eighth grade

/////

by/lauren davidson
Bo Burnham for A24/94 min.
EG_final-online.jpgI think most reviewers have already written about how this movie can transport the viewer right back into their middle-school years, and that’s true. There are plenty of shots of Kayla, our eighth-grade protagonist, with chipped blue nail polish, Avril Lavigne-esque eyeliner, and pre-Proactive acne. There are shots of awkward kids that are straight out of a John Hughes movie. Eighth Grade really digs its heels into the awkwardness of middle school and gets comfortable. And that’s what makes the emotional execution of this film so well done.

But let’s talk about watching this movie from the perspective of someone on the precipice of their ten-year high-school reunion. Something changed for me as a moviegoer in the past two years. I’ve started watching movies armed with the viewpoint of someone considering what it’s like to be a parent. I’m not one yet, but I am a working adult with more distance from childhood than to parenthood, and that’s really affected how I view not just re-watches of teen favorites (I’m looking at you, She’s All That), but also coming-of-age movies of today.

920x920
All photos courtesy of A24.

I share this with you because I’m still thinking about this movie days later, and truthfully, I think it will stick with me for a long time—and it’s not just because of the accuracy in which Bo Burnham portrays the overwhelming angst of being thirteen. It’s because of Kayla’s relationship to her smartphone. I now can’t stop thinking about the role that technology currently plays in our daily lives. I got my first cell phone at about Kayla’s age in the movie—and the most advanced thing it offered was the game “snake”. Kayla, on the other hand, got her first Snapchat account in fifth grade. There’s a scene in which she nervously approaches the “cool girls”… and they’re just as aloof as they’ve been since cool girls have been in existence, but in this case, they never look up from their phones. They looked like little zombies. Many nights, Kayla goes home after school only to stare at her phone or laptop until she falls asleep. Alongside “smile more” and “slouch less”, her goal list also includes “like more IGs”. Is it just me or is this incredibly depressing? There have been studies upon studies showing links from social media to anxiety and depression, and that plays out to me very strongly with Kayla. Frankly, the scenes in which she is scrolling endlessly escalated my own anxiety. When put in the hands of a thirteen-year old, a smartphone becomes an obvious coping mechanism for social anxiety.

But it’s not just Kayla and her friends. After I watched this movie, I went to a local brewery with a large group of friends, and there was a moment in the evening that I looked around to find every single person engaged with their smartphone.

a/dditional musings:
-There’s a haunting scene in which Kayla’s class goes through a school-shooting drill. It’s devastating that this is a very real issue for today’s students and I’m glad that they made the decision to include this.
-A24’s involvement in this made me excited for the upcoming HBO project Euphoria. I look forward to seeing any similarities.
-Josh Hamilton’s portrayal of Kayla’s single father was a standout performance.
-Every single detail was pitch perfect–from the woke high school mentor to the hypothetical conversations that Kayla practices in her bathroom. In my opinion, Bo Burnham deserves an Oscar for this film. I was very pleasantly surprised, as I’m not a huge fan of his comedic performances and was unsure which notes this film would hit.
-One of my favorite scenes of any movie this year was Kayla’s date with Gabe. As the kids say, “all the feels!”

the king

king photo 2

photo courtesy of Oscilloscope

/////

by/Nicholas Leon
Eugene Jarecki/1hr37mins

Eugene Jarecki’s latest documentary – The King – wants to ask questions with potentially devastating answers, but, fortunately, gets bogged down in its own devastatingly beautiful portrait of humanity.

The King, if you didn’t know, refers to Elvis Presley. But this is not just another biopic that you could find while browsing A&E or the History Channel. No, it is a portrait and description of Elvis by everyday Americans, some celebrities, and maybe one Canadian and a few Brits, just for good measure. It highlights his triumphs and vices, his rise, and his fall. The film follows Jarecki and his crew on a cross-country road trip in one of Elvis’s Rolls Royces starting in Tupelo, Mississippi, where Elvis was born, and ending in Memphis, Tennessee, where he died. Country and blues musicians, actors, rappers, Elvis’s friends, ex-wife, colleagues, and fans muse about what he did, right and wrong. The film never tries to make a point about who Elvis was outside of all of the various subjects’ testimonies, except for one point: that Elvis’s rise and fall is a metaphor for the United States.

Throughout the film, non-diegetic soundbites of radio reports concerning the American education system or various economic woes compete with the emotional voice of Elvis Presley reflecting on his life. The same is true for whenever Jarecki asks people to reflect on Elvis Presley, and then say something about the state of America, but then asks for a comparison of the two. The comparison is apt because, as stated numerous times in the film, Elvis is the epitome of the American Dream: to come from nothing, and become something. Numerous times, subjects reflect on the hardships that they’ve faced, whether it’s a degree-holding individual working at an Elvis Presley museum or someone who has given up on looking for a job. It is these small portraits of individuals, comparing and contrasting themselves to Elvis Presley, that make the film what it is: a devastating portrait of humanity, in the face of sometimes overwhelming obstacles to their dreams.

the king 3
photo courtesy of Oscilloscope

Elvis factors into this too, of course, because the film is, after all, about him. The movie, however, doesn’t have a lot of new things to say about Elvis himself, it still follows Elvis from Sean Phillips, to Colonel Tom Parker, to his time in the military, all the way to his comeback special and the infamous ’77 CBS Special: Elvis in Concert. The freshest contribution it gives, rather, is what people have to say about him. It is a well-known fact that Elvis was a cultural appropriator of black musicianship, but as David Simon states in the film: “the entire American experience is cultural appropriation”. Contrast that with Chuck D. of Public Enemy stating he believes “that culture is meant to be shared”. It is competing ideas like this that make the film so compelling, these open-ended questions of what is to be done with Elvis’s legacy, how we live through it, and how we reconcile it.

But open-ended questions don’t work so well with what seems to be Eugene Jarecki’s artistic objective: to paint Elvis as a metaphor for America. The questions regarding this are few and far between, with differing emphasis throughout the film. Put simply, it is not nearly as effective as just hearing people talk about Elvis. It is the pure emotion evoked from these conversations that make the film work, not the questions about American identity whose answers are left dangling by its own metaphorical string.  The comparisons aren’t nonsensical, and they certainly follow a logical path, but the connection with it is not nearly as strong as the more human aspect of the documentary.

The King asks a range of questions with varying quality in its answers. From the start of the film, it is clear that its true object is America, but the numerous subjects explored in the film differ in effectiveness by the end. But it is still a fresh take on Elvis’s impact on contemporary life and culture, and dares to explore the feelings of a man who, even at the height of his fame, still felt lonely in the middle of a crowd.

whitney

/////

by/lauren davidson

Kevin Macdonald/ 2h2min.

As a millennial, I absorbed the end of Whitney Houston’s career. I remember listening to her greatest hits CD in the car with my dad; we both loved her music. But I was also there for the tabloid coverage of her demise. I wasn’t yet alive when she fell in love with Bobby Brown; I—along with the rest of the country—witnessed the aftermath.

Director Kevin Macdonald is well aware that the average viewer of Whitney has at least heard of Being Bobby Brown, and of the infamous “crack is wack” interview Houston gave in 1993 (the same year Bobbi Kristina was born). Interestingly, Being Bobby Brown wasn’t mentioned in the film; however, the director does include some captivating footage of Bobby and Whitney attempting to record a song together, where Bobby cackles while tanking the recording session. In the film, this signifies the beginning of the demise of the couple’s relationship. Interview subjects note that Houston “tried to step down to lift him up.” We’ve all seen tabloid footage of the couple, a present-day Sid and Nancy, high on cocaine, making fools of themselves. It’s what led to the loss of that once-in-a-lifetime voice. To me, in the early 2000s, it was common knowledge that Brown ruined Houston’s career.

162293.max-620x600But there’s obviously more to it than that. By now, you’ve all heard about the bomb that explodes in the film’s last quarter: Houston and her brother Gary allegedly suffered from child abuse at the hands of female cousin Dee Dee Warwick. Interview subjects muse that the abuse lived at the root of Houston’s problems. One subject also suggested that it led Houston to question her sexual identity. It’s an important question, as Houston was long rumored to have a relationship with her assistant, Robyn Crawford; the movie heavily insinuates this was the case. As other viewers have noted, Houston and Crawford’s relationship was one of the most interesting parts of the movie, especially because of the power struggle it sparked within Houston’s marriage and family.

Which leads us to Houston’s family dynamic. For me, this was the most depressing aspect of a truly bleak movie. When her brothers recall supplying Houston with drugs without taking actual responsibility, I got hot with anger. The fact that virtually no one in Houston’s inner circle staged an intervention with the greatest talent of our generation is appalling, and unfortunately, it’s a pop star tale as old as time. The story of Whitney Houston is one that we’ve all heard before: the family gets on the payroll, the star becomes out of control, and the parent (Houston’s father, in this case) makes off with all the star’s earnings. We’ve seen it with Nick and Aaron Carter, with Britney Spears. What makes a difference in Houston’s case is the enormous and rare talent that was spoiled.

162055.max-620x600

All images from Getty Images.

a/dditonal musings:

  • I loathed the montage sequences. It’s easy to fall into cheese territory with a montage, and Macdonald is guilty. Showing historical context, especially in regard to race relations, is helpful and important to Houston’s story, but there was a literal rocket ship going off. Come on, Macdonald.
  • I loved the interview style. Especially when seen in a theatre, it appears as if the subjects are looking straight into your eyes. If there’s an Oscar for Best Lighting, this film deserves to win.
  • Watching footage of Bobbi Kristina and seeing the impact that her parents’ addiction had on her short life may have been the most upsetting part of a very upsetting movie. An innocent child that never stood a chance—heartbreaking.
  • This may be insensitive, but the opening view of Cissy Houston was eerily similar to Allison Janney’s portrayal of LaVona Fay Golden in I, Tonya.
  • I loved the footage of the crowds after Houston’s rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner”. It did an excellent job of showing what Houston meant to America.

beast

image1

//// /

by/Nicholas Leon

107 min.

It’s tempting to call Beast—the newest feature from writer/director Michael Pearce—a romance film with a dark twist. That’s how I described it to a friend after seeing it, but that doesn’t even come close to describing what this film captures.

Taking place on a small island that is probably off the coast of Britain, Beast stars Jessie Buckley as Moll, a lonely twenty-something who has returned home to take care of her father. Buckley plays Moll with a longing in her eyes for something that will make her life fulfilling, and Pearce makes it clear from the beginning that she hasn’t got that much good going for her. Moll’s relationships with her mother, sister and brother are strained, to say the least. Her sister (Shannon Tarbet) announces her engagement at Moll’s own birthday party near the start of the film, to Moll’s chagrin, and Moll’s mother (Geraldine James) employs a method of, shall we say, tough love to all aspects of their relationship, and her brother is just a jerk.

image2

But this all changes with the arrival of Pascal, played by Johnny Flynn, here equipped with a blank stare that is both eerie and appealing. He provides everything that Moll lacks: companionship and willful, unconditioned attention. The only problem is that his arrival suspiciously coincides with the murders of multiple young women on the island.  So, when Moll and Pascal inevitably get together, her family gets worried. The problem is, their relationship with Moll is too toxic for her to care anymore, and she gives everything to be with Pascal.  What follows is a tense, dialogue- and action-driven tale about toxic relationships, how the characters embrace or defy them, and the resultant impacts of their actions.

image3

The dialogue here is razor-sharp, the emotion loud and raw, and the mystery surrounding Pascal will keep the viewer guessing whether he is what everyone thinks he is. The tension mounts through each of the acts, with everyone pulling at each other to try get what they want: Moll her happiness, her family their sense of normalcy. And Pascal? I’m not so sure about him, but that brings me to the question of the characters. None of them, except for Moll, are very complex, but I think that’s the point. As the film goes on, the lines start to blur as to who the titular Beast is. Pearce has us thinking that it’s Pascal, at least in the beginning, with the numerous motifs of carnivorous animals in print books or on the television, but the more we learn about Moll, the more complex she gets. The real hook here is how one character changes with the decisions that they make, while stuck between two viewpoints: safety, or happiness?

My only complaint with the film is that it takes just a bit too long to end. Certain character decisions are unclear, and it feels like the plot moves forward because it has to, rather than by the momentum of the characters. It slows the pacing, and not in a good way.

But I do have to mention the work of cinematographer Benjamin Kracun, who lenses the setting with a slightly saturated look, and the visual communication utilized by Michael Pearce, who signifies loneliness and happiness just by the juxtaposition of Jessie Buckley’s facial expression and whatever landscape she may be staring at. This has relevance, trust me.  What is so terrific, but also terrifying, is how Beast takes the sorts of relationships that we see in real life, and twists them. It’s uncanny.

summer 1993

/////

by/Lauren Davidson

Catalan/ 97 min.

I thought about beginning this review by sharing that I, like the protagonist, am adopted and an only child. But upon further reflection, I don’t think that’s what made this movie so compelling to me. I would gamble that most viewers would find themselves transported back to their childhoods by this film. It doesn’t surprise me at all that Summer 1993 is an autobiographical effort from writer-director Carla Simón. Simón has beautifully captured incredibly complex family dynamics through the eyes of the immensely gifted Laia Artigas.

Screenshot 2018-06-21 13.04.05.png

Calling to mind last year’s The Florida Project, Summer 1993 tells its story through the eyes of a child; in this case, it’s six-year-old orphan Frida, who watches on as she is moved to her aunt and uncle’s house following the death of her mother. While The Florida Projectfinds itself drenched in a densely-saturated Floridian summer and grapples with problematic parenting, Summer 1993 takes place in the slower-paced Spanish countryside and handles its characters with a loving grasp. This is a story of longing, of love, of family.

It’d be easy to write Frida off as a spoiled brat, but Simón chooses to delve into the complexities of the child’s struggle to adapt to her new home. The realism of this struggle, for me, is what makes this film what it is: moving, compelling, a mirror. Because of her parents’ deaths, Frida has been coddled and placed on a pedestal. The process of acclimating to a home with rules involves testing of limits, manipulation and uncertainty. Frida’s tiny face is often filled with insecurity and longing, and Artigas’ performance is simply outstanding.

Screenshot 2018-06-21 13.03.57

All photos courtesy of Summer 1993.

As in The Florida Project, the mother is just as fascinating as her daughter. Bruna Cusi’s Marga has been thrown into the thankless role of mother of two and is exhausted and perplexed by Frida. This film would not have packed half the punch without Cusi’s committed, exasperated Marga. Although I do not have children, I found her to be instantly relatable and very much identified with the power struggle between Marga and Frida. Simón’s display of each relationship in the film runs true and deep. Every emotion is captured with an authenticity that’s rare in today’s cinema. You must see it.

 

hereditary

/////

by/Lauren Davidson

Ari Aster for A24/ 127 min.

In the top ¾ of Hereditary, the filmmakers do an excellent job of capturing that moment, in the middle of the night, when you’re half-awake and see a shadow in the dark. Your heart stops and you’re paralyzed by fear. It’s the moment before you shake it off and realize it was just a dream. And at one point, Peter, portrayed by the talented actor Alex Wolff (easily confused with his brother, fellow actor Nate Wolff), tells himself, “Just gotta wake up.” But this isn’t a bad dream. It’s the derailment of what could have been a fantastic film.

IMG_6858

To prevent all-out spoilers, I’ll simply say that there are parallels to be made with mother!, my least favorite movie of all time, and one that was also hyped unfairly by critics. To be fair, there are legitimate praises to be had for Hereditary. The film, like many others in the A24 cannon, features interesting shots and a dramatic plotline that is genre-crossing. The well-worn story of a family straining to cope with the grief associated with familial loss is relatable, and therefore, lends itself to elements of true terror. Watching Toni Colette’s character have a meltdown at the dinner table regarding said loss was the peak of this film for me. In a different universe, this could’ve been a magnetic story about how grief tears apart families. Watching the Graham family disintegrate was gripping and undeniable with a more-than-capable cast. But that’s not why the CinemaScore was low and it’s not why I’m giving it three out of five slashes.

Annie Graham, Hereditary’s living matriarch played by the inimitable Toni Colette, has made a career of creating meticulously-detailed architectural dioramas. She puts tiny people in tiny rooms and moves them around in accordance to her whims. The movie opens up on one such diorama, panning through the rooms until we enter the house in earnest. It’s an interesting technique that is well served, as any scene that takes place in the house feels like the viewer is trapped in the diorama, and purposefully so, as the set was built to form instead of using a traditional soundstage or actual house. Speaking to the effectiveness of that decision, there were times that I wanted to exit that house and make a run for it—it got very claustrophobic dealing with the complexities of a family struggling with untreated mental illnesses, grief and… the occult?

IMG_6860All photos courtesy of A24.

While there were certainly points of heart-stopping terror, there were also moments when the audience flat-out laughed at the absurdity of the eventual story direction. Although the celebrated cast all gave fantastic performances, the character I most enjoyed was Steve Graham (Gabriel Byrne).  Steve was my rock through this break-neck ride. He asks logical questions of the rest of the family, such as “Why didn’t you call the police?” when a bat-shit discovery is made midway through the film. He looks at Toni Colette the way I might look at someone begging me to trust them with a bottle of lighter fluid in their shaky grasp: as if they are dangerous and need to seek help. Poor Steve embodied exactly how I felt watching this movie: helpless to stop the trainwreck that is Hereditary.