it but when I google “2000s teen movies” I mostly get titles like What A Girl Wants, The Girl Next Door, Eurotrip, and a whole bunch of other titles that no one has talked about in years and no one really cared about at the time.  Then I graduate high school in 2006 and suddenly we get a wave of movies like Superbad and Juno which are actually interested in doing some fun and thoughtful things with the genre.  Now we’re almost in something of a golden age of movies about teenagers like Boyhood, The Edge of Seventeen, and Lady Bird.  Granted the actual teenagers of the era seem kind of indifferent to the trend but even the mainstream stuff like The Fault in Our Stars looks more respectable than the likes of The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants.  This golden age would seem to continue with the new film about early adolescence: Eighth Grade.

As the title implies, this is a film about someone in the eighth grade (meaning they’re 13-14 years old) named Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher).  Kayla lives with her father Mark (Josh Hamilton) and her mother does not appear to be in the picture.  Kayla is not popular, at all, to the point where she doesn’t even really appear to have any friends.  She does, however, take the initiative to record rather inarticulate Youtube videos where she gives advice about questions she very decidedly hasn’t worked out for herself.  The film begins on the last week of middle school for Kayla, where she has been given the dubious honor of being voted “most quiet” by her fellow students, an award that a middle school should probably not be putting on their ballots.  Over the course of that final week she will pine after a popular boy named Aiden (Luke Prael), attend the pool party of a classmate named Kennedy (Catherine Oliviere), and shadow a high schooler named Olivia (Emily Robinson).

When the movie Lady Bird came out last year I remember there being articles about Saoirse Ronan opting not to use makeup to clear up some acne in order to more accurately portray the face of a teenager.  I saw one article rather hyperbolically proclaim this decision “revolutionary” and while I like that movie and that performance I do find any assertion that it was some kind of blow for representing the plight of the average looking people of the world to be kind of ridiculous and Eighth Grade does a pretty good job of putting the lie to that little talking point.  If Saoirse Ronan was “bold” for making slight amounts of acne (barely) visible in that movie then Elsie Fisher is downright fearless in her willingness to show way more skin imperfections than Ronan ever did and the movie also isn’t exactly hiding the fact that this character is kind of overweight, at least by movie standards, and the characters’ insecurities about this come to the forefront during a particularly tense pool party scene.  Kayla is never actively bullied for her appearance but she is decidedly not popular and has become socially isolated both in real life and in her various social media escapades.

This movie is not, however, under any impression that Kayla’s problems only run skin deep as her personality does play as much of a role in her social status as her looks.  Early on in one of her videos Kayla says that her YouTube videos haven’t been getting a lot of views, and it’s pretty easy to tell why this is: it’s not because the world is cruel, it’s because her videos kind of suck.  The film’s audience finds them interesting because they offer some insights into our protagonist, but on their face they’re rambling inanities produced by someone who (at this point in life) has almost nothing of interest to contribute.  One can imagine that striking up real conversations with Kayla would yield similar results.  At one point she says “I don’t talk a lot at school but if people talk to me, and stuff, they’d find that I’m, like, very funny and cool and talkative” but there’s very little evidence to be found in the film that this is actually true.  The few moments where she actually does interact with other kids her own age she seems so filled with nerves and so out of practice at interactions and so lacking in talking points in general that she tends to just come across as weird.  Most teen movies are about people who merely think they’re social outcasts but this one is about someone who actually is.

Now, I’ve been pretty blunt in talking about Kayla and her shortcomings but I’m not doing it to be mean to this fictional character, frankly I do it because I see a lot of my former self (and if I’m being honest, my current self as well) in her.  Like, to the point where the movie is hard for me to review without getting a bit more personal than I’d like to.  The film was directed by Bo Burnham a twenty seven year old standup comedian whose previous work I am not really familiar with.  A lot of people have wondered why this guy would be so able to get into the mind of a post-millennial girl like this, but seeing the film it makes sense.  This isn’t really a movie about what it’s like to be a girl or even what it’s like to be part of Generation Z so much as it’s a movie about what it’s like to be a true introvert.   There are plenty of moments here I can relate to a bit too well: desperately not wanting to go to a party that you’ve been given an invitation to at the behest of the host’s mother, posting things online only to have most of the world not give a shit, getting “busted” hiding out in a corner rather than conversing with others, general befuddlement about the life advice “be yourself,” the list goes on.  It’s about as close as any coming of age movie has gotten to reflecting my own experiences, which you’d think would make me love the movie and in one sense that’s true, I certainly appreciate what it’s doing and on the other hand it kind of makes the movie hard to watch for me.  Some of the film’s moments of awkwardness and cringe inducing social interactions almost gave me a sort of PTSD-like flashback to some of the less pleasant moments of my own adolescence.  As such watching the movie was in many ways a more tense experience than watching most full-on horror movies.

So how does this compare to the other big coming of age movies of the era: Boyhood and Lady Bird?  Well, I’ve explained why I consider it a bit more relatable and accurate than both of them, but I’m not sure I’d call it better.  There are certainly some problems to be found in it.  I feel like the movie could have done a little more to define what Kayla is like when she isn’t being socially awkward.  Does she have a hobby aside from making advice videos?  Does she have ambitions? Does she read or watch movies?  In some ways the film remains just as oblivious to Late in the film she offhandedly mentions that she likes the show “Rick and Morty” and that tiny tidbit almost seems to say more about her interests than most the rest of the film.  I also think the audio of Kayla’s Youtube videos played ironically over a contradictory point in her life is a device that the movie probably uses a few too many times.  Also there’s a moment in a car late in the film which, while tense and interesting in its own right, does sort of feel like a bit of a tangent from the rest of the themes and conflicts of the film and doesn’t quite feel like the right climax.  Still, it’s hard not to be impressed by Eighth Grade, it’s an extremely honest film that displays a perspective that I don’t think has ever really shown up on film before, at least not in the same way.  I may never want to watch this movie again, but I’m sure glad it exists.

**** out of Five