Review: Eighth Grade

Eighth Grade (2018)
Elsie Fisher, Josh Hamilton, Emily Robinson. Written and directed by Bo Burnham.

Kayla is in the last week of eighth grade, where she’s pretty close to invisible and doesn’t seem to have any close friends. Her classmates vote her “Most Quiet,” which bugs Kayla. She doesn’t think of herself as quiet; she doesn’t want to be quiet. She has things to say, but she can’t seem to interest anyone in hearing her.

Like many young men and women, Kayla spends most of her waking time in front of a screen. A smartphone from which she Snapchats her activity, a MacBook on which she produces YouTube self-help videos for almost no audience. In these videos, she presents herself as socially competent, a positive thinker, an assertive friend. She’s none of these things in real life, and the only person who seems genuinely interested in everything going on with her is the one person she doesn’t want listening: her single-parent father.

Because most of us were eighth-graders millions of years ago, we’re like Kayla’s dad. We see what a bright, interesting, resilient young woman Kayla is. Unlike Kayla, we also see that the young people around her, the popular kids throwing pool parties at their huge homes and the nerdy cousins and the handsome (barely pubescent) jocks all have their own growing pains.

Perhaps they struggle differently, but they struggle as deeply. Kayla doesn’t see that the pool party girl knows her married mom flirts shamelessly with Kayla’s dad, or that the nerdy boy is, by virtue of being the least cool person in the room, perhaps the only person at the party not pretending to be something he’s not, and therefore the one most worthy of her friendship.

Kayla takes a foray or two into the world of grownups (read: high-schoolers) where she sort-of experiences the kind of acceptance she longs for. I don’t know what such excursions were like for anyone else, but I imagine Kayla doesn’t see anything especially unusual.

Which makes Eighth Grade one of the realest looking movies about pre-high-school I’ve ever seen. Performances all around are solid and thoughtful, and the script brilliantly gives grownups (read: people old enough to be Kayla’s parent) one film and young people another, both of them sincere and provocative. This is one of the best movies for younger teens I’ve seen in a very long time.

9/10
92/100

Friday 5: Again or Not Again

Plans are set for my November writers conference.  Oh crap!  It’s in November!  That’s NaNoWriMo!  Fridge.  Now I’m going to have to work at double the pace early in the month so I don’t have to stress about it during my trip.

I’ve really been focusing on getting enough sleep on work days.  I often fail miserably, but I’m succeeding more than I used to, and it’s made a huge difference.  Yes, it means sometimes rolling in an hour or two after I usually intend to be there, but my boss has been very understanding, and I always stay late if I roll in late.

I feel like I’ve been a child about putting myself to bed responsibly.  I’m annoyed with myself.  I know a lot of this isn’t my fault: I’ve had sleep issues my entire life, and the issues I have now are searious and a threat to my health, but I’m not doing enough to resolve the issues.  There are things beyond my control, and there are things within my control.  I need to take care of the things within my control.

A coworker this afternoon introduced me to the strangely satisfying concept of soap cutting.  There are people on Instagram who just make short videos of them cutting into bars of soap with a knife.  Mesmerizing, and I’m saying this in a completely non-facetious way.  I don’t understand it but I think I’m hooked.  I mention this now because I suspect these things might make it easier for me to relax into sleephood at night.  That’s my intention anyway.

I’ve seen three films this year so far that I’ve rated in the 90s.  Eighth GradeThe Bookshop.  Puzzle.  I call that a good year.

Friday 5 from here.

  1. What is the story behind one of your scars?
    I have a scar on my right wrist.  I sliced it open with my own ice skate one day in tenth or eleventh grade, when I was still dating Lisa.  We were playing tag on the ice, and I had this killer move where I would let someone get really close to me in pursuit, and then I’d duck down, stopping almost completely while the pursuant skated right past me.  In this game, I put my right hand down on the ice to help me with braking, and my skate slid backward and right over the wrist.  Ouch.  To this day the feeling in my skin right around there is not what it was.  I think I severed things that never reattached.
  2. What’s an example of your being pretty much like everyone else?
    I really hate getting-to-know-you games.  If we all hate them so much, why do organizers of certain things still plan them?  I was chatting with a coworker who went to a conference late this past summer and she said they made them do a spaghetti-noodle-marshmallow game.  Nobody likes these!
  3. What’s an example of your being pretty much unlike everyone else?
    I prefer cold macaroni and cheese to hot macaroni and cheese.  With ketchup.
  4. Of websites you look at daily (or almost daily), which have you been paying attention to longest?
    This has to be Hawaii Threads, a local forum run by a good friend.  It’s pretty dead nowadays, but I still check it once or twice a day.
  5. What’s something you wish a smartphone was capable of?
    Underwater photography.  I think of this every time I’m in the water at the beach.  I can think of few things prettier in my near-daily life than the ocean as the sun peeks over the Waikiki condos.  I’m thinking of finding a waterproof Funsaver just to try and capture some semblance of the prettiness.  We also haven’t really reached the digital-audio-file-to-text transcription technology everyone really wants.

Review: Puzzle

Puzzle (2018)
Kelly Macdonald, Irfan Khan, David Denman. Written by Oren Moverman and Polly Mann. Directed by Marc Turtletaub.

People who know me don’t have to be told I’m predisposed toward liking a movie about a middle-aged homemaker questioning her choices and discovering a love for solving jigsaw puzzles. It’s like this movie was made for me, so take my recommendation with this in mind.

Agnes feels she’s been taken for granted by her family: a hard-working, loving husband who doesn’t seem to need much from her outside meals and companionship, and two adult sons who respect her but don’t know anything about her.

A day after a birthday party thrown for Agnes which she seems to have done all the prepping for and cleaning up after, Agnes takes a few moments for herself, apparently a rare occurrence. One friend has given her a jigsaw puzzle as a birthday gift. She spends the day completing it, and then breaking it apart so she can complete it again.

Dinner is forgotten in these puzzle-solving moments. And when her family expresses annoyance at having been put on the back burner, Agnes begins to resent the role she may have carved out for herself.

She goes to a puzzle shop and buys another.

Soon, she is secretly practicing a few times a week with a new puzzle-solving partner—an independently wealthy inventor, recently single, who watches the news all day because he’s fascinated by the destruction.

I saw Puzzle five days after seeing Juliet, Naked, and they are nice complements for one another. Both movies feature middle-aged women questioning their choices, wondering if it’s not too late for a do-over on some of them. I like them both, but I like Puzzle quite a bit more. Whether it’s because of its puzzles theme, because it’s considerably more anguished, or because it leaves a bit more to the viewer to interpret doesn’t really matter to me; it’s probably all three.

“Why do we love puzzles?” one character asks.

“It’s a way to control the chaos,” says another.

Heck yeah.

9/10
90/100

Review: The Spy Who Dumped Me

The Spy Who Dumped Me (2018)
Mila Kunis, Kate McKinnon, Justin Theroux, Gillian Anderson. Written by Susanna Fogel and David Iserson. Directed by Susanna Fogel.

The Spy Who Dumped Me is not the first female buddy-cop flick, but in the summer of 2018, its existence and moderate success feel like a statement. I was happy to see it just to express my support for such a film, and in fact am disappointed in the title, which refers to a male character who’s pretty much not even in the movie. This is a movie about two friends, not a man who dumps a woman.

As a friend movie, it works pretty well. Mila Kunis and Kate McKinnon play nicely off each other, and there are moments of very believable affection, not for any of the many men in the picture, but for each friend by the other. That they can develop and portray this relationship in front of this spy-vs-spy backdrop of a plot feels like a statement as well, and although I admire the concept, the execution leaves a bit to be desired.

I didn’t care for the violence, which seems to push past gratuitous and into sadistic, and I mean sadistic toward its audience. People come to horrific ends, almost always men and almost always after establishing some kind of rapport with the main characters. Is this also part of the big statement? If it is, there’s probably more going on here than I thought.

One very memorable scene involves our main characters, Audrey and Morgan (her name is Morgan Freeman, believe it or not), interacting with a couple of younger twenty-something women. Audrey and Morgan, probably in their early to mid thirties, are smart and funny, and they’re in the midst of a life-or-death situation with international spies.

These two younger women are vapid and giggly. Are Audrey and Morgan looking at their former selves, kind of disgusted with what they see but experienced enough to manipulate it? Or are they looking at the idea of young women in movies, nearly completely useless in a genre almost always dominated by men?

There’s something here, but my brain was too bored by the third act to try and put it all together. I don’t think it’s the fault of the actors so much as a general problem with the genre.

Oh yeah, the plot. Audrey is dumped by her boyfriend Drew. She learns from some guy she meets that Drew is a spy. Drew tells Audrey they must travel together to Vienna to turn over a certain item, but Drew is murdered. Morgan convinces Audrey that they need to fly to Vienna and complete the mission, but someone advises them to trust nobody. Violence. Comedy. Female bonding. Possible romance. Women discover they’ve got more in them than they thought. 117 minutes that could have been 93.

6/10
61/100

Friday 5: A Garbage Heap of Questions

Gearing up for another NaNoWriMo, I purchased a very short book on writing the cozy mystery.  I used kind of a how-to book for my 15 flash fictions in 31 days project in July and it went really, really well, so I’m looking for similar guidance for NaNoWriMo.

I’m thinking of revisiting a failed concept for a few NaNos ago, a cozy mystery set in an elementary school with a tweener as the sleuth.  It gives me something of a new concept in a new (to me) genre, and it has the bonus of being a good audience for a complete novel at 50,000 words.

I’m wolfing down a quarter-pounder with cheese (deluxe) meal at the McD’s on the corner, coming down off the post-concert high from New Order.  It was a most excellent show, and Kathy and I had a great time from rather good seats.

I just saw a Domino’s delivery car go through the McD’s drive-through.

I’m 59% of the way through The Bookshop, the Penelope Fitzgerald novel from which the film is adapted.  It’s rather good.  Such a completely different voice and style from Kevin Kwan’s in Crazy Rich Asians and China Rich Girlfriend, both of which I enjoyed.

I want to be a writer whose fans enjoy his voice.  I enjoy my voice, although I have to admit I’m getting tired of it, and I’ve been playing around with some variations to see if they fit.

In John Steinbeck’s Sweet Thursday, the sequel to Cannery Row, the author refers to himself in the prologue, describing a conversation between him and one of the characters.  I might be remembering some of this incorrectly, but the gist is that the writer agrees to keep his flowery prose limited to a few chapters, and agrees further to title the chapters “Hooptedoodle” so the reader who avoids flowery prose can just skip ahead.

When Steinbeck wants to be showy, he can really be showy.  It’s some lovely writing.  But it’s all Steinbeck’s voice, the regular chapters, the intercalary chapters, and the hooptedoodle chapters.  I want to be this consistent.

No problem, right?  I mean Steinbeck did it.

Sweet Thursday is not one of his stronger novels, but it’s one of my favorite.  I think it’s my third favorite behind The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men.  For some reason I like it better than Cannery Row, ‘though it’s not nearly as good.

Friday 5 from here.

  1. What should be the collective name for accountants?
    A reconciliation of accountants.
  2. What should be the collective name for cafe baristas?
    How about a misspelling of baristas?
  3. What should be the collective name for tattoo artists?
    Two other respondents suggested a sleeve of tattoo artists, which I totally love, but since I refuse to copy, how about a permanence of tattoo artists?
  4. What should be the collective name for people who vape?
    A cumulonimbus of vapers.
  5. What should be the collective name for people in your profession or hobby?
    A futility of writers.  A paragraph of writers.  An epitaph of writers.  Ooh yeah, let’s go with that one.

Review: The Equalizer 2

The Equalizer 2 (2018)
Denzel Washington, Pedro Pascal, Bill Pullman, Melissa Leo. Written by Richard Wenk. Directed by Antoine Fuqua.

I never saw 2014’s The Equalizer, so The Equalizer 2 is completely fresh snow for me, and it’s not bad if you don’t mind your snow a little on the vindictive side.

Robert McCall is a Lyft driver in Massachusetts, where he reads a lot of books and looks after an old man in a retirement home while lecturing some of the local kids on the value of hard work or something kind of Furious-Styles-sounding. He’s something of a neighborhood vigilante, a very violent, fearless vigilante who takes on groups of young men for assaulting the young women in the neighborhood.

Someone close to McCall is murdered, and there (apparently) aren’t very many people close to McCall, so he goes after the people responsible, only he doesn’t know who these people are. At first.

Everything I feel I needed to know about McCall is covered by the fact that he’s reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me right before he destroys a train car full of very bad men. So I kind of like him even if it seems he’s got his fingers in far too many pies. Denzel in badass mode is great if he isn’t allowed to ham it up.

About those pies: the story tries to do twenty things and I would normally be annoyed or distracted or dissatisfied, but I was really just along for the ride.  Yeah, the story is too busy and too involved, but okay.

Alas, the film is directed by Antoine Fuqua, and I haven’t seen all of his movies with Denzel, but I’ve seen Training Day, a film I disliked because Denzel hams it up like an Easter brunch. Thankfully, there are only a couple of offending scenes like this here, but there was a moment where I was half-certain McCall was about to proclaim at the top of his lungs that King Kong ain’t got s*** on him. I tolerated these couple of scenes because I like the rest of this film just fine.

You know what? I’m adding the first film to my Netflix DVD queue. And I’d pay to see another of these. Please, though, can we get a different director?

5/10
50/100

Review: The Happytime Murders

The Happytime Murders (2018)
Melissa McCarthy, Maya Rudolph, Joel McHale, Elizabeth Banks, Bill Barretta, Dorien Davies. Written by Todd Berger. Directed by Brian Henson.

Picture a world like the one in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? but instead of humans and toons, the world is cohabited by humans and puppets with serious discrimination against puppets. This is the world in which The Happytime Murders is set, only instead of some made-up town, we are right in Los Angeles with all its glamour and sleaze.

Mostly sleaze.

And instead of playing pattycake, the characters have all manner of strange methods for pleasing each other, not to mention all manner of bodily fluids spewing everywhere.

Phil Phillips was once the first puppet in the L.A. Police Department, but an error in judgment got him fired, and now he’s a private investigator specializing in wrongs done by humans against puppets. A hard-boiled Philip Marlowe type, Phil is lonely and apparently haunted by demons we don’t discover until we’re knee-deep in the plot. And Silly String.

Some high-profile people and puppets are murdered in what appear to be related crimes, so Phil’s former chief of police deputizes Phil and assigns him to his former partner, a human played by Melissa McCarthy.

If this same movie were cast entirely with humans and no other changes, it would probably be a hard NC-17, but you can get away with a lot more when half the characters are puppets (performed by Jim Henson’s Muppets). Members of the creative team clearly asked themselves what puppets were physically capable of as well as what puppets could get away with in a movie, and pushed right up against the line.

So it’s a fun, creative, raunchy-as-heck movie and I appreciated it for these reasons. Phil is a loveable, beat-down character it’s hard not to like, and McCarthy does what she usually does very well: play crass while remaining vulnerably human. It mostly works.

Where it falls short is in its plot. It’s okay that it’s not very twisted or complicated, but it begins to get dreary and barely interesting about two-thirds of the way through, and the resolution feels strangely dark, like those Dirty Harry movies where the bad guys are dead and the good guy is alive, but yuck. You need a shower.

I discovered the day after I saw this film that I laughed a lot harder telling someone else what’s in it than I did actually watching it. It appears to be hilarious in concept and even execution while awkward or grim in performance. Or something like that.

Even now, I think about an octopus and a cow (all those arms; all those teats) and I laugh aloud. I didn’t laugh aloud when it played out in front of me.

Totally worth a free stream but I wouldn’t recommend paying movie theater prices for this.  And keep the kids away!

5/10
55/100

Review: White Boy Rick

White Boy Rick (2018)
Richie Merritt, Matthew McConaughey, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Brian Tyree Henry, Bruce Dern, Piper Laurie. Written by Andy Weiss, Logan Miller, and Noah Miller. Directed by Yann Demange.

It’s difficult to know how to feel about what happens to Rick Wershe, Jr. at the end of White Boy Rick, and this makes it difficult to decide how I feel about the movie. Do we care more about justice in the eyes of the law, or justice according to a sense of right and wrong, and how do Rick’s choices stand up to either standard? If the film wants us to take a side, I can’t tell which it is.

This makes me dissatisfied with the film, which is a disappointment because I like and care about this character, and Richie Merritt as White Boy Rick does a nice job playing him. Guided by a sense that life is ripping him off but feeling empowered to do something about it, Rick is suspicious of his father’s optimistic outlook and unsure what to do about a junkie older sister whom he cares very deeply about.

Rick Sr. is a licensed gun dealer who operates outside the law. He’s a smart, principled man who may have made a few mistakes as a younger man but who tries to do right for his family now. As role models go, one could probably find a lot worse in 1980s Detroit. Rick Jr. helps his dad with the business, gaining the friendship and trust of a local drug ring. When he’s offered money by the FBI to inform on some of the neighborhood suppliers, he reluctantly accepts the gig, becoming (according to some of the film’s publicity materials) the youngest FBI informant in history at age 14.

It’s fairly easy to read Rick Sr.’s moral code, but Rick Jr.’s is still being formed. Which of his bad decisions are mere errors in judgment and which are dictated by a slightly skew sense of right and wrong? I’m okay with a movie whose position differs from mine on this, but the movie doesn’t seem to take a position, taking some of the power out of some very good performances.

I’ve heard some critics say the McConaughssance is over, but the evidence here would suggest otherwise. It’s a solid, sympathetic performance from McConaughey, and I also really like Jennifer Jason Leigh as Rick Jr.’s handler, Brian Tyree Henry (Paper Boy in the excellent FX series Atlanta) as a local Detroit police officer, and Taylour Paige as the wife of the leader of Rick Jr.’s drug-dealing friends.

This film came close to being good.

6/10
64/100