Da 5 Bloods(6/21/2020)

I’ve maintained on this site that I’m only going to do full reviews of movies if they receive theatrical releases in my area and that I was going to stick with that even in the age of COVID, and so far even during quarantine I’ve only stretched that rule once and that was to review the film Bacurau.  I made an exception for that one firstly because it did play in some New York and Los Angeles theaters with plans to expand right before the shutdown pushed it out of theaters and secondly because they had a special program in place that would give some of their On Demand revenue to a local theater.  I’m bending my rules even further to give a full review to the new Spike Lee film Da 5 Bloods, a movie which to the best of my knowledge has never played in a single theater and debuted directly on Netflix.  So why am I willing to give this a full review and not something like The Lovebirds?  Well, for one this is a movie that I am fairly confident that Netflix would have at least given some kind of small theatrical run had there not been a pandemic.  But the bigger reason is that, frankly, it’s Spike Lee.  Spike Lee is a major auteur in a way that most direct-to-Netflix filmmakers are not and when he puts out a movie it’s a bit too much of an event to just take lightly.

The bulk of Da 5 Bloods is set in the present day and follows four African American men who met while serving in the Vietnam War.  They, along with a fellow soldier who never made it back, collectively formed a unit that dubbed itself “the five bloods.”  Today these men are middle aged and consist of Paul (Delroy Lindo), Otis (Clarke Peters), Eddie (Norm Lewis), and Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.).  These veterans have reunited to visit modern Vietnam and are hoping to locate the remains of their fallen comrade Norman (played in flashbacks by Chadwick Boseman), but it quickly becomes apparent that they have an ulterior motive.  At one point in the war they had apparently been tasked with delivering payment to a local American ally in the form of a chest of gold bars and after their helicopter went down they buried this treasure with the intention of coming back at a later date to keep the loot (which they styled as a form of reparations) but during the war the spot was napalmed and they lost track of it but think they may be able to find it now using modern satellite technology.  However, finding the gold and bringing it back are two different things and it becomes apparent that there are other forces at play.

One of the more unexpected revelations I’ve come to about movie watching during the pandemic is the realization that a lot of my understanding of what movies are out there and what to expect from them has kind of been informed by the fact that I used to steadily watch twenty minutes of trailers ever week before every theatrical viewing experience.  Without that I find myself seeing movies a bit more “blind” than usual and that was certainly the case for Da 5 Bloods, which I knew the most basic plot outline to but hadn’t seen a single trailer for and that maybe wasn’t for the best because the movie is pretty different than what I had thought it would be.  As the movie started I was expecting the film to be an African American version of something like Richard Linklater’s recent film Last Flag Flying, which was a fairly reverent film about modern Vietnam veterans coming to terms with their past experiences.  I was expecting that in part because I was thinking back to Spike Lee’s last movie about the African American military experience: 2008’s Miracle at St. Anna, a movie that was generally less “in your face” than the average Spike Lee movie and was seemingly more interested in simply adding a film about black protagonists to the pantheon of World War 2 epics.  That movie was from a span in the 2000s when Lee was a little more interested in “playing nice” with what audiences expected from studio movies (in some ways it was the end of that stage of his career) and I probably should have gathered from its title that Da 5 Bloods would be something of a different beast.

Da 5 Bloods proves to be something that’s a bit more raucous and in tune with what Lee was doing with Chiraq and Blackkklansman.  It makes a lot of intentionally bold decisions like shooting the Vietnam flashbacks in the 1.33:1 aspect ratio to match old news footage of the conflict and having the aged actors from the modern segments still playing their younger selves in these flashbacks.  Some of these things work, some of them don’t.  I certainly liked a lot of the basic ideas in the film: its exploration of the inherent tension of African Americans more or less forced to defend a country that hates them is strong and the film also creates a cadre of interesting characters and places them in interesting environments like modern Vietnam and those flashback scenes are really strong.  However, I think the film starts to go off the rails in its second half when it rather bafflingly turns into a full-on action movie that openly riffs on the 1948 classic The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.  Pretty much from the moment that a certain thing happens involving a landmine the movie really started to lose me.

Let’s go back to the aforementioned The Miracle at St. Anna.  At the time I felt like the heart of what didn’t work about that movie is that Lee seemed to have been so interested in making a movie about the black experience in World War II that he wasn’t overly discerning about which movie about the black experience in World War II he made and as a result he seemed to have just picked a random and frankly kind of corny spec script about the Italian campaign and added a lot of material about the African American experience (that was legitimately interesting) without corrected everything wrong with that original script.  At least that’s the impression I got, looking into the history of that project I don’t think that’s actually true and that was intended from the beginning to be a movie about Buffalo Soldiers, but the flaws were there nonetheless.  Funny thing is, it seems that with Da 5 Bloods Spike Lee really did take a script that was about a white (or perhaps mixed) group of soldiers and re-wrote it to be about the black experience.  It’s certainly less stuffy than Miracle at St. Anna but it doesn’t gel together as well.  I suspect that that original script was meant to deal with a generally less sympathetic cadre of soldiers whose interest in that lost gold felt more like straightforward greed than anything resembling reparations and that the Delroy Lindo character in particular was meant to be more of a straightforward villain and that the violent conflict would have felt more like a people getting punished for their lust for gold in keeping with John Huston’s film.

This is a movie that I really wanted to love.  We’ve been starved for a decently budgeted movie from a great auteur and Spike Lee in particular seems like an important voice to be hearing from at this time, but the movie he’s given us is not the triumph I was hoping for so much as an interesting mess.  It’s certainly not the first time that Lee has made a movie that’s a bit messy but it’s rare for him to do so with this kind of scale and budget.  He can be more of a perfectionist when he wants to be, like he was when he made movies like Malcolm X, but that’s not really where he is right now but that isn’t entirely a bad thing… it just means his movies aren’t going to be perfect.  In its own wild way this was a fun movie to watch and there is a lot in it to appreciate in its own way.

*** out of Five

Ford V. Ferrari(11/14/2019)

This is going to seem really off topic but bear with me.  There’s this video game called Mass Effect set in a science fiction universe and in that universe there’s this war-like alien species called the Krogan who were genetically altered after a war of make much of their population infertile.  Again, bear with me.  So there’s a conversation with one of these aliens in the game where he says that, in addition to the obvious reasons he thinks this is awful, he also worries that this genetic warfare is additionally making the species soft because every child that is born is treated as a miracle and gets more pampered than it normally would in their culture and this keeps them from gaining the toughness the species was known for.  I mention this because, in many ways, I think a similar thing happens whenever Hollywood puts some money behind a non-franchise film intended for adults.  We’re so accustomed to bitching about Hollywood only making franchise movies for teenagers that anytime they do give us what we supposedly want we get so damn grateful that we treat the movie with kid gloves even if it maybe doesn’t actually stack up.  Case in point, the new film Ford V. Ferrari has been welcomed with open arms seemingly less for its own qualities than for simply what it is: a $97 million dollar 20th Century Fox film with no sequel potential and with subject matter that no one under 25 will naturally gravitate toward.

Ford V. Ferrari focuses primarily on a man named Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), who won the 24 Hours of Le Mans race (driving for Aston Martin) before being forced into retiring from professional racecar driving because of a heart issue and transitioning into behind the scenes roles in the automotive world.  As he’s getting his footing in that role things are shifting the industry.  At Ford they’re trying to break into the world of international motorsport out of a desire to give their cars a sexier sporty image and Shelby is the first person they go to for assistance.  Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal) promises Shelby that he’ll be given unlimited resources and that Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) is going to give him full autonomy.  Shelby hesitantly agrees and seeks out Ken Miles (Christian Bale), a skilled but down on his luck British racer who lives in American and often has trouble getting sponsors because of his “difficult” personality.  Together they begin work on the car that would become the Ford GT40 but whether or not it will be able to beat perennial winner Ferrari at this storied race remains unclear.

In various foreign markets this film is being released under the title Le Mans ’66, a title that implies that this is mostly just about racing, but its domestic title is telling.  Firstly it joins Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice in an odd trend of having movies follow the naming conventions of Supreme Court cases, but primarily it signals this as a movie about an American motor company going head to head with an elitist European rival.  And yet you won’t really see a whole lot of Ferrari in the movie, they largely exist as a specter on the periphery of the film and it’s not entirely clear how invested they really are in this little rivalry.  The film also doesn’t really do much to make a case for why Ford winning this fight would actually be a good thing outside of blind patriotism.  Really, the film seems to have a rather unusual understanding about who the Goliath is in this situation and who the David is.  It would seem to me that Enzo Ferrari is the one who put his blood sweat and tears into sport of auto racing and the craft of making quality vehicles while Ford is a giant corporation who get the notion to buy its way into victory against him on a marketing whim so that they could then sell exploding Pintos to unsuspecting consumers for the next decade.  Shouldn’t Ford be the bad guy here?

So this isn’t much of an underdog sports movie but is it a good sports movie generally?  Well, the racing certainly looks good.  There isn’t a ton of it really but the crash scenes certainly look impactful when they occur and the movie does a reasonably good job of showing the strategy involved in endurance racing.  I was not, however, all that enamored with the film’s characters, who seemed to skew a bit too close to cliché for my taste.  Matt Damon is essentially playing a long suffering coach, an even tempered guy who nonetheless quarrels with higher-ups and also needs to tame the wild passions of his star athlete, or driver in this case.  As for that driver, well, he’s a character who would make more sense if he were about twenty years younger.  As a college football player his aimless rebellion would makes sense but this is supposed to be a forty six year old man and my patience with his “difficult” behavior only went so far.  I also didn’t care about his family like one bit.

But the character who really drove me crazy here was a Ford executive Leo Beebe played by Josh Lucas.  This character is meant to sort of be a stand-in for all the dumbest ideas the team got from Ford executives who don’t know what they’re talking about.  He reminded me of something from Roger Ebert’s review of the movie Die Hard where he says that the police chief from that movie was “in the movie for only one purpose: to be consistently wrong at every step of the way and to provide a phony counterpoint to Willis’ progress.”  I do think Ebert slightly over-emphasized how much of a problem that side character was for that movie, but Josh Lucas is about as much of a lame screenplay contrivance.  Granted, some of my research suggests that a few of Beebe’s dumb decisions had some historical backing, but when you have an element like that in the story you’re adapting you really need to address it with some finesse and be careful not to exaggerate it and here they most certainly punch up the character’s idiocy rather than putting them in context and making them seem likely and plausible.

So I don’t exactly think this is anything special as a sports movie but I will say that if there’s anything that does make it potentially interesting it’s the fact that it could potentially be read as a metaphor for the process of Hollywood filmmaking.  In this reading Ford is a stand-in for major studios of the 20th Century Fox variety who ultimately care more about the bottom line than craftsmanship but will occasionally indulge the creation of something a bit finer as a goodwill gesture.  This would then make Shelby a stand-in for a high profile director that needs to wrangle everything together and stay in the good graces of the studio while pushing back on the meddling of all their executives.  And then that would make Ken Miles a stand-in for a “difficult” actor that a director needs to find, fight to get cast, and then direct into using their talent correctly for the project at hand.  It’s an interesting meta-level, and I do think this is an intentional element rather than something I’m generously reading into the film, but it’s also perhaps a bit of a double edged sword because there’s a certain ego involved in making your main character that much of a self-insert.  James Mangold clearly views himself as the Carroll Shelby in all this, but from where I sit the movie he’s made is less of a Ford GT40 and more of a Ford Fusion: a perfectly functional product but not something you should be bragging about as if it were some exemplar of what automaking can be at the highest levels.

*** out of Five

Doctor Sleep(11/7/2019)

Of all the movies to come out this year Doctor Sleep isn’t necessarily the movie I was most excited to see but it was the film I was one of the films I was the most curious about.  The film is a delayed sequel to The Shining, an all-masterpiece from Stanley Kubrick, or perhaps more accurately an adaptation of Stephen King’s sequel novel to the original novel of “The Shining” upon which Kubrick’s film is based.  Stephen King famously isn’t a fan of Kubrick’s The Shining but I certainly think that movie is a masterpiece and making a sequel to it certainly takes balls.  I would normally be kind of offended at the very thought of doing something like that and would dismiss such a project as I would with that 2010: The Year We Made Contact movie from back in the 80s, but I can’t deny that Stephen King does still have some ownership over this story and that he has the rights to write his own sequel and that it would be foolish to ignore Kubrick’s film when making an adaptation of that sequel, so I was mostly willing to give this a chance.

Ironically I think the aspect of the movie that play around with Kubrick’s imagery are probably its most successful.  There was something oddly refreshing about the way Mike Flanagan is able to recreating Kubrick’s sets and imagery in a rather low-fi way.  I imagine that there was some temptation to dump a bunch of money into an elaborate CGI set like the one in Ready Player One with the original actors somehow recreated in a computer but Flanagan instead just cast a bunch of people who look a lot like the original actors and put them into physical sets that have been carefully fussed over and it mostly works.  The problem is that there really isn’t all that much of this in the grand scheme of things. I’ve heard people complain that the movie has too much Kubrick fan service in it, but from where I sit that stuff is a clear minority of the film’s runtime and it pretty much the only part that really delivers on what the film is being sold as.  The rest of the film is largely beholden to Stephen King’s own new story which in some ways seems to have been constructed in such a way as to be the opposite of what people would want out of a sequel to Kubrick’s film.

A lot of ink has been spilled about why Stephen King hates the movie version of The Shining but one of this quotes about it that has always baffled me is his contention that the film is supposedly a failure because Kubrick looked down on horror genre, which never really made sense because most of the things Kubrick added to the story were freaky supernatural elements and most of what he took out were endless bits of back story that over explained everything.  Granted, I haven’t actually read King’s book so I might not be in the best position to diagnose that but I’ve looked into the differences pretty extensively and that seems to be the case.  That complaint is all the more strange given that this King approved sequel doesn’t even seem to be trying to be anywhere near as horror inflected as Kubrick’s movie.  Kubrick’s movie is essentially a haunted house story mixed with a psychological thriller that boils over in violent ways.  In that movie The Overlook Hotel and the various ghosts inside of it are the real stars while Danny Torrence’s psychic powers are heavily de-emphasized.  This sequel instead focuses mainly on Danny’s psychic powers and does a lot of world building on top of them and turns things into a sort of YA fantasy story about other people who “shine” fighting against another group of psychics who hunt and kill people who “shine” to feed off their power like vampires.  That’s not the worst idea in the world but it’s not what people want out of a sequel to The Shining and I don’t think it’s overly well executed in and of itself.

A big part of the problem, I would argue the problem that kind of sinks the movie is that these evil psychics are kind of lousy as horror villains.  The film spends an unusual amount of time hanging out with them while they’re on the road searching for victims and almost seems to want to establish them as a personable band of misfits.  That is the exact opposite of what you want to do if you want to make your villain intimidating and scary, if I were making this I would have cut that stuff to a minimum and made these psychic vampires as simple and mysterious as possible.  Additionally, the film doesn’t do a whole lot to make them seem all that powerful either.  Their leader, Rose the Hat, is certainly well played by Rebecca Ferguson but our heroes seem to get the best of her at every turn and it’s eventually established that all you really need to do to take these bad guys down is shoot them so it seems a bit odd that by the end of the film we’re still supposed to view her as a threat that’s so intimidating that desperate measures and dangerous methods need to be taken to have a fighting chance against her.

So, what we have here is a movie that doesn’t really work, but the ways that it doesn’t work are kind of fascinating.  I almost want to give it a “thumbs up” just because there’s a certain entertainment value in watching Mike Flanagan desperately try to square the circle of making these competing visions work within a single movie.  However, I do empathize with anyone who walks into this movie unfamiliar with all this baggage expecting a sequel to The Shining or any kind of Stephen King horror movie for that matter and instead get this weird mishmash of visions.  In some ways I wonder if this kind of mess is exactly what King wanted when he wrote this book that doesn’t operate at all like Kubrick’s movie and then gave it a pretty terrible title on top of that.  So ultimately I think that hiring consummate Stephen King fanboy Mike Flanagan was a mistake as, at the end of the day, he was more interested in pleasing King than the film’s natural audience.  Part of me thinks they should have hired a guy who would have tossed out even more of King’s ideas and made a true sequel to Kubrick’s movie but as I outlined previously King’s partial ownership over the story is kind of the one thing that justifies making a sequel to a Kubrick film in the first place so you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t.  I’ll give it this though, it’s better for a movie to have too many visions coursing through it than to have no vision at all.

**1/2 out of Five

The Favourite(10/27/2018)

Warning: Review reveals an aspect of the movie’s premise which may be considered a spoiler.

I like to think I’m more knowledgeable about American history than most.  I have a degree in the subject after all and I do find myself reading a fair number of books about it since then.  I cannot, however, necessarily say the same thing about British history and especially not pre-20th Century British history.  I do know a little more about certain eras of interest like Henry VIII’s tumultuous reign and I guess the handful of kings that Shakespeare wrote plays about and I suppose I have a cursory knowledge of William the Conquerer and The War of the Roses and a few other events but at a certain point it becomes very hard to keep track of all the monarchs, parliaments, and reformations that have happened in that country in the last two thousand years.  I don’t exactly feel terrible about that given that it’s not a country I live in.  In theory there’s no particular reason I should know more about English history than, say, Chinese history but nonetheless I do take in a lot more popular culture from and about the United Kingdom and occasionally I feel a little more unsteady than I would when watching period pieces set in the United States.  Take the new film from Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos, which is set in the early 1700s during the reign of Queen Anne.  I had probably heard the name “Queen Anne” at some point before but I wouldn’t have been able to tell you much of anything about her.  So the film, titled The Favourite, is something of an education for me… or is it?

The film begins with a woman named Abigail Hill (Emma Stone) arriving at the court of Queen Anne (Oliva Coleman) in hopes of getting some sort of job there.  Hill is of noble birth but her family has fallen because of some terrible decisions by her father and she is basically penniless.  Her hope is that her distant relative, the Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz), will give her some sort of assistance.  The Duchess is not a person to be trifled with.  She’s wily and tough as nails and she’s also more or less become the right hand woman to the queen, who is depicted here as smart but sickly and perhaps a bit loony from her life of privilege and indulgence.  Hill does manage to get a job as a lowly palace maid but soon the duchess finds something of a kinship with Hill.  The Duchess gives her a better job in the palace and also invites Hill to join her in recreational live pigeon shooting.  Soon though, Hill comes to learn that the duchess and the queen are not merely confidants but are in fact also lesbian lovers.  Seeing an opening, Hill comes up with a plan to supplant the duchess as the queen’s favorite subject and to use that to return herself to the nobility.

Like I said, my knowledge of British history in this period is minimal, so when I finished the movie I had just assumed that this was a fictional story set in the time period.  However, when I started poking around on Wikipedia it became clear that there actually is a lot more genuine history here than I thought.  The Duchess of Marlborough and Abigail Hill were real people, their circumstances were about the same as what’s depicted here, and they really did fight for the queen’s favor as well.  Where the film differs from the history record is in speculating that these three were engaging in a lesbian love triangle, which appears to have been something that was rumored at the time but for which little hard evidence exists.  The movie is also basically engaging speculation in depicting the motives of the two women who may or may not have been as power hungry in real life.  That said historical accuracy is probably a secondary concern here as Yorgos Lanthimos does not treat the film as a historical reenactment and instead injects it with a lot of modern energy.  The film’s dialogue is not distractingly anachronistic but it isn’t filled with “thees” and “thous” and “prithees” either and the screenplay does not shy away from having the characters use various vulgarities that would not make it into the history books.  The film also uses some stranger elements of life in this period are also emphasized for comedic effect like the nobility’s apparent pastime of duck racing.

This unconventional take on the period piece reminded me a bit of The Death of Stalin, which leaned even heavier into anachronistic language and was a generally broader comedy, but the Armando Iannucci project that the movie really reminded me of was his HBO series “Veep” in the way that the characters are self-interested vipers that are constantly playing chess with their adversaries.  Unlike Iannucci’s comedies, which tend to take place in worlds where anyone and everyone has their eyes on the prize, in this movie no one except for the main trio at the center really seems to stand a chance.  That’s especially true of all the men in the court who are primarily represented by a pair of groveling politicians and a conceited military officer, all of them made to look like comical fops by the ridiculous fashion of the day which involved gigantic wigs and unappealing purple jackets.  That rather feminized appearance is quite intentionally contrasted with the women in the movie, who are slightly musicalized power players that ride horses and take up target shooting in their free time.  The movie is not in denial that this was not the gender dynamic of the vast majority of people in this time and whenever any of them leave the bubble of Queen Anne’s court they start to face the same dangers that women generally faced in the wider world, but while they’re in the palace they pretty much only view each other as a threat.  Of course all of this would have a slightly different ring to it if the queen was a king and the two women were involved in a love triangle with a man, but as a lesbian triangle the monarch’s behavior feels less like exploitation and more like a game that they’re all sort of willingly entering into.

Another thing that differentiates the film from Iannucci’s work is that Yorgos Lanthimos is certainly not going to let it have the same kind of televisual “comedy first” look that Iannucci’s projects tend to have and is instead bringing his own brand of weirdness to the film.  I’ve been a little agnostic about Lanthimos’ two English language films so far, I admired their unique vision but was also alienated (mostly in a bad way) by the peculiar nature of how his characters spoke and acted.  Things are different this time around, certainly in part because he’s working with a screenplay written by others this time around but I think also because this material just works really well for him.  The characters seem to be heightened in just the right way and you feel like their quirks are specific to them rather than the whole of the film’s world and things that might otherwise just feel like Lanthimosian flights of fancy here just feel like aspects of this strange time and place.  It’s certainly his most accessible film though that is relative and I’m sure it will feel plenty strange to people who haven’t experienced The Killing of a Sacred Deer or The Lobster, so I wouldn’t think of it as any kind of sell-out scenario and it won’t be for everyone.  Still, the movie is clearly an excellent twist on the conventional costume drama and one that will be starting some very interesting conversations throughout the year.

****1/2 out of Five

First Man(10/11/2018)

Warning: Review describes some of the real life events that could be considered spoilers for the movie.

The 1983 film The Right Stuff is considered to be a classic, one of the best films ever made about the space program and a successful adaptation of Tom Woolfe’s novel of the same name.  It didn’t do great at the box office but critics loved it and it was nominated for eight Oscars and won four of them and its reputation hasn’t really diminished at all since then.  There was, however, one person who was very decidedly not impressed by it and that was a guy named Walter “Wally” Schirra.  Schirra was an astronaut, the ninth person in space and the only person to take part in a Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo mission.  He isn’t a big part of The Right Stuff but he’s in a few scenes and is played by Lance Hendrickson.  As I understand it Schirra’s issue with the movie had less to do with how he personally was portrayed and more to do with a handful of inaccuracies as well as the overall tone of the film which he described as “Animal House in space” and that everyone in the movie came off like cocky bozos.  That seems like quite the exaggeration.  There are certainly moments of levity in Phillip Kaufman’s movie but it’s far from a comedy and while it certainly takes its share of artistic license here and there it’s far from the most inaccurate movie that Hollywood has ever put out.  Of course the space program is not just any subject; it’s a moment in history that that a lot of people was a moment of great inspiration and for some of those people even the smallest bit of irreverence would seem like anathema.  I bring this up because Damien Chazelle’s new movie First Man seems to have been made to impress the Wally Schirra’s of the world, for better or worse.

The film follows the life of Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) from his time as an X-15 test pilot up through the moon landing and his immediate return.  It spends no time on his early life or the aftermath of the historic Apollo 11 mission.  Along the way we also meet his wife Janet (Claire Foy), who claims to have married him because of how “stable” he seemed in college but who becomes increasingly troubled by the risks involved in his career as an astronaut.  The film also chronicles how Armstrong would come to impress his boss Deke Slayton (Kyle Chandler) over the course of various tests and training excercises as well as his ill-fated friendship with Gus Grissom (Shea Whigham), Ed White (Jason Clarke), Roger B. Chaffee (Cory Michael Smith), who would die in the Apollo 1 test disaster.

First Man is divided into thirds by three centerpiece sequences: an X-15 test flight, the Gemini 8 mission, and of course the moon landing.  In filming these scenes Damien Chazelle takes a somewhat unconventional approach of keeping as much of the action as possible inside of the cockpits rather than giving the audience any kind of external “money shot” of these aircrafts in action.  This does have the effect of giving you an idea of just how nerve-wracking some of these missions must have been, especially in the case of the first two missions where Armstrong is almost entirely dependent on analog instruments and staticy radio communication.  The film is in many ways a reminder that these space missions were being done before we’d even managed to invent the Atari 2600 and seeing what all this looked like from the perspective of these cramped tank-like cockpits gives you an idea of the courage it took to be an astronaut during this period.  That said, it’s not always easy to understand what’s going on in some of these scenes and people hoping that the film will be an effects spectacle along the lines of something like Gravity will likely be disappointed at what they get.

Ryan Gosling’s portrayal of Armstrong could probably be described as “understated.”  The film certainly makes Armstrong into something of a “strong silent type” who never sought glory but accepted it with serious when it was bestowed upon him.  In many ways the film goes with a very traditional narrative of how Armstrong accomplished what he did: he was smart, calm, collected, and extremely hard working.  The film also shows how those same qualities might not have made him the world’s best husband or father.  From the film he certainly feels like the prototypical stoic and distant 1950s father, perhaps even more so than most.  We know that on some level he loves his kids, he certainly mourns the loss of his daughter who died in childhood of cancer, but he reacts to this by pouring himself into his work and we don’t see him so much as play catch with his sons.  He also doesn’t exactly seem to be doing this because he’s passionate about space travel and yearns to land on the moon, or at least he never says so out loud, instead he seems like someone who found something he was good at and diligently went to work every day to the best of his abilities just like Horatio Alger told him to and was rewarded in kind even if he didn’t want that glory.  Maybe all that is true, in fact I don’t doubt it, but it also kind of seems like the kind of company line  you’d expect from a loving family member’s account as they tell stories of their amazing husband/father while adding in just enough human flaws to make it believable.  If you’re looking for some juicy new take on the guy you probably aren’t going to find it here.

I’m also not quite sure what I was supposed to make of Claire Foy as Armstrong’s wife.  In essence she’s basically the same long-suffering housewife we’ve seen in many a biopic of great men.  She seems to be somewhat ambivalent about her husband’s role in the space program and the dangers that it involves but she doesn’t really nag him to stop very much and generally spends most of her time watching the kids while Armstrong is out doing his thing.  In many ways she feels like a character that should either have a lot more screen time or a lot less.  If they had decided that this was going to be a movie that was all about these two people’s marriage and that they were going to really find some special new insight into her that would have been one thing but instead the movie just keeps coming back to her seemingly out of some obligation to keep giving the lead actress screen time even if she really isn’t doing anything too out of the ordinary.  That is perhaps the problem with almost all the earthbound scenes in the movie, ultimately Neil Armstrong seems to have been a person who was interesting more for what he did than who he was and as a result long stretches of the movie are frankly kind of dull.

There are certainly highlights that bring things back to life, and they aren’t all the space scenes necessarily, but those are the big ones and even they only go so far.  Even at the end when we finally get to the moon landing that we’ve been waiting for this whole time it proves to be a bit of an anti-climax.  Chazelle certainly renders the sequence well but it’s ultimately rather brief and aside from visual clarity we get a whole lot that we don’t get from the grainy old black and white images.  He doesn’t even dare to get a close-up of Armstrong’s face as he says his famous “one small step for man” line.  The movie just feels so reverent, technical, and humorless, the kind of thing an absolute NASA geek would make without stopping to consider if everyone else was as interested as they were.  That’s why I suspect that Wally Schirras of the world would be into it, but where I stand something looser and more accessible like The Right Stuff will work better for most audiences.

**1/2 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