Category Archives: Todd’s Movie Reviews

Eighth Grade Movie Review

It’s not often that I find myself rooting for a character as much as I did with Kayla Day in Bo Burnham’s directorial debut Eighth Grade. Played with vulnerable authenticity by newcomer Elsie Fisher, this is a coming-of-age story different from others we’ve seen before (The Edge of Seventeen is another recent winning example). What makes this rather unique is an occasional urgency of now as it explores social media fixation, anxiety, and even issues of consent that have dominated headlines over the past months.

Burnham is a comedian who made his mark online in YouTube videos. That’s what his main character is trying to do when we first meet her. Kayla is a shy thirteen year old who achieves the unfortunate distinction of being voted Most Quiet student. She’s about to graduate eighth grade and enter the awkward world of high school. Yet there’s still a bit of awkward middle school to go. Kayla posts faux inspirational streams that go mostly unseen where she offers the best advice she’s garnered at a young age. Not having many friends, Kayla’s daily interaction is with her kind single dad (Josh Hamilton, who has some fine moments).

Kayla is ready to branch out of her shell, but hasn’t figured out how. And there’s nothing about Fisher’s portrayal of her that feels the least bit fake. That’s a credit to the actress playing her and Burnham’s perceptive screenplay. One could think that’s a bit awkward itself coming from a male writer in his late twenties. However, Eighth Grade speaks to the uncomfortable nature we all found ourselves in back then. This includes a game of truth or dare with a senior boy that generates more suspense and heartache than expected.

The script includes some archetypes we anticipate in the genre. There’s the nerdy kid who crushes on Kayla. The heart-throb boy she crushes on who is only after one thing. Of course, there’s the popular girl who pays her zero attention. We’ve seen them often. We rarely see a depiction of a teen like Kayla with this much care and attention to detail. That’s what makes her character special and worth cheering for. No one is really watching Kayla at this point in her life, but we get the feeling she’ll be worth keeping an eye on as life goes on. Watching what Burnham does in showing her adolescent experience is well worth viewing.

***1/2 (out of four)

 

Skyscraper Movie Review

Rawson Marshall Thurber takes a break from directing comedies and Dwayne Johnson is on a hiatus from pairing with jungle animals in Skyscraper. Drawing clear inspiration from The Towering Inferno and Die Hard, the action thriller casts Johnson as Sawyer, an ex FBI agent who lost a leg in a hostage situation gone wrong. It didn’t all turn out badly though because he ends up marrying his surgeon (Neve Campbell) and they have two cute kids. Sawyer now works as a safety analyst for giant buildings and the biggest one has just been erected in Hong Kong by a billionaire entrepreneur (Chin Han). An occupational hazard develops when some terrorists led by Roland Møller set The Pearl (what the 200 plus story structure is named) on fire. Sawyer must then save his family from the burning. If you think one of his kids is asthmatic and the screenplay uses that overused cliché, you sure are right!

For a filmmaker who’s done Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story, We’re the Millers, and Central Intelligence (with Johnson), Thurber keeps this a mostly humor free experience – save for our protagonist’s affinity for duct tape. While I’ve already mentioned its most obvious influences, the climax pays homage to The Man with the Golden Gun, of all Bond pics. That one is on the lower end of 007 efforts and so is this as far as Johnson’s action output.

Skyscraper never bothers to develop worthwhile villains and that’s something Die Hard sure had. The Towering Inferno had cutting edge effects at its time. Not here. And, um, the aforementioned Bond movie had a main bad guy with a third nipple. So that’s something.

Johnson manages to exude some charm, but it can only go so far with this ultimate nondescript affair. I could say something obvious like “Skyscraper didn’t floor me”, but that would be as lame as putting in a kid with asthma.

** (out of four)

A Star Is Born Movie Review

Theatrically speaking, A Star Is Born is a tale as old as time as this is the third remake of an original that hit screens over eight decades ago. The framework remains the same in the story of love, addiction, and celebrity. To his considerable credit, Bradley Cooper finds a way to inject some life into this melodramatic musical journey. He does so with his own work in front of the camera and his direction of his costar. It feels odd to claim this is a star making performance from Lady Gaga, who happens to be one of the biggest pop stars on the planet. While we knew her amazing vocal abilities and showmanship, this picture proves she’s an equally impressive actor.

Cooper is Jackson Maine, a country rock star with a severe alcohol addiction. He’s already well-established in his field and selling out stadiums. One night his restless spirit after a gig leads him to a drag bar. Actually it’s more his desire to find a place that serves drinks. In that unlikely establishment is where he discovers Ally (Gaga). She waitresses there and she’s the only non queen allowed to belt out tunes like “La Vie en rose”. Jackson is smitten with her voice and with her.

Their chance encounter is where Ally’s star is born and what transpires in the first half is a thrilling whirlwind for her and the audience. This section provides the most satisfying moments. She’s whisked all over the country with her new mentor and love interest. Cooper’s direction and the screenplay from him, Eric Roth, and Will Fetters manages to match Jackson’s energy in the picture’s pacing. As Ally begins to branch out of his shadow to more pop friendly (and far less soulful tracks) with the help of a British manager (Rafi Gavron), Jackson’s deeply rooted issues become more pronounced. While the second half here provides more dramatic heft, it also does so with more familiar themes. Ally’s storyline curiously becomes less compelling as her beau spirals out of control.

Sam Elliot is Jackson’s much older brother and manager, who serves as a complicated father figure (and vocal inspiration). In Cooper’s performance, he drops his voice a couple octaves and his reported extensive vocal training pays off. This doesn’t feel like an actor trying to masquerade as a singer. His work here is remarkable in every facet. We know Gaga hardly needs that kind of training. It’s expected that she’ll nail her songs and she does. Yet she also proves herself to be a natural actress and her emotional range matches her more experienced counterpart. The supporting cast also includes two famed comedians with Dave Chappelle turning up briefly as an ex-musician who’s happily left the business and Andrew Dice Clay as Ally’s chauffeur father.

The chemistry of the two leads is the reason the latest Star often shines, especially early on. To borrow the title from Gaga’s debut album, the film’s beats become more traditional when it moves to the dark side of the fame monster. So while we have a well-worn narrative before us, Cooper and his muse succeed in making this worth taking another look at.

*** (out of four)

Chappaquiddick Movie Review

“We tell the truth. Or at least our version of it.”

This is perhaps the central line uttered by Senator Ted Kennedy (Jason Clarke) in John Curran’s Chappaquiddick. It recalls the events that took place in the summer of 1969 that resulted in the drowning death of Mary Jo Kopechne (Kate Mara) with the Senator at the wheel. This is a tale of power potentially interrupted as Ted is the last living brother of America’s royal family. Unfolding just months after Bobby’s assassination during his Presidential campaign, the youngest Kennedy is seen as a contender for the highest office in the land in 1972.

His brother’s death indirectly leads to the film’s events as Ted organizes a reunion of the “Boiler Room Girls”, a group of female staffers that worked on Bobby’s bid for the White House. New Jersey native Mary Jo is one of them and her fateful car ride with Ted becomes the subject of endless speculation on the same weekend where Neil Armstrong first stepped foot on the moon. The accident isn’t reported by the world-famous driver until eight hours following its occurrence. The screenplay from Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan hypothesizes that Kennedy’s truth about it is indeed his own, with details like alcohol consumption conveniently omitted and a concussion and needless neck brace advantageously added.

The deception extends to patriarch Joseph Kennedy Sr. (Bruce Dern). He can’t speak due to a debilitating stroke, but he can still mobilize a crisis control team at short notice. This includes former Secretary of Defense Bob McNamara (Clancy Brown) and family speechwriter Ted Sorensen (Taylor Nichols). The conscience of the piece is Kennedy cousin Joe Gargan (Ed Helms), who accompanies Ted and Massachusetts District Attorney friend Paul Markham (Jim Gaffigan) to rescue the deceased passenger when it’s far too late. Gargan is a member of the Kennedy clan, though he doesn’t fully recognize the extent they will go to in protecting their brand.

Any movie recounting the days of Chappaquiddick and its aftermath will be looked at through a political lens. Ardent supporters of its central character will likely take issue with some theories put forth here, including Ted’s original thought to claim Mary Jo was driving. So while the leanings of some viewers could be tainted by that, Chappaquiddick is primarily a procedural about a tragedy caused by someone with extraordinary influence. When Kennedy goes to the small island’s office of the police chief to give a hastily written statement, he immediately enters and sits behind the chief’s desk in his chair. It’s a minor detail, but not an insignificant one in showing the power structure involved here.

Chappaquiddick doesn’t shed much unique light on the well-researched event, but it’s held together by a strong performance from Clarke. His Ted is one in constant conflict and not just with the details of the drowning. He is a man of apparent destiny whether he wants it or not or whether his father even believes he deserves it. A sharp turn derails those ambitions to a certain degree. In this version of it, the filmmakers don’t let Kennedy off the hook.

*** (out of four)

Ant-Man and the Wasp Movie Review

Size matters in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the decade old multi-billion franchise reached its most epic heights in Avengers: Infinity War. The only superhero who’s had their own stand-alone pic not to appear in that gargantuan production was Ant-Man, the character brought to life by Paul Rudd in the summer of 2015. Sequel AntMan and the Wasp follows a traditional Avengers tale like the original did. To say it feels smaller in scope is an understatement. Part one often failed to strike a satisfying mix and surprisingly struggled to make Rudd’s title character a memorable one. Whereas Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man and Chris Pratt’s Star-Lord were instantly iconic heroes, it didn’t work that way in AntMan. That’s despite its star’s well-known ability to mix comedy and drama and some nifty visuals that made the third act a treat.

Rarely do we find an MCU effort without parental issues involved and they’re here. Scott Lang/Ant-Man is nearing the end of a two-year house arrest bid based on the events from Captain America: Civil War. His former love interest Hope/heroine Wasp (Evangeline Lilly) and science wiz dad Hank (Michael Douglas) are hiding out as well while conducting experiments to find their mom and wife Janet (Michelle Pfeiffer). She’s been stuck for three decades in the quantum realm that Ant-Man briefly visited in the original. His experience there leads Hope and Hank to believe she’s alive and the search is on. The technology that leads to that mystical place is sought by a low life criminal (Walton Goggins) and his crew. The FBI is curious about it, including the main agent (Randall Park in amusing turn) tasked with monitoring Scott. And then there’s Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen), a molecular challenged young lady who has her own reasons to gain powers. She teams up with a former colleague of Hank’s played by Laurence Fishburne.

If you’re thinking that’s a lot of characters to follow, I haven’t even mentioned Scott’s returning daughter (Abby Ryder Fortson), ex-wife (Judy Greer), and current husband (Bobby Cannavale). There’s also his business partners and occasional fellow crime fighters including Michael Pena and T.I. So while there’s plenty of action to follow, the MCU knows how to make it easy to follow. Compared to Infinity War, the amount of subplots seems practically minuscule.

Wasp finds Rudd settling more comfortably in the role and more humorously. That’s an aspect that was oddly not around much in 2015. Finding Scott with Pfeiffer’s character in his head in one scene provides some genuine laughs. Like in the original, Mr. Douglas appears to be having a ball. He gets his own chance to save the day at one point while his counterparts are engaged in a visually impressive car chase in the streets of San Francisco. Lilly doesn’t just share title credit here. She does have more to do.

AntMan and the Wasp is an improvement over the first. That’s a trait shared by other MCU sequels, especially in the Captain America and Thor series. Peyton Reed returns as director and the whole production feels more confident. It also doesn’t have the burden of being an origin story… something we go through a lot with this constantly growing genre. Like many of its subjects, the importance of what happens in these two hours feels small compared to the grand scale of other stories in this universe. More so than in 2015, however, Ant-Man’s existence in it feels welcome.

*** (out of four)

Throwback Review: Shadow of the Vampire (2000)

Shadow of the Vampire is high concept cinema in bizarre fashion. It’s not wholly successful in its execution as it struggles to fill the running time of the silent era features it clearly adores. The gimmick is clever on paper and effective occasionally on-screen… what if your lead vampire in your movie was an actual one?

In Steven Katz’s script, the picture happens to be the 1922 German classic Nosferatu. The people portrayed here are real. What happens with them is not. John Malkovich is director F.W. Murnau. He can’t get the rights to Bram Stoker’s Dracula novel so he simply changes the names and keeps the plot (that part is true and resulted in legal proceedings). His casting of Dracu…, or Nosferatu, is said to be unknown theater actor Max Schreck (Willem Dafoe). It’s explained that he’s severely Method in his approach. The cast and crew, which includes Eddie Izzard in the Jonathan Harker part and Catherine McCormack as Mina, just go with it. That is until disappearances and strange illnesses begin to occur. Murnau knows the real secret. Max isn’t acting at all and he’s made a grand and deadly bargain to nab his lead. In lots of movies about making movies, the studio brass or producers are the bloodsuckers. Not here.

The project is centered on just how far a filmmaker will go to make a masterpiece. And Murnau’s heart of darkness takes him down some pitch black roads (in real life he was said to be a swell guy). Portraying pomposity and madness is right up Malkovich’s sleeve and he did it far more memorably in Being John Malkovich.

Vampire belongs to Dafoe, unrecognizable except for those bulging eyes. Under his makeup, the actor is a joy to watch and is basically the reason this is worthwhile. E. Elias Merhige serves behind the camera here. He does excel at capturing the look of the pre talkies. Yet I never escaped a feeling that the idea behind all this seemed smarter in conception than realization.

Hereditary Movie Review

**It is difficult to write a proper review of Hereditary without some light spoilers, so proceed with caution if you have yet to see it.

The real unsettling nature of Ari Aster’s debut feature Hereditary comes after the credits roll and not necessarily from heads rolling off bodies (though that happens too). The film is about grieving and the realization of not being able to control fate. Not until fade to black does it set in how truly powerless the people here are.

We begin with the text of an obituary. Ellen is the just deceased mother of Annie Graham (Toni Collette), an artist who specializes in miniature designs for doll houses. She’s married to a kindly therapist (Gabriel Byrne) with high school aged son Peter (Alex Wolff) and middle school aged daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro). Annie doesn’t seem too distraught over her loss and her eulogy for mom hints at a secretive existence before dementia took over her final years. Only Charlie seemed to have a real connection with the late matriarch and we sense something is a bit off with her.

A second tragedy breaks the Graham unit apart. The history of Annie’s upbringing that she wants to ignore at first becomes inescapable. Every family has its demons. In Hereditary, we witness the literal meaning behind that phrase. The supernatural happenings that follow manifest themselves on Annie and Peter primarily. Collette and Wolff both are convincing at being scared out of their wits most of the time. For Collette especially (who has a bit of experience in the genre with The Sixth Sense), her performance is a terrified tour de force. The Graham clan are typically the only humans on-screen. Ann Dowd appears as a woman also grieving a recent loss who convinces Annie to engage in seance.

Hereditary has a conjuring, but it’s not as preoccupied with jump scares and sound effects wizardry for its frights like the successful franchise (not that they’re totally absent). Comparisons to Rosemary’s Baby are far more appropriate. Much of the movie leaves you in a state of confusion and you might need to do a Google or Wiki search after to digest what happened. Writer/director Aster announces himself as an exciting voice in the horror game and one who seems most influenced by genre tales of the late 60s and 70s. While this doesn’t rise to the level of the Roman Polanski classic from a half century ago, I found myself feeling rewarded after everything was over. The Graham family, on the other hand, doesn’t get that lucky.

*** (out of four)