Movie Reviews - 2018 postsMonday July 23, 2018
Movie Review: Three Identical Strangers (2018)
I had two main thoughts by the end: one deadly serious, one less so.
Here’s the deadly serious thought: Surely the filmmakers were wary their doc might be continuing the experiment. Surely they knew that by making a film about how these boys, now men, had been in essence turned into lab rats, and then finding new evidence about why this had happened, and showing it to them and filming their response in real time, surely they knew that this wasn’t far removed from what the scientists themselves had done. Here you go. Here’s what this one lab tech had to say about your adopted parents. How does that make you FEEL? The filmmakers must have had these conversations deep into the night, right? Conversations about the ethics of it all? Surely?
The other, less serious thought was this: If only the Eddie Murphy comedy “Trading Places” had existed in the late 1950s. This whole thing might never have happened.
Nature vs. nurture
Here’s the trailer.
Pretty amazing stuff. Twins separated at birth, then reunited. Wait, not twins: triplets. They found each other in New York in 1980, and they were all tall, good-looking and fun. They were Jewish but seemed Italian, and became minor celebrities. They went on Today and Phil Donahue. They had a cameo in “Desperately Seeking Susan,” smiling at Madonna in the early morning light.
What’s amazing, and not commented upon enough, is how much joy being reunited brings them. I think if I were in college and found a long-lost twin—someone who looked, talked and thought like me—I’d throw up. I wouldn’t want to hang with them. I certainly wouldn’t want to dress like them. I’d see it as an affront to my individuality. At least I suspect I would. But maybe this is because I don’t have a long-lost twin. I was alone in the uterus, they weren’t. And maybe this accounts for their special joy. It’s an ur-reunification. They feel it in their bones.
Or maybe they’re just joyful people.
Are they interesting people? That’s an issue a third of the way through. In the ’80s, they hang with each other, go to clubs, drink, etc. Do they have jobs? We don’t know. All we’re told is that after years of partying they open a restaurant, Triplets, in the Soho district. I expected disaster but it does well. First year, they clear a million. They each get married; they start families.
Then David breaks away.
Do we get the why of that? Or just the consequences? It happens suddenly, doesn’t it, and then we’re into Eddy’s fall. But we expected that one. We hear and see David and Bobby, today, in their 50s, talking directly to the camera, and we’re painfully aware there’s no Eddy. So that hangs over our viewing: What happened to Eddy?
Apparently he had trouble with David leaving; he had trouble with the group splitting up. He was most likely manic-depressive—outgoing, loving, beloved—and then the opposite of that. During one of his opposites, in 1995, he took his own life.
Did this wreck the relationship between Bobby and David, or was that already wrecked? When we see them today, greeting each other on camera, it feels awkward, like they haven’t seen each other in a while. They were the extremes, classwise. Part of the experiment involved placing the boys in different economic strata: upper class (David), middle (Eddy), working (Bobby). Bobby’s dad was the most gregarious, Eddy’s the biggest disciplinarian, David’s (a doctor) the most absent.
The experiment, started by renowned psychologist Peter Neubauer—who fled the Nazis and should’ve known better than to experiment with people, with children—was apparently the old nature vs. nurture argument. What’s bred into us? What do we learn? Much of the early media surrounding the boys focused on their superficial similarities. They all wrestled, smoked the same cigs, dressed similarly even before they did it on purpose. Over and over again. The boys, back then, played this up. The doc does, too.
The differences turned out to be a matter of life and death. All suffered depression but it was Eddy who took his own life. Why?
The doc places the blame on Eddy’s martinet father, now in his 90s. He’s a talking head early in the doc so there’s a dramatic “butler did it” quality to the accusation. So it was him all along! But this turnabout made me uneasy. We’re blaming an old man for the death of his son based on ... dime-store psychology? A desperation to show nurture matters? I’m not sure. It feels facile.
“Three Identical Strangers” is still worth seeing. It’s an amazing, crazy, awful story. I just hope British documentarian Tim Wardle wanted me to feel uneasy afterwards. I hope his ethics discussions went deep into the night.
Movie Review: Eighth Grade (2018)
I spent more time covering my eyes during this movie than I do during most horror movies. That’s a testament to the accuracy writer-director Bo Burnham and star Elsie Fisher bring to the project. Anyone who’s been through it knows: eighth grade is like a horror movie.
Fisher plays Kayla, a girl living in two worlds: the hallways of junior high, through which she slinks, hoping no one will talk to her, praying someone will; and the online/social media world, where she acts confident and posts self-help videos to not-many followers. In her videos, she gives advice such as be yourself, which she clarifies as “Like, not changing yourself to impress someone else.” Then she spends much of the rest of the movie not following her own advice.
There’s not a false note in Fisher’s performance. She’s amazing and heartbreaking.
It’s the last week of eighth grade, and Kayla’s view of her real-world self is upended—or her worst fears realized—when during auditorium it’s announced that she’s been voted “quietest.” She’s mortified (quietly), but becomes determined to upend that image. She makes an effort. That’s part of the horror: the earnest effort to put herself out there. Most of us know where earnest efforts—particularly in junior high—lead.
Is the pool party first? The mom of the cool girl in school invites her to the cool girl’s pool party, and Elsie decides to make her determined stand in this most awkward of situations: in a green bathing suit. It’s an indelible scene. She arrives late, changes inside, then makes her slow, slouched, painful way through the happy throngs playing in the sun. We’re relieved when she finally makes it all the way into the water. There’s almost a collective sigh from the audience. Even better: a goofy kid, Gabe (Jake Ryan), begins to talk to her, so she’s not alone. But of course she’s not interested in the goofy kid. She’s interested in Aiden (Luke Prael), who has sleek eyes, tousled hair, and a cool demeanor that’s probably hiding not much.
We get an endearing scene. At night, in bed with her smartphone, she visits Aiden’s Instagram page, closes her eyes and kisses one of his selfies. At this point, Dad (Josh Hamilton), walks into the bedroom and in a panic she tosses the smartphone across the room, then yells at him. When she recovers it, the screen is cracked. It’s like a girl version of a Portnoy scene.
We also get an icy scene. During a classroom test, Kayla sneaks over to Aiden—literally crawling on the ground—to deliver a message, and flirt, and pretend to be more experienced sexually than she is. She winds up bragging about things she doesn’t know about. His eyes light up. We want to shout at the screen: RUN!
Thankfully, that goes nowhere. Much of the movie goes nowhere. It’s episodic. The movement forward is in starts and stops. We, and she, anticipate disasters that never happen. At the pool party, she sings karaoke, but it seems to go fine. She’s given a high school mentor, like all the eighth graders, and hers isn’t an awful person—like, say, Parker Posey in “Dazed & Confused”—but nice and nurturing. The girl’s one mistake—after a meet-up at the mall with other high schoolers—is getting dropped off before Kayla. That allows a high school boy to get weirdly creepy. Thankfully, that goes nowhere, too.
Burnham, who made his name via YouTube, has an overt message in the movie: get off social media; go offline. But his subtler message is the better one. Every scene has the potential for disaster, but it never arrives. You put yourself out there, disasters generally don’t befall you. Hell, most people don’t notice or care. Which, in eighth grade, can be a huge positive.
Some of the jokes are OK but seem like retread “Fast Times” and/or “Simpsons” bits. Kayla looks around at her peers and sees dudes sniffing markers, girls dealing with retainers. The cool girls are vapid. Instead of “Fuzzy Bunny,” the narrator for the hip-new sex-ed video says, “It’s gonna be lit.” The vice-principal dabs, but he seems self-aware doing it. He’s the older dude doing it as a joke on himself. He was on screen for seconds and I liked him immediately.
Throughout, there’s small victories. By the end, Kayla is beginning to find her voice, beginning to find her peers—including Gabe—and beginning to think the self-help videos aren’t helping her self much. It’s a great slice-of-life. Kudos to Burnham for making it.
Movie Review: Ocean's 8 (2018)
Does Sandra Bullock have to kill off George Clooney in every movie now? Is that a stipulation in her contract?
Bullock plays Debbie Ocean, sister to Danny, who, as the movie begins, gets paroled, visits her brother’s grave (buh-bye, George), and then goes on a high-end shopping scam at Bergdorf’s. I like the scam. She picks some items, plays the rich bitch returning them without a receipt, is frustrated by the poor customer service rep simply following rules, then says, “Well, can I at least have a bag for them?” And out she walks out with the bootie.
After she scams a room at the Plaza for a long soak, she’s ready to call together the old team.
Come back to the nickel-and-dime
OK, so initially it consists of Lou (Cate Blanchett), her partner from way back when, and ... that’s it. The two of them were involved in nickel-and-dime stuff before Debbie got involved, personally and professionally, with Claude Becker (Richard Armitage), a jerky gallery owner who used her to bid up prices of artworks. When the feds closed in, all the evidence, including his quick confession, pointed to her, and she got five years. Now she’s after revenge.
How? As a sideplot while heisting a $150 million Cartier diamond necklace. It will be worn around the neck of famous actress and pain-in-the-ass Daphne Kluger (Anne Hathaway), who will play co-host at the biggest fashion show of the year: the annual Met Gala at the Metropolitan Museum.
This means Daphne goes from nickel-and-diming, and then getting scammed herself, to pulling off the heist of the century. It’s like a little league pitcher tossing a no-hitter in the Majors. Yet no one in the movie gives it a second thought because she's Danny Ocean's sister. The movie doesn't give it a second thought. The movie isn't big on second thoughts.
Here, by the way, is our titular team:
- Debbie: Leader, revenge maven
- Lou: Kitchen help
- Rose Weil (Helena Bonham Carter), a Betsey Johnson-like fashion designer on the downside of her career
- Amita (Mindy Kaling), diamonds expert
- Nine Ball (Rihanna), computer hacker
- Constance (Awkwafina), pickpocket
- Tammy (Sarah Paulson), fence and general professional
The eighth comes at the 11th hour: the seeming dupe, Kluger, but I was confused about exactly when she came on board: before or after the emetic? And even with Kluger, shouldn’t it be Ocean’s Seven? Do you count yourself in your own group? And is this a question for linguists or mathematicians?
The scam, complicated and smooth in the “Ocean’s” fashion, veers, at a key point, to idiotic. This is that point: Rather than replace the necklace with the cubic zirconium they’ve created, which would’ve alerted no one, they let everyone know the necklace is missing. So there’s this big search, and the fake is eventually found in a fountain. By Tammy. Everyone seems fine with this—including the necklace’s security detail, which is full of former Mossad agents. The movie has already insulted Mossad by implying its former agents wouldn’t dare enter a ladies room, so this is just more salt in the wound.
But I guess all that hubbub was to create a diversion? Allowing for a bigger haul—swiping the crown jewels from a Met exhibit? News not only to us but to the rest of the team. And it’s only accomplished because Yen (Qin Shaobo), the Chinese Cirque du Soleil dude from the other Ocean’s movies, lends a hand. Lends a hand? Let me rephrase: He does it all. Most of the money they swipe is because of him. So why isn’t he celebrating with the rest? Because he’s a dude? Because he’s Chinese? He didn’t even make the title cut. 很可怜。
Much of the movie is like this: It doesn’t work if you think about it for two seconds. After the haul, James Corden shows up as a super-smart insurance investigator, John Frazier, but once he hits a dead end he lets Debbie point the way. She points it toward her ex, Becker, but Frazier needs probable cause to search his place. So Daphne prostitutes herself to snap a photo of some of the missing jewels. She sends it to Debbie, who sends it on to Frazier, who gets his warrant. How likely is this to stand up in court? What are the odds the photo signatures lead back to Debbie and Daphne and the scam is revealed? And everyone else is discovered? And winds up in jail? And Becker is released? And laughs at all of them?
But whatever. Cue happy ending: Rihanna opens a pool hall—as all hackers do.
“Ocean’s 8,” directed by Gary Ross, has moments, but it doesn’t have much forward movement. It’s both zippy and oddly stagnant. It also bothered me that no one else thought cutting up this priceless Cartier necklace was the wrong thing to do—like destroying a Rodin sculpture.
Here's who I loved: Hathaway, Helena and James Corden. Blanchett is shockingly wasted. The biggest problem may be Bullock. She’s so busy being cool she’s nearly frozen. The plastic surgery doesn’t help. Cate's either. And good god, Mindy, lip injections? You’re supposed to be funny. You’re supposed to be us.
At one point, Debbie says they’ll go under-the-radar because nobody notices women, which, with this crew, is the exact opposite of true. Nobody notices Rihanna? C‘mon. The line should’ve been about how nobody notices older women. Then you hire good actresses in their 50s and 60s who haven’t had plastic surgery and send them off to do this thing. Hollywood: There's still time.
Movie Review: Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018)
Love the title. Is it the first time a female superhero has gotten such billing in the Marvel Cinematic Universe? Yes. MCU hasn’t exactly been an EOE. It’s the one area where it lags behind DC. And the Wasp deserves the honor. Not only was she an original member of the Avengers, she named the Avengers:
The title also has a 1950s sci-fi feel to it, doesn’t it? It wants an exclamation point: “Ant-Man and the Wasp!” Which makes sense because the characters truly bridged the gap between the horror stories Marvel produced in the post-Fredric Wertham 1950s and the mighty age of troubled superheroes they started creating in the early 1960s.
Our hero, Ant-Man, first appeared (hyphen-less) in Tales to Astonish #35, which was a Sept. 1962 issue. Keep in mind: That’s only a month after the debuts of Spider-Man and Thor, and a good six months before Iron Man. But that wasn’t the first time we saw Hank Pym. In January 1962—when the Mighty Marvel Age was just the Fantastic Four—the cover story for Tales to Astonish #27 was “The Man in the Ant Hill!” It’s one of those “Be careful what you wish for” 1950s horror stories. Other scientists laugh at what scientist Hank Pym claims to have created: a serum that can shrink and a serum that can bring back to normal size. He takes the former and then can’t reach the latter and is in danger of being dragged into an ant hill to die a horrible death. He’s only saved by a friendly ant. Restored to his normal size, he throws away his serums as too dangerous for the likes of man.
Until, of course, Stan, Jack or some other scrub saw the possibilities.
OK, Groot did make a comeback. But “The Man in the Bee-Hive!” (Tales of Suspense #32, August 1962)? One and done. Definitely not anchoring $162 million action movies.
Partridge Family redux
Anyway, I love the title, and I love this early history, and I liked the movie a lot. If it’s a roller coaster, at least it's a roller coaster with a sense of humor. Paul Rudd has impeccable comic timing and is shockingly handsome. No one that handsome should be allowed to be that funny, yet there he is.
Nearly two years after the events in “Captain America: Civil War,” Scott Lang (Rudd), who helped Cap, et al., battle Iron Man, et al., in an airfield in Germany, is under house arrest, and watched like a hawk by hapless FBI agent Jimmy Woo (Randall Park of “VEEP” and “Fresh Off the Boat”). He just has a few days to go and the ankle bracelet can be removed. But during a daughter-less “C’mon, Get Happy” weekend (drums, book reading, bubble bath), he dreams, or flashes on, the original Wasp, Janet Van Dyne (wouldja believe ... Michelle Pfeiffer?), the only other person who went “subatomic,” as he did in the original, except he made it back. She was lost forever.
Or was she?
This revelation re-teams him with Janet’s husband, Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and their daughter, Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly). The two are trying to create a portal to the subatomic realm where Scott might contact/rescue Janet.
Two things get in the way:
- Sonny Burch (Walton Goggins), a gangster with Russian help, who is after the portal for monetary gain
- Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen), who keeps shifting into and out of the physical realm, and who, thanks to SHIELD, can kick ass
There’s a “Can’t we all just get along?” aspect to it. Ghost and the Pym/Van Dyne clan are actually after the same thing, if they’d only stop and talk. But Ghost, beautiful eyes flashing, British accent unexplained, blames Hank Pym for her current state and can hardly see through her hatred. She keeps taking what Pym needs: the building where the subatomic portal is being developed, shrunk to the size of carry-on luggage.
Quick question: Wasn’t the point of Ant-Man that he shrunk to ant size but maintained the density and weight of a normal man? So wouldn’t it be the same with the building? Or is that no longer the case in the MCU?
Adding levity is Scott’s ex-con business partners, the security firm X-Con, headed up by Luis (Michael Peña). Their back-and-forth with Sonny’s crew on truth serum/not truth serum already feels like a classic.
The MCU does what the Might Marvel Age did, and what the DC Extended Universe can’t for the life of itself manage: has fun. It clashes personalities in a humorous way and occasionally gives us a big wink. I love Hope questioning Scott’s use of “Cap” for Captain America, as if they were best pals. I love it when Scott is shrunk to toddler size and how Hank keeps chiding him, asking how school was, and would he like some string cheese and a juicebox, and how Scott suddenly perks up: “Do you really have that?” No better way to end the joke than to go along with the joke. Particularly if it's sincere.
Many of the principles (Rudd, Peña) have comedy backgrounds. The director, Peyton Reed, directs comedies. Start with the funny and build out.
Infinity War redux
As we’re on the roller coaster, we wonder two things. OK, two and a half things:
- Will Janet Van Dyne be rescued from the subatomic world?
- Will Scott get away with violating house arrest?
- Will Ghost be cured?
I assumed: Yes, maybe, shrug. Turns out: Yes, yes, yes. Indeed, the resolution to the first (Janet’s return) is what leads to the resolution of the third (Ghost’s cure). The woman (Janet) eases the pain the man (Hank) caused.
After the happy ending—two couples reunited, X-Con business booming, but isn’t there an underhanded FBI agent still on the loose?—and after the first round of credits, we get a reminder of where the MCU left off. Scott is gathering subatomic data and is about to be extracted when Hank and Hope, amid ashes, go poof, per “Avengers: Infinity War,” leaving Scott stranded. Party’s over. Funny no more.
I am intrigued by where they’ll go with this. It feels like they’ve totally worked themselves into a corner. I see no good escape. That’s the intriguing part.
Movie Review: First Reformed (2018)
Imagine Travis Bickle as a minister rather than a taxi driver, obsessed about environmental issues rather than pornography and prostitution, and you have something like “First Reformed,” a movie written and directed by “Taxi Driver”’s screenwriter Paul Schrader, and starring Ethan Hawke as Rev. Ernst Toller.
It’s getting buzz. Some people think it’s the best movie of the first half of the year.
I know. That’s a little like winning the tallest munchkin competition. Besides, I don’t agree. I didn’t like it much. It’s a dreary, hushed film. Half the shots reminded me of Edward Hopper paintings but not in a good way. I kept flashing on Eric Engstrom’s photograph “Grace,” but not in a good way. Everything is spare and lit like a painting with about as much movement. I was frequently bored and ultimately disappointed because what Toller was wrestling with didn’t feel profound to me.
Jonah will be 33 in the year 2050
Toller is the minister at First Reformed Church in Snowbridge, NY, which is about to celebrate its 250th anniversary. It has some heady history—including as a stop on the underground railroad. Now it is owned by a mega-church, Abundant Life, and is more museum and gift shop than sanctuary. Every Sunday, Toller preaches, without much light or charity, to a handful of people in the pews. Mostly singles and a couple. You can’t miss the couple because one half of it, Mary, is played by Amanda Seyfried, all big-eyed and blond-haired and full-lipped and concerned. She’s mostly concerned about her husband, Michael (Phillip Ettinger). He thinks it’s wrong to bring a child into a world such as this, and since she's pregnant it's more than a rhetorical point. So she asks the Reverend to come around the house for a talk.
Their talk isn’t much, but Toller, in voiceover, equates it with wrestling with God. We get voiceovers a lot since, at night, sipping bourbon, Toller is writing down his thoughts. He plans to do this for a year and then burn the results. What started such a process I don’t know. Why for a year I don’t know. As for the thoughts themselves? They don’t shed a lot of light. Scurrying in the gloaming.
I like the actor who plays Michael. He’s husky and bearded and there’s something off about his eyes in the same way Vincent D’Onofrio has something off about his eyes. Toller does get in one good line. He says he comes from a military family, and he was a chaplain in the military, and he encouraged his son to join. Then the son was shipped to Iraq during the Iraq War and died. He tells Michael that as dark and depressing as it may be to think about bringing a child into the world, it is much, much worse to take one out of it.
You know what else he could’ve brought up? “Jonah Will Be 25 in the Year 2000.” It’s a 1976 Swiss/French film about former counterculture revolutionaries rehashing what went wrong and worrying over what the world will be like for the child, Jonah, in that distant, titular year. He could’ve said every generation thinks what they’re going through is the worst but they get through it. The future arrives and becomes the past. He could‘ve said that the answer to the destruction of the planet isn’t greater destruction but life. He could have recommended a doctor.
The revelation about his own family misfortune—his wife left him shortly afterwards—explains some aspect of Toller. He’s not a man comfortable in his own skin. He’s uncomfortable in the way that Hawke frequently is during the second half of his career. Schrader’s script actually demands that he seem both tortured and a beacon to kids. Imagine that conversation: You drink too much, see? You piss blood—literally. Do you have cancer? You’re afraid to find out. You walk around in pain. You’re tortured. Kids love you. Now go.
I don’t know if Hawke manages. He leans toward odd and doesn’t seem like a minister to me. There's no calm. Basically the movie gives us the jittery, alcoholic Toller and the gladhanding megachurch minister, Rev. Joel Jeffers, played sotto-voce style by Cedric the Entertainer, and neither feels like a man of God. Rev. Jeffers is also in cahoots from Edward Balq (Michael Gaston), a brash, bald industrialist, who may be destroying the planet but at least gives the movie a jolt with his presence.
Several things happen. In the garage, Mary finds a suicide-bomb jacket Michael made. She calls Toller to take it away. He and Michael are supposed to have a follow-up discussion but Michael changes the venue to a more secluded spot. When Toller shows up, he finds Michael with his brains blown out.
And then slowly, suicide jacket in hand, Michael’s fanaticism becomes Toller’s.
The lady or the tiger?
Is it partly meeting Balq? Balq chastises him for holding Michael’s funeral on a superfund site. Then Balq implies that Rev. Toller was responsible for Michael’s death. Oh, you were counseling him? Oh, then he died? That kind of thing. He does this to a reverend. The reverend just sits there.
Watching, one thing I hoped was that Toller wouldn’t get together with Mary. She’s not the answer. For Toller or for the film.
Does it happen? Ça depend. During the 250th anniversary celebration at First Reformed, with Balq, Jeffries, the mayor and the governor among the luminaries attending, Toller plans on wearing the suicide bomber jacket below his vestments and blowing the place sky high. Except Mary, against his wishes, shows up. Quick question: How does she get a seat? Aren’t they so coveted that folks are watching the ceremony on video at the megachurch? Or is she not really there? Is her appearance simply a form of his conscience taking hold?
Either way, once he knows he can’t blow the joint sky-high, he lets out an almost animalistic howl of protest, then opts for Plan B. And Plan B is so Schrader. Toller wraps his bare torso tightly with barb wire, and, with his flesh cut and bleeding, contemplates tossing back a glass of Drano. He holds it in his hand and stares at it. At that point, Mary enters the rectory. He drops the glass, and they run to each other and kiss as the camera spins around them and ... The End.
So: Is this camera-whirling kiss just his imagination? A brief glimpse of the afterlife after he's Dranoed himself? Who knows? Who cares? If he's dead, the movie is about two men who contemplate eco-terrorism before killing themselves; if he's alive and the kiss is real, it's about how no despair is so deep that the love of a woman as pretty as Amanda Seyfried can’t cure it. Neither thought is exactly profound.