Eighth Grade

(USA 2018)

“The topic of today’s video is being yourself.”

“Growing up can be a little bit scary and weird.”

— Kayla Day

Eighth grade was the worst year of my life — I hated everything about it: my shitty peers, my changing body, the high school application process. I never looked back once I got out.

It’s probably no big shock then that my favorite movie taking on the horrors and inequities of middle school is Todd Solondz’s darkly hilarious and biting — yet somehow sympathetic — Welcome to the Dollhouse. Dawn Wiener is a hero of sorts to me (really). With Eighth Grade, writer / director Bo Burnham traverses the same treacherous terrain — he even starts down a similar, cynical path as Solondz. He swiftly takes it somewhere else, though, allowing Eighth Grade to tell its own story.

Young teenager Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher), who’s finishing her final week of eighth grade, leads a double life. She posts self-recorded inspirational videos on YouTube, encouraging viewers to do things like be themselves, choose confidence, and put themselves out there to improve their lot in life.

Sadly, she’s nothing like her YouTube persona at school. Kayla is struggling to fit in, discouraged by the classmates she cyberstalks, some of whom she even approaches in person. She has no friends. No one notices her. She wins a “superlative” award — one of those dubious “most whatever” designations voted by peers — for being the quietest girl student. Aiden (Luke Prael), the guy she’s crushing on, wins “best eyes;” her low mumbled “Nice job” doesn’t even register when he walks past her desk to collect his prize (although she eventually gets his attention when she lies about having nude pics on her phone and giving good blowjobs, but that’s another point).

Fair or not, Kayla takes out her anxiety and frustration on her hapless single dad, Mark (Josh Hamilton). He doesn’t quite know how to deal with it.

WARNING: Potential spoilers ahead!

After she manages to recover from an anxiety attack at a disastrous pool party, Kayla is paired with Olivia (Emily Robinson), a big sisterly high school senior, to shadow for a day. They hit it off, which Kayla didn’t see coming — nor did I. Olivia invites Kayla out with her friends. Kayla’s sixth grade self emerges to push her toward a light she suddenly sees at the end of the proverbial tunnel.

There’s a lot to like about Eighth Grade, which easily could’ve been another teen movie — comedy or drama — that dredges up everything awful about being a teenager just for the sake of revisiting how awful it can be. Burnham nails the multiple forms that adolescent cruelty takes, but he doesn’t stop there. Instead, he takes his film to a positive place. His tone is never condescending. He doesn’t make light of Kayla’s dilemmas — clearly, they’re matters of life or death to her. He makes them important to us.

It’s a joy watching Kayla figure out that things really do get better — even in the face of a jarringly confusing incident involving one of Olivia’s friends (Daniel Zolghadri). Fisher is perfect in her role, zits and all. She shines especially with the little details — her expressions, her awkward movements, and all her likes, ums, and you-knows. She recalls Dawn Wiener without all the cartoonish flourishes.

It sounds hokey, but you really do want to applaud when Kayla finally gets it, like when she tears into two classmates, mean girls Kennedy (Catherine Oliviere) and Steph (Nora Mullins), in one totally brilliant scene. Or when she accepts an invitation to hang out with dorky Gabe (Jake Ryan, who amusingly happens to have the same name as Molly Ringwald’s crush in Sixteen Candles) after he strikes up a conversation with her in the pool — and actually follows up with her.

To a degree, Eighth Grade echoes Welcome to the Dollhouse, intentionally or not. One big thing that sets it apart is its rosy ending — it’s hopeful. That’s a very good thing. Gucci!

With Jake Ryan, Fred Hechinger, Imani Lewis, Gerald W. Jones, Missy Yager, Shacha Temirov, Greg Crowe, Thomas J O’Reilly, Frank Deal, J. Tucker Smith, Tiffany Grossfeld, David Shih, Trinity Goscinsky-Lynch, Natalie Carter, Kevin R. Free, Deborah Unger, Marguerite Stimpson

Production: A24

Distribution: A24

93 minutes
Rated R

(Landmark Century) B

http://eighthgrade.movie

Ready Player One

(USA 2018)

Schmaltzking Steven Spielberg is in regular form with Ready Player One, his film adaptation of Ernest Cline’s 2011 gamer fantasy novel.

Reality bites in 2045, especially in Columbus, Ohio, where Wade (Tye Sheridan) lives with his aunt (Susan Lynch) and her no good boyfriend (Ralph Ineson) in “the Stacks,” a favela-like slum of discarded mobile homes piled on top of each other. Things have stopped working and people have stopped fixing them, and the world has taken on a dystopian futuristic Dickensian hue curiously stuck in the 1980s.

Wade, like everyone, escapes to the OASIS, a virtual reality alternate universe where one can be…well, anything. Wade is Parzival, a sort of Speed Racer adventurer. He’s on a mission to win a contest: find the “Easter Egg” left behind by James Halliday (Mark Rylance), the dearly departed creator of the OASIS, and gain total control over the OASIS. Parzival just might get by with a little help from his friends — but he’s got to stay a step ahead of one particularly troublesome competitor, corporate bad guy Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), who wants to rule the OASIS for all the bad reasons.

Ready Player One is a typical Steven Spielberg kid’s movie: pop culture, magic, and a total “feel good” ending. I’m not spoiling anything by saying that. It isn’t necessarily better than recent films like The Post (https://moviebloke.com/2018/01/26/the-post/) or Bridge of Spies (https://moviebloke.com/2016/02/25/bridge-of-spies/), but Ready Player One is a lot more interesting. Spielberg goes overboard with references to ‘80s films, some of which are his own projects — and I’m told he’s more aggressive than Cline is in the book. Still, the result is a lot of fun, and the details are wicked. A sequence dedicated to The Shining actually made me giddy. Mendelsohn looks so much like the principal from The Breakfast Club (https://moviebloke.com/2016/05/05/the-breakfast-club-2/) that I want to ask him if Barry Manilow knows he raids his wardrobe. Rylance plays Halliday with a strange mix of Christopher Lloyd, Steve Jobs, and, err, Spielberg.

I’m no fan of late or even middle period Spielberg, but I didn’t mind this one. Make no mistake, Ready Player One is a big, loud, overdone Hollywood movie, but it’s a decent one. Those who grew up watching Spielberg movies (like I did) no doubt will enjoy it even though they probably don’t need to see it a second time.

With Olivia Cooke, Lena Waithe, T.J. Miller, Simon Pegg, Philip Zhao, Win Morisaki, Hannah John-Kamen, Clare Higgins, Laurence Spellman, Perdita Weeks, Joel MacCormack, Kit Connor, Leo Heller, Antonio Mattera, Ronke Adekoluejo, William Gross, Sandra Dickinson, Lynne Wilmot, Jayden Fowora-Knight, Gavin Marshall, Jane Leaney, Elliot Barnes-Worrell, Asan N’Jie, Robert Gilbert

Production: Amblin Entertainment, De Line Pictures, Dune Entertainment, Farah Films & Management, Reliance Entertainment, Village Roadshow Pictures, Warner Brothers

Distribution: Warner Brothers, NOS Audiovisuais (Portugal), SF Studios (Norway), Tanweer Alliances (Greece), Karo Premiere (Russia), Kinomania (Ukraine), Roadshow Entertainment (New Zealand), Roadshow Films (Australia)

140 minutes
Rated PG-13

(Music Box) C+

http://readyplayeronemovie.com

Paradox

(USA 2018)

“Love is like a fart: If you gotta force it, it’s probably shit.”

— One of the cowboys

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One of its posters calls Daryl Hannah’s trippy-lite Paradox “a loud poem,” which I reckon is an accurate enough way to look at it. This is not a particularly noisy film, though, so I don’t know that “loud” is the right word. Anyway…

Set sometime in the near future, Paradox is a dystopian post-apocalyptic Western sci-fi musical comedy with a whiff of magic realism. Got that? The story, if you call it one, involves archeologist cowboys, a rock and roller sage known only as The Man in the Black Hat (Neil Young), and a not-so-merry band of feminist environmentalist survivalists.

Young sits in a chair in a field strumming his guitar while a crew consisting of his bandmates digs through dirt and rock looking for relics, mostly electronic devices used for communication — a phone, a fax machine, I may have seen a radio as well. At night, Young plays with his band, Promise of the Real, which includes Willie Nelson’s sons Lukas and Micah. There’s this thing they do where they hold onto a rope as they rise into the air.

Relatively plotless, Paradox features some beautifully cool crooning around a campfire and a cameo by Willie Nelson, who robs a seed bank with Young. If the whole thing sounds silly, it is. It’s hard to tell what Hannah is getting at here, but I’m guessing it has something to do with the redemptive power of music. To be fair, she admittedly didn’t plan this as a feature film for wide release (http://www.indiewire.com/2018/03/daryl-hannah-interview-netflix-paradox-sxsw-2018-1201939587/).

I didn’t mind Paradox, but it’s not the kind of thing that begs for a mainstream audience. I can see a lot of people bored with it — or worse, hating it.

With Corey McCormick, Anthony LoGerfo, Tato Melgar, Elliot Roberts, Dave Snowbear Toms, Charris Ford, Robert Schmoo Schmid, Tim Gooch Lougee, Dulcie Clarkson Ford, Alexandra, Dascala, Hillary Cooper, Jess Rice, Sue Mazzoni, Dana Fineman, Hilary Shepard, Page Adler, Alyssa Miller, Hayley DuMond, Barbara Adler, Jessica James, Maia Coe, Haskins Khalil, Light Kentucky, River Ben Ford, Wes James, Ava James, Ace Adler, Phoenix Fuller, Thelonius True Heart, Skookum River, Blythe Ford, Dave Doubek, Doug Alee

Production: Shakey Pictures

Distribution: Abramorama, Netflix

Screening followed by a live Q and A with Daryl Hannah, Neil Young, Elliot Rabinowitz, and two other men (one may have been Corey McCormick but I’m not sure)

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73 minutes
Not rated

(Music Box) C-

https://www.netflix.com/title/80242378

The Leisure Seeker

(Italy / France 2018)

Paolo Virzì’s last film, Like Crazy (https://moviebloke.com/2016/10/17/like-crazy-la-pazza-gioia/), won me over with its quirky lead characters, their wacky antics, and the surprisingly moving turn the story takes. His follow up, The Leisure Seeker, which also happens to be his first English language feature film, employs a similar template — Massachusetts golden girl Ella Spencer (Helen Mirren) has arranged a trip with her husband, John (Donald Sutherland), a retired literature professor, to Key West. The purpose of the trip is to see the Ernest Hemingway House, something John always wanted to do but never got around to it. They board their trusty old Winnebago from the Seventies — they named it “The Leisure Seeker” — and slip away without telling anyone.

While reigniting passions and having revelations over the course of their excursion, what really prompted the trip becomes apparent: John is suffering a bad case of Alzheimer’s that gets worse by the day. Ella is dealing with the effects of her own condition as well. Naturally, their middle aged kids (Christian McKay and Janel Moloney) freak when they find out what they’re up to.

Based on Michael Zadoorian’s novel of the same name, the topic here is a worthy one: deciding when to call it a wrap. Mirren and Sutherland give fine performances with strong chemistry and realistic intimacy, and the best moments are just as tender as the ones in Like Crazy. Still, The Leisure Seeker somehow comes off as diluted, perhaps aiming too hard for a wide audience. It shows in the screenplay, which has a lot of weak spots and relies on sentimentality too heavily for its own good.

The situations Ella and John get into might be sweet, but they don’t move beyond silly hijinks. They’re pretty easy, actually. Hilarity ensues, for example, when a cop (Robert Walker Branchaud) pulls John over for swerving, when a roadside punk (Sean Michael Weber) tries to rob the couple while they wait stranded for a tow, and later when John wanders into a Donald Trump rally. The Leisure Seeker isn’t quite the compelling film it had the potential to be.

With Dana Ivey, Dick Gregory, Leander Suleiman, Ahmed Lucan, Gabriella Cila, David Marshall Silverman, Lucy Catherine Haskill, Joshua Hoover, Kirsty Mitchell, Mylie Stone, Joshua Mikel, Rayan Clay Gwaltney, Matt Mercurio, Marc Fajardo, Wayne Hall, Denitra Isler, Carl Bradfield, Roger Lee Bright, Chelle Ramos, Joe Hardy Jr., Jerald Jay Savage, Nicholas Barrera, Danielle Deadwyler, Robert Pralgo, Lilia Pino Blouin, Rusty Hodgdon, Ariel Kaplan, Geoffrey D. Williams, Carlos Guerrero, Karen Valero

Production: Indiana Production Company, BAC Films, Rai Cinema, Ministero dei Beni e delle Attività Culturali e del Turismo (MiBACT), Regione Lazio

Distribution: 01 Distribution (Italy), BAC Films (France), Sony Pictures Classics (USA), Concorde Filmverleih (Germany), Filmcoopi Zürich (Switzerland), Filmladen (Austria), Imagine Filmdistributie Nederland (Netherlands), Imagine (Belgium), Norsk Filmdistribusjon (Norway), StraDa Films – Seven Films (Greece), United International Pictures (UIP) (Poland), GAGA (Japan), Shaw Organisation (Singapore)

112 minutes
Rated R

(AMC River East) C-

Chicago International Film Festival

http://sonyclassics.com/theleisureseeker/