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

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

Review: Juliet, Naked

Juliet, Naked (2018)
Rose Byrne, Ethan Hawke, Chris O’Dowd, Megan Dodds.  Written by Tamara Jenkins, Jim Taylor, Phil Alden Robinson, and Evgenia Peretz (based on the novel by Nick Hornby).  Directed by Jesse Peretz.

Tucker Carlson released one moderately successful album called Juliet and then disappeared.  Decades later, his fans dedicate their free time to deconstructing the album and speculating on Carlson’s whereabouts in an online forum run by Duncan Thomson, a college lecturer in a small town in England.  Duncan’s live-in girlfriend and the central character in Juliet, Naked is Annie Platt, the curator and director of the town’s museum.

Juliet, Naked is the title of a new release of the classic album, but stripped down to its essential vocals and acoustic guitar, perhaps demo recordings of the songs before they were recorded and mixed for the final product.  It seems to appear out of nowhere, and of course the rabid fanbase is ecstatic.

Annie is less so, and when she expresses her feelings about the album, she sets into motion a weird sequence of events leading to Annie’s serious questioning about her life choices.  She knows exactly how she got to where she is, but is she satisfied? Is it too late for a redo on some of it?

It would be easy to call this film a romance, and there are romantic elements here.  Yet Annie’s relationship with Duncan is only part of her reflection, merely representative of many choices she never pursued or opportunities she let go.  The possibility of a new relationship simply provides the catalyst for this self-evaluation.

What I love most about Juliet, Naked besides Rose Byrne’s excellent performance is how correspondence by email and in text messages with an unexpected friend forces Annie to articulate the specifics of her life and how she feels about them.  Annie deconstructs her relationship, her family, her job, and her small town in what becomes essentially a journal with an audience.

When Annie is finally ready to do or not do something about where she finds herself, it isn’t because some guy walks into her life, or some other guy sees the error of his ways and redeems himself.  She makes her choices because self-examination empowers her.

Ethan Hawke can be an annoying actor.  I find myself demanding he prove his sincerity with every performance, even in those great sequels to Before Sunrise.  Here is a film where he mostly wins me over (despite one suspiciously gratuitous piano performance), one of the best roles I’ve seen him in.  Byrne has what I think of as the Emily Blunt role, which used to be the Minnie Driver role, but she does it in the sweetest, most relatable way that makes me wish she had more starring vehicles.

My only real problem with the movie is the Nick Hornby effect.  I care about Annie and don’t want her mixed up with any of the men in Nick Hornby stories.  Not John Cusack, not Hugh Grant, not Ethan Hawke, and certainly not Nick Hornby. None of these guys can be trusted, and I left the theater confident in Annie’s ability to deal with whatever comes her way, but I don’t want a Nick Hornby to be one of those things.

8/10
83/100

Review: Peppermint

Peppermint (2018)
Jennifer Garner. Written by Chad St. John. Directed by Pierre Morel.

Riley North witnesses the horrible murder of her husband and young daughter. A crooked system lets the perpetrators get off with no punishment, so Riley disappears for a few years, showing up in time to commemorate the fifth anniversary of the murder, but this time with Jason-Bourne-like skills. And she’s not back to offer second chances.

A movie like this is pretty much review-proof. It’s Jennifer Garner in badass mode, as she was in her Alias TV program. I was aware of its terrible reviews before I went in, but whatever. It’s Jennifer Garner.

Even the bad reviews acknowledge that Garner is pretty good in it, and she is. I think only Julia Roberts among current actresses holds a screen better than Garner, and as long as the script keeps finding new ways for her to exact her revenge, I’m unlikely to find any of it boring.

I dislike the concept of a vigilante, but I do enjoy vigilante movies, and how many have female leads? Seriously, you can put Riley right up there with any of them. I like her better than Charles Bronson in Death Wish or Clint Eastwood in those westerns. I don’t care that there is nary an explanation to be found for her quickly attained super-amazing death-machine skills. I just want more Peppermint.

Predictable, formulaic, incredible? Yes, all of those. But fun, too. Sequel, please!

6/10
63/100

Review: Searching

Searching (2018)
John Cho, Debra Messing, Michelle La. Written by Aneesh Chaganty and Sev Ohanian. Directed by Aneesh Chaganty.

Searching is the second movie I’ve seen in September 2018 that’s marketed as a thriller but is really a mystery. So if you are not thrilled by thrillers (as I am not), don’t let the trailer keep you away. There are a couple of dark episodes, but the film stays away from edge-of-your-seat suspense or immediate peril for the main character. The main character’s teenaged daughter disappears and may be dead, and very sensitive parents may wish to skip it for this reason, but even with this major plot element, the film is really not at all scary.

Some viewers, however, may find it gimmicky. The entire movie is seen on electronic screens of some sort, usually computer screens and smartphone screens. Even when we’re looking at live news reports, we see them not on television, but via streaming through a web browser. There’s a good reason for the gimmick, and although this device forces the filmmakers to resort to some unrealistic exposition by way of news reporters who say things they would never say (and televise things they would never televise), it’s worth this bit of tradeoff for the social issues they explore. In this way, Searching is not a bad partner for Eighth Grade.

Cho is David Kim, the recently widowed father of Margot, a high-achieving high-school senior. Margot disappears one night when she’s supposed to be at a study group. As police detective Rosemary Vick (Debra Messing) and her team trace the evidence, they ask David to contact all of Margot’s friends to try and figure out where she might have gone. The more David looks, the clearer it is that he really doesn’t know his daughter.

It’s pretty cool to see Cho carry a film pretty much entirely on his own. Messing is a supporting actor at best here, and Cho is more than up to the task. The film has a few flaws best left for the viewer to discover (or not care about). I’m willing to look the other way because the story is engaging and surprisingly not preachy about the things it wishes us to consider. In my own writing, I frequently ask, “How does any of us survive childhood?” Searching proposes another side of the question I’ve honestly never considered: How does any of us survive parenthood?

7/10
73/100