Eighth Grade

Eighth Grade Comedian Bo Burnham wrote and directed this debut comedy about a girl approaching the end of eighth grade (trailer). Seeing this movie makes your present life look pretty darn good! So while it’s funny, it’s painfully so. Been there. Or someplace similar. While American adolescence has been typically miserable for generations, today’s added dimension is the unrelenting pressure of social media.

The awkward, socially ignored Kayla creates self-help vlogs on topics like “putting yourself out there” and “growing up.” They are mainly a way for this suburban teen to articulate her own confused thoughts and give a pep-talk to herself, because at some point we see her usage stats. No one watches them.

Though New Yorker critic Richard Brody complains that the introvert Kayla has no friends and seems to have no interests (forgetting her participation in the extremely forgettable school band), he’s overlooking not just the video production, but also the way constantly scouring social media dominates Kayla’s day. There’s no time left for swim team or cheerleading practice or piano lessons.

Elsie Fisher does a remarkable playing Kayla. In fact, all the kids are perfect, including “mean girl” Kennedy (played by Catherine Oliviere), for whom Kayla is a non-entity or worse. Message from Kennedy to Kayla: “hi so my mom told me to invite you to my thing tomorrow so this is me doing that.” Kayla is reticent, slightly hunched, but moving forward doggedly, whether to class, a pool party, or, well, life. You have to admire her, including her drive to help others.

At one point, a boy makes a pass at Kayla. Women watching this film will see an all-too-familiar dynamic when he turns what happens into her fault and she ends up apologizing.“Sorry,” she keeps saying, when of course she should have punched his lights out.

Contrast this role and performance with that of Tom in the much-hyped Leave no Trace. Unlike director Debra Granik, Burnham gives Fisher plenty to do, and she does it, with all the stumbling and uncertainty of a thirteen-year-old trying to live up to expectations, but not quite sure what those are.

Kayla’s relationship with her father, a single dad (Josh Hamilton), is what you’d expect. He reaches out, but most of the time she’s too absorbed in her own world to think he’s anything other than embarrassing. Points for hanging in, Dad.

To quote Kayla, “Growing up can be a little bit scary and weird.” Absolutely.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 98%; audiences 87%.

Pages vs. the Silver Screen – 2018 Edition

BlacKkKlansman

BlacKkKlansmanThe real-life Ron Stallworth infiltrated the KKK in the late 70s, but in his movie, director Spike Lee resets the action earlier in the decade and makes some other changes for a stunning result. Every thoughtful American should see this riveting film (trailer), which ping-pongs between comedy and tragedy, passing repeatedly through high drama and providing first-rate acting from a fine cast, start to finish.

The comedy part comes from the ability of Colorado Springs’s first black police officer, Stallworth (played by John David Washington), to convince a local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan and even former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke (Topher Grace) that he’s actually a hate-filled white racist. The tragedy comes from considering that the racial issues that divided the country in the 1970s remain painfully relevant today. In a grim coincidence, I saw this film on August 12, the one-year anniversary of Charlottesville’s deadly white supremacist rally.

Stallworth built his unlikely relationships by phone, but when his physical presence was needed, his white colleague Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) stood in. Spike Lee could have made a predictable film out of this basic material, but he works it, proving nuance and impact. He intercuts footage of a KKK initiation ceremony with scenes from a black student organization’s meeting with an aging civil rights figure (Harry Belafonte). Two speeches received with wild enthusiasm by totally different audiences bookend the story: a compelling stemwinder early in the film by Corey Hawkins as Kwame Ture, the name adopted by former Black Panther leader Stokely Carmichael, and, near the end of the film, a speech by David Duke carefully designed to mask his underlying meaning and make it more palatable to mainstream.

Self-awareness, loyalty, respect, humanity—these values are all on view, as are their opposites.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 97%; audiences 77%.

Leave No Trace

Leave No Trace Based on Peter Rock’s 2009 novel My Abandonment, this film, directed by Debra Granik, raises a lot of questions it doesn’t answer (trailer). It was inspired by the true episode, which you can read about on Rock’s website, that in its conclusion is more unsettling than the film.

For four years, Vietnam Veteran Will (played by Ben Foster) has lived with his adolescent daughter Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) in Portland’s 5200-acre Forest Park, their camouflaged encampment further hidden by waist-high vegetation. Will apparently suffers from PTSD, and selling the drugs the VA gives him is one way the pair makes money. They visit the city for groceries and other supplies, though most of their time is spent in the rain forest.

Eventually, they are discovered. Unexpectedly, the authorities make a heroic effort to find a living arrangement that Will can tolerate. Helicopters spook him. Crowds spook him. Many things. For Tom’s benefit, he struggles to adapt to a more regularized life. The love between them is palpable, but will it be enough?

Foster gives a strong performance; McKenzie has received considerable praise, though the scanty dialog doesn’t give her much to work with, and she hits just a few emotional notes. You can count the times she smiles on one hand.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 100%; audiences 86%.

The Book – Film Smackdown

Quite a few other movies this year are based on well-regarded books, as noted in this Literary Hub article. Which works better? Based on Book Marks ratings for books and Rotten Tomatoes for films, here’s the score:

  • Both darn good: Annihilation, Crazy Rich Asians, We the Animals, Lean on Pete, Sharp Objects, The Wife, The Looming Tower (I’m watching it on Hulu now)
  • Books markedly better than the movie: Red Sparrow, The Yellow Birds, Ready Player One, On Chesil Beach, Dietland
  • Movies markedly better than the book: Uh-oh.
  • Still to come in 2018: Bel Canto (read the book years ago; looking forward to the film and Ken Watanabe!)

Three Identical Strangers

Three Identical StrangersReviewer Bilge Ebiri in The Village Voice says, “The best way to experience Tim Wardle’s documentary Three Identical Strangers is to do so without knowing a single thing about it.”

The makers of the trailer must have felt much the same way because (uncharacteristically), they didn’t give away much of the story (trailer), except to focus on the surprise reunion of 19-year-old triplets, separated at six months of age, and adopted into separate homes. They find each other by a fluke. The whole idea of “separated at birth” is vaguely sentimental, because in it is the notion that siblings eventually find each other. That there’s a happy reunion. In this film, that’s just the beginning.

I can only agree with Ebiri in saying, see it. It has surprising depths. It will leave you shaking your head, first at the power of coincidence, then everything else. Says an aunt, “When  you play with humans, you do something very wrong.”

Plus, you have the pleasure of seeing interviews with veteran journalist Lawrence Wright.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 96%; audiences: 87%.

Borg vs. McEnroe

Borg vs. McEnroeRight in the middle of Wimbledon’s 150th Championships we scored a Netflix copy of director Janus Metz’s 2017 movie about the classic 1980 matchup between Ice-Borg and the Superbrat, with a script by Ronnie Sandahl (trailer). While their rivalry makes an entertaining film, I’d still flunk a quiz on how to score the game.

Sverrir Gudnason plays Björn Borg, instantly recognizable, lean and riddled with doubt, and Shia LaBeouf does fine work as the temperamental, foul-mouthed McEnroe. Apparently, Gudnason had to put on muscle for the role, while LaBeouf had to take some off. They both looked in fine form for the on-court scenes at the 1980 Wimbledon. In what is regarded as one of the greatest tennis matches of all time, Borg blew seven match points as he attempted to win his fifth straight Wimbledon victory. McEnroe might be a bad boy, but he could play some tennis, and, in the end, he got a standing ovation from the Wimbledon fans who’d started the competition by booing him.

While the competition between them was always billed as a rivalry between opposites, fire and ice, what the movie shows is that from his youth Borg wanted to be best in the world. (The young  Borg is played by his son Leo.) As a teen, Borg (played by Markus Mossberg) was every bit as fiery as McEnroe, arguing with the refs and his coach, throwing his racket, stomping off the court. They’re also alike in how deeply they care about winning.

Finally, Borg’s coach (Stellan Skarsgård) told him he was through unless he channeled his anger and frustration into his game. He needed to become emotionless. It sounds impossibly difficult, but he did it. What he also did was develop a lot of peculiar habits and rituals that had to be followed to the letter: the way his rackets were strung, the kind of car they rented. Sports stars are legendary for having “good luck” rituals, and his were all-encompassing.

McEnroe also got his comeuppance from friend and fellow tennis-player Peter Fleming (Scott Arthur) who told him he’d never be regarded as one of the greats because nobody liked him. At Wimbledon, his volcanic persona was in check after that, at least in the film.

We see less about McEnroe as a young man (it’s a Scandi movie after all), and I would have liked to. Still, it’s an engrossing film even for someone not obsessed with tennis (me!), and it deserves more attention.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 83%; audiences: 73%.

The Catcher Was a Spy

The Catcher Was a SpyIt might almost be worth seeing the new movie Gotti with a sneering John Travolta in the lead, simply because it has received a (surprisingly) rare “0” rating from Rotten Tomatoes critics. Unanimity about a movie’s goodness or apparent awfulness is so rarely achieved that this may be a cinematic low-water-mark. A filmic Sahara. A future cult classic.

Last weekend, I went to another movie most critics have panned, because it is crammed with components I like: spies! history! Nazis! baseball! Based on a book by Nicholas Dawidoff, it recounts a bit of the true story of Red Sox catcher Moe Berg and was directed by Ben Lewin (who gets most of the blame), with a good script by Robert Rodat (trailer).

It wasn’t perfect, and maybe it’s slow for action film devotees, but the acting was superior. Paul Rudd played Berg, a man who loved baseball and had a great smile, but was hard to know. Through his Princeton connections, he was recruited to the fledgling OSS by its head Wild Bill Donovan (Jeff Daniels), mostly because of his facility with languages and despite his somewhat ambiguous sexuality. He has a girlfriend in Boston (Sienna Miller) for much of the film, but that’s an on-again, off-again thing, first with his baseball travel schedule, then his work in Washington and overseas.

Finally he gets the kind of assignment he craves: the U.S. has the Manhattan Project to develop a nuclear weapon, and the Allies believe the Germans are attempting this too, led by Werner Heisenberg (Mark Strong). But they can’t be certain (sorry). Berg is teamed up with a military man (Guy Pearce) and a physicist (excellent work by Paul Giamatti) to find out. If these suspicions are correct, Berg is to assassinate him. Unlike so many celluloid spies, Rudd’s Berg seems actually to weigh the significance of this assignment.

In a key scene early in the film, Berg signals the pitcher, but the pitcher waves him off. The opponent on first tries to steal second, but Berg manages to get the ball there in time to throw him out, ending the inning. Walking back to the dugout, he says to the pitcher, “Never ignore my signal when a man’s going to try to steal second.” Pitcher: “How’d you know he’d try?” “I just knew.” Berg’s skill in sizing up people was perfect for the OSS.

Rex Reed in the New York Observer said, it’s “a juicy story told blandly,” but still a movie worth seeing, and I agree. Maybe Gotti should get a second look.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 32%; audiences 67%.

Disappointment on Screen and on the Page

Bang, gun

photo: Kenneth Lu, creative commons license

If you’ve read a few of my book and movie reviews, you’ll have noticed I generally praise these creative efforts. Maybe you’ve thought I’m not very critical (my family members will gladly disabuse you of this notion). No, I end up reviewing mostly good stuff, because I don’t read a book or go to a movie that promises not to be pretty darn good. Life is short. In the past week, though, I’ve had two disappointments—one book and one movie that defied expectations.

The Scarpetta Factor

Patricia Cornwell’s forensic investigator Kay Scarpetta has many devoted fans. Somehow, I’d never read one of these books and scooped up this one at a book exchange. I won’t read another, even though I suspect this was a sub-par entry in the long-running series.

First of all, it was almost 500 pages long. To demand that much commitment of precious reading time, a book has to meet a high bar. Second, it could have been 300 pages, or anyway, 350. Sooo much tedious backstory clumsily dropped in that I kept thinking, can’t we get back to this story? Annoying repetition, repeatedly, over and over, as if the author tried three different ways of saying something, planning to go back in the editing process and eliminate the two weakest. Then didn’t.

Naming three characters Berger, Bonnell, and Benton was an invitation to reader confusion, which I accepted, most ungraciously. I never could get them straight. Did I mention plot holes? Hundreds of pages in, the story is building to a climax that was more like a gun that shoots a message saying “bang.” So much else had gone on, I had no interest at all in her villain (show, don’t tell his perfidies).

So, if you’re tempted to read one of Cornwell’s thrillers, check online reviews carefully—“not one of her best” is a giveaway—and maybe try one of the early ones. This was number 17 in the Scarpetta series, and perhaps she’d run out of steam.

P.S. I could have saved myself a lot of time if I’d remembered that she’s the author who keeps trying to prove the cockamamie theory that Jack the Ripper was the English painter Walter Sickert.

First Reformed

Ethan Hawke, First ReformedWriter-director Paul Schrader’s new film about an upstate New York Dutch Reformed minister’s apostasy can’t be faulted for the acting (trailer). Ethan Hawke as the desperately unhappy Reverend Ernst Toller (Earnest, get it?) is spectacular, as always. He’s a drinker and, believe it or not, that doesn’t help. Perhaps that’s why his character can’t see trouble coming every time he encounters his pregnant congregant with the heavily symbolic name, Mary, played by Amanda Seyfried. I especially liked Cedric Kyles, as the head of the local megachurch, Abundant Life.

The polar opposite of Abundant Life, Toller’s tiny First Reformed congregation is merely an archaic satellite of the larger church, kept alive more for historical value—its 250th anniversary approaches—than for its contribution to the spirit and economics of the parent enterprise.

The problem for me was the plot. Where is this story going? Is it an exercise in consciousness-raising about the environment? Is it about one man’s spiritual journey? The point must have flown by on wings of song (the singing is good), and I missed it. Perhaps it all boils down to the theme first expressed by Mary’s husband, a depressed environmental activist—“Will God forgive us?” And maybe that question applies equally to Rev. Toller’s personal quest as well as to our worldwide environmental depredations. Plus, the ending is strange, with two different interpretations in our household. (See the movie and tell me your, please.)

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 95%; audiences: 72%.

See These Inspiring Documentary Biopics: RBG and Mr. Rogers

Ruth Bader GinsburgOverwhelmed by the tsunami of pettiness and downright meanness in the news this summer? These biopics make a refreshing change. RBG and Won’t You Be My Neighbor? properly celebrate two talented individuals who single-mindedly dedicated themselves to making better the lives of others.

RBG

The story of how Ruth Bader Ginsburg became an icon for women’s rights began when, as a newly minted law school graduate (Harvard and Columbia), she had trouble getting a job (trailer). Filmmakers Julie Cohen and Betsy Ward are obvious admirers, but then, there’s lots to admire. The film includes plenty of archival footage of Ginsburg as a quite beautiful young woman, as well as audio of her earliest arguments before the Supreme Court supporting “gender blindness.”

This historical footage is supplemented by present-day interviews with legal scholars, journalists, politicians, Ginsburg’s children, and RBG herself. Although she fought fiercely for women’s rights, as a person, she’s shy and unassuming. Her parents taught her that angry displays were “self-defeating,” and she kept her calm demeanor in her court battles, even though she says she felt like a kindergarten teacher, helping judges and even members of earlier Supreme Courts to an understanding of the systematic discrimination women faced and its costs. Of course, the battle isn’t over yet and has opened on a new front with #metoo.

If she never shows anger, she shows plenty of love for her husband Marty, who died in 2010. His support enabled her to achieve much of what she has, which every woman in America benefits from today, whether she knows it or not.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 93%; audiences: 80%.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

Fred Rogers 2When I saw previews of this Morgan Neville documentary about children’s television personality Fred Rogers, I was afraid it might be overly saccharine (trailer). But Rogers himself puts that issue to rest by his absolute sincerity and persuasiveness. Himself a child development expert, convinced by research showing the value of young children knowing they are loved for who they are, he used television to carry that message.

Over the years his slow delivery and habits (putting on his sweater, changing his shoes) have been mocked by numerous comedians—clips of these skits are included. OK, but the relevance of those critiques is completely undermined when the film juxtaposes scenes from his program with the usual pie-in-the-face comedy, the frantic action, the fights and violence more typical of children’s programming. There can be no question which is healthier for small children. Yet his show didn’t duck difficult issues. It took on divorce, death, 9/11, assassination—issues kids hear about, but may not get much help in understanding and processing.

Under Rogers’s gentle exterior beat the heart of a “true radical,” said Odie Henderson for RogerEbert.com. The opening song with which he greeted his audience every day said, “I have always wanted to have a neighbor just like you,” and that “you” included children of all races, abilities, and religions, wherever they lived, recent immigrants or the scions of old Boston families. He loved them, each and every one, just as they were. And they knew it.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 99%; audiences: 98%.

American Animals

American AnimalsIn writer-director Bart Layton’s entertaining new film (trailer), four bored college students plot to steal priceless works from the library of Transylvania College in Lexington, Kentucky. Is this a daydream, or will they go through with it? Should they do more than watch old heist films to prepare?

A vivid demonstration of Murphy’s Law, their wildly inadequate scheme is both hilarious and tension-filled. Yet, as far-fetched as it may seem, the film is based on a real episode from 2004 and includes fourth-wall breaking interviews and current-day reflections of the actual would-be thieves and their parents. Using his skills a documentary filmmaker, Layton cleverly meshes their different perspectives on events (who decided what when), and his energetic recreation of their misbegotten enterprise is “singularly fascinating” says Cary Darling in the Houston Chronicle.

The four criminal masterminds are played by Barry Keoghan, Evan Peters, Jared Abrahamson, and Blake Jenner. The librarian they must disable is played by Ann Dowd (if you’ve watched The Handmaid’s Tale, you’ll recognize her voice before you even see her).

Drifty art student Spencer Reinhard (Barry Keoghan) wants something to happen in his life. The idea of the theft comes to him as a kind of vague “what if?”, but when he shares it with Warren Lipka (Evan Peters), he’s found someone with the single-minded enthusiasm to turn it into a sort-of reality.

Have you ever pursued an idea long past the moment when it makes any sense? Then you can understand how the four students got carried away, trapped by their own momentum. What starts out as an especially brazen prank by privileged college students has a long tail of consequences, and at times the former students’ articulate silences express their belated second thoughts. A visual theme based on the paintings of John James Audubon—one of the works they plan to steal is his Birds of America—recurs throughout, adding grace notes to a tawdry episode.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 85% ; audiences: 91%.

The Rider

The RiderThe movie The Rider isn’t really about rodeo. It’s a character study and an exploration of what it means to lose your dreams, and how to be a man in a culture that glorifies danger. Writer-Director Chloé Zhao may have been born in Beijing, but she has made one of the most authentic films about the West in recent years (trailer) and one of the best films of the year so far. Don’t miss it!

She’s drawn on the real-life story of a young man’s recovery from a rodeo injury that nearly killed him and probably will if he falls again. Brady Blackburn (played by Brady Jandreau) had a solid career on the rodeo circuit in front of him. As the film opens, his skull looks like Frankenstein’s monster, a metal plate rides underneath, and he has an occasional immobililty in his right hand—his rope hand. The doctor tells him no more riding, no more rodeo. She might as well tell him not to breathe.

He’s “recuperating,” but determined to get back in the saddle. He lives in a trailer with his father (Tim Jandreau), who puts on a gruff front, and feisty 15-year-old sister, Lilly (Lilly Jandreau), who has some degree of Asperger’s. The disappointment his fans feel when they find him working at a supermarket is visible to the taciturn Brady and to us.

In his spare time—and this is where the movie comes spectacularly to life—he trains horses. Watching him work with them, you know for sure that he’s no actor. This is his real-life job, and Zhao has captured those delicate moments of growing trust.

Not that interested in rodeo? You don’t see much of it. And most of the rodeo scenes are in the video clips Brady and his best friend Lane watch. Watching them watching is the bittersweet point. Lane was a star bull-rider now unable to walk or speak. The way Brady interacts with him is full of true generosity and mutual affection.

When Brady throws his saddle into the truck to go to another rodeo, in vain his father tells him not to. The father accuses him of never listening to him, and Brady says, “I do listen to you. I’ve always listened to you. It’s you who said, ‘Cowboy up,’ ‘Grit your teeth,’ ‘Be a man,’” the kinds of messages men give their sons that sometimes boomerang back to break their hearts.

Cinematographer James Joshua Richards’s deft close-in camerawork captures the personalities of the horses, and his wide views put the windswept grasslands of South Dakota’s Badlands and Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. The film is shot partly on the Lakota reservation, but not much is made of the cast’s Native American heritage. By grounding the script in Brady’s real-life recovery and by surrounding him with his real-life family and friends, Zhao creates a wholly natural feel for the film, which has been nominated for five Independent Spirit Awards.

And what was it like for Brady to work with the filmmaker? “She was able to step into our world: riding horses, moving cows, stuff like that. Why should we be scared to step foot into her world?” he said in a Vanity Fair story by Nicole Sperling. “She would do things like get on a 1,700-pound animal for us. And trust us. So we did the same. We got on her 1,700-pound animal.”

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 97%; audiences 80%.

Got the Horse Right Here!

horse racing

photo: TNS Sofres, creative commons license

It’s Derby week, and attention turns to things equine. The horses are huge, but run on the most fragile of ankles. The jockeys are small, but mostly heart. Racing is a quick way to burn money. No wonder storytellers have capitalized on its dramatic potential. This is a repost of my favorite horse books and screen entertainment, with the addition of Triple Crown, a crime novel by Felix Francis, carrying on his late father Dick’s call to the post.

Horse Heaven – by Jane Smiley. Smiley won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992 for A Thousand Acres, yet I found this novel way more satisfying. She’s developed a stableful of engaging characters as you follow the fates of several horses bred for racing, a risky proposition in the best of times. As much about people and their passions and predilections as about horses, of course.

Lords of Misrule – by Jaimy Gordon. Winner of the 2010 National Book Award, this novel is set in the lower echelons of horse-racing, among people for whom the twin spires of Churchill Downs are a distant dream. She has an almost miraculous way of capturing the way horse people think and talk.

The Horse God Built – by Lawrence Scanlan. This one I haven’t read, but it was too tempting to include a book about Secretariat—“the horse God built.” Secretariat won racing’s Triple Crown (the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont Stakes) in 1973, with track-blistering performances. This nonfiction book is Secretariat as seen through the eyes of his groom and a story of friendship. This is one of six great nonfiction books about racing compiled by Amy Sachs for BookBub.

Seabiscuit, by Laura Hillenbrand, was made into an Academy Award-nominated film starring Toby Maguire, Jeff Bridges, Chris Cooper, and real-life jockey Gary Stevens. A heartwarming story, this production includes footage shot from the midst of a race—an unforgettable view of why this sport is so dangerous. Rotten Tomatoes critics rating 77%, audiences 76%.

Luck – HBO. For the full immersion experience, try this nine-episode series, developed by David Milch. It’s all-star cast includes Dustin Hoffman, Dennis Farina, John Ortiz, Richard Kind, Nick Nolte, Michael Gambon and, again, jockey Gary Stevens (who raced in the 2016 Kentucky Derby at age 53). The three touts, convinced they’re on track for riches, are priceless.