Eighth Grade (2018)

Eighth Grade. Released: August 3, 2018. Directed by: Bo Burnham. Starring: Elsie Fisher, Josh Hamilton, Emily Robinson. Runtime: 1h 33 min.

I like Bo Burnham, he’s funny. He got his start on YouTube in 2006 posting funny songs from his bedroom (like “New Math,” which makes math fun). He helped me with fractions with lyrics like “having sex is like doing fractions; it’s improper for the larger one to be on top.”

It’s 10 years later and he’s made something universal with his directorial debut Eighth Grade, a film that’s been helping me through an anxious time – which is way more important than fractions. The film stars a delightfully awkward and convincing Elsie Fisher as Kayla Day, an eighth grader just trying to survive her last week of middle school.

Kayla’s an average eighth grader, and you’ll likely see a lot of yourself in her. Every time she sends a cringe-y text or tries to be nice to people who want literally nothing to do with her, you’ll want to stop her. (I still wish someone would stop me from sending a bad text half the time).

I saw myself in Kayla, especially her anxiety of worrying what people will think of her as she goes to a popular kid’s pool party. She describes anxiety as the “butterflies you get while waiting in line for a rollercoaster;” but that’s how she feels when she isn’t doing anything. A character named Olivia (Emily Robinson) helps Kayla through some of these moments, and these scenes are charming.

These messages are what make Eighth Grade‘s story timeless for any viewer, as Kayla’s anxiety and doubts can happen at any point in your life. Because of this, it’s not a film you just watch; it’s one that you experience and remember (even as adult viewers, since we’ve gone through eighth grade too).

Bo Burnham was always a clever guy, but here he shows great understanding of adolescence and the current generation growing up. Eighth Grade is personal, intimate, and so good. Kayla doing YouTube videos feels a lot like how Burnham himself started out – and sprinkling her videos throughout the film as narration is smart storytelling. Elsie Fisher as his star was also great casting, because she’s so convincingly awkward during her YouTube videos, giving life advice to people like her, advice which she tries to use for herself. Her character is relatable, and Fisher herself is very charming.

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Director Bo Burnham and Elsie Fisher (IMDb).

Kayla looks like an average teenager, complete with acne and everything. And that’s so refreshing. Fisher becomes Kayla; it’s heartbreaking, heartwarming, and often just crushingly awkward watching her navigate middle school’s struggles and life’s ups and downs – especially romance. It’s entertaining when she sees the object of her affections, Aiden (Luke Prael), and Enya’s “Sail Away” plays on the soundtrack.

Her supportive father is also such an amazing character, played memorably by Josh Hamilton. He’s trying his best…even if Kayla wants nothing more than to listen to music rather than listen to him.

The trend of great father monologues (like in Call Me By Your Name and Lady Bird) continues with “Eighth Grade.” It’s another great moment; and when I’m bawling in the theatre I always wonder how they deliver the lines without crying. I can barely get through an argument without crying. Kudos to you, Josh Hamilton.

Kudos to everyone, really, and especially Bo Burnham and Elsie Fisher. Burnham makes the ordinary feel so entertaining. There’s a full range of characters, so even if you don’t relate to Kayla’s specific situation, you’ll likely relate to someone else. I’m a lot like Kayla and I’ve been like Gabe (Jake Ryan, playing an equally awkward youth who tries to befriend Kayla) multiple times in my life. Burnham writes a solid film and as an all-around full view of Kayla’s world and immerses us completely in it.

Score: 90/100

This review originally appeared on The Movie Buff.

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The Meg (2018)

Released: August 10, 2018. Directed by: Jon Turteltaub. Starring: Jason Statham, Bingbing Li, Rainn Wilson. Runtime: 1h 53 min.

The Meg is one of those movies that is just fun to review, almost like a stamina test for how long you can go without using a shark pun.

Jason Statham plays Jonas, a deep-sea rescue team member who goes back in the water to save a submersible stranded at the very bottom of the Marianas Trench.

The Mana One has made a discovery of an unknown ecosystem underneath the assumed bottom of the trench, which is a cold cloud that separates an ecosystem from the rest of the ocean. The characters stranded in the submersible are attacked by a 75-foot shark… *Jason Statham voice* The Megalodon!

There’s a lot of action right from that rescue in the visually cool underwater area, and it gets wilder after the Meg escapes. The degrees of the cloud shouldn’t let it escape, but the Meg, uh, finds a way.

I like that the filmmakers go back to the prehistoric age to find a foe that can challenge Jason Statham. It’s like they know no bad guy or modern shark can match him. “Meg versus man isn’t a fight, it’s a slaughter,” Statham says about the Megalodon.

Secretly, the Megalodon thinks the same thing about facing Statham. He’s just watched all The Transporter films and he’s ready. He even started to watch The Transporter Refueled but turned it off after 20 minutes when he realized it was a reboot. The Meg knows his tricks and won’t be charmed by his British accent.

Statham’s good in a movie that’s purely summer fun. I liked his character arc of everyone assuming he’s the one who leaves people behind, and he has a good chemistry with oceanographer Suyin (Bingbing Li). Her daughter Meiying (Shuya Sophia Cai) is adorable and gets a few chuckles.

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Jason Statham in The Meg. (IMDb)

The giant shark looks good and its colour is based off a great white, just one that’s been bulking up at the gym. Visually, the film’s decent, and we can see most of the action underwater. It feels long at nearly two hours and most of the action is stuff you’ve seen before but with a giant shark.

It’s not paced amazingly, but it has a charm about it and the characters learn quickly that a bigger boat isn’t going to help them because they’ll need a cruise ship. Their better weapon is their knowledge of Shark Week.

The deep-sea rescue missions are tense, and the action scenes pack a memorable bite. (I got 437 words in before a shark pun!) This just knows it’s a shark movie on steroids and embraces it, and it works. Some of the writing’s clever, too, as characters monologue with their backs turned to the ocean and you just totally expect them to get mauled like that certain someone in Deep Blue Sea.

Besides the action, it has some good character moments and a good cast of characters. Rainn Wilson (The Office) joins the party as billionaire Jack Morris who funds the Mana One. It’s nice that Dwight Schrute’s beet farm and bed and breakfast really took off. I’m sure he made all his money and then realized “marine biology beats beets” and switched fields. Jokes aside, he’s good as the dick-ish Morris.

Everyone in the cast has something to do for the most part. Though, when they’re gone, there’s so many characters that it doesn’t really matter. They’re all pretty good, from Ruby Rose playing Jaxx (her characters are so edgy I’m surprised they haven’t all been named Jaxx), to Ólafur Darri Ólafsson as The Wall.

You know you can’t take a movie completely seriously when there’s a character called The Wall. Come to think of it, it’s a missed opportunity that this isn’t The Wall vs. The Meg, because that sounds like the main event.

Score: 70/100

Skyscraper (2018)

Released: July 13, 2018. Directed by: Rawson Marshall Thurber. Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Neve Campbell, Chin Han. Runtime: 1h 42 min.

Comedy director Rawson Marshall Thurber teams up for a second time with Dwayne Johnson after 2016’s “Central Intelligence. This time, it’s for his first action film “Skyscraper.”

Will Sawyer (Johnson) is now a security expert on assignment in Hong Kong assessing the safety of the world’s tallest building, the Pearl, at 225 stories tall, built by ambitious architect Zhao Long Ji (Chin Han). Sawyer’s brought in to make sure that the residential floors are as safe as can be.

He’s given a tablet that can control the building remotely, and when the building is set ablaze by a gang of mercenaries (led by Roland Møller), Will’s framed for it. He wants to clear his name – but first needs to get into the building because his wife Sarah (Neve Campbell) and children Georgia (McKenna Roberts) and Henry (Noah Cottrell) are still in the building right near the fire.

Dwayne Johnson plays Will Sawyer well. He’s a strong family man and Johnson brings his usual charisma. The film opens with his character as an FBI Hostage Rescue Team leader on his last mission as an explosion leads him to losing his leg. This is about 10 years before Hong Kong and he sports a prosthetic leg for the rest of the film.

He discusses it with one of his old FBI buddies, Ben (Pablo Schreiber), in the film, but talks about the mistake of not knowing the man had a bomb, but the bad luck led him to meeting his wife. Neve Campbell plays the wife well, but their chemistry’s nothing special. Will’s family is his drive.

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Neve Campbell and Dwayne Johnson in “Skyscraper.” (IMDb)

All that aside, a main criticism for the film is that it’s a lot like Die Hard.” It’s fair and inevitable, especially because of the villains and general concept, but I saw more similarities to “The Towering Inferno.” It has similar scenes where characters must get across things to escape the blaze, and it’s like an extreme version of that film for modern audiences. I won’t spoil anything about the villains, but I’ve really liked Roland Møller in everything I’ve seen him in.

The film’s predictable but I liked the ride. I also liked the setting of the film, The Pearl, which makes Nakatomi Plaza look like a normal house in comparison. Attractions like a three-story rainforest and spinning turbine things on the outside of the building are featured on the Pearl. The wonder of the turbine attraction made me think of “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory.” The Pearl’s architect Long Ji is Wonka and his skyscraper is his chocolate factory.

There’s a pearl on top of the skyscraper that looks down on Hong Kong like you’re just in the sky, or like you’re looking down from Heaven, as Long Ji puts it. Most of the Pearl’s unique attractions feature into the film’s biggest set pieces. A few of these made my palms sweat which I thought made the “Skyscraper” have enough edge-of-your-seat thrills for one watch, despite it being predictable.

Score: 63/100

The First Purge (2018)

Released: July 4, 2018. Directed by: Gerard McMurray. Starring: Y’lan Noel, Lex Scott Davis, Joivan Wade. Runtime: 1h 38 min.

I remember when I first heard about The Purge. I was excited because of its concept – but it ended up being disappointing. I thought its sequels (2014’s The Purge: Anarchy, 2016’s The Purge: Election Year) were stronger and added to the universe.

Now, we get a boring prequel with The First Purge, that shows the events of the very first Purge. The 12 hours of everything being legal implemented by the New Founding Fathers of America (NFFA) and it’s the 12 hours of all crime being legalized is pitched as a psychological device to let Americans unleash their anger. It’s supposed to save the country, thought up by Marisa Tomei’s Dr. Updale (Tomei’s the film’s only household name and she’s fine, but isn’t heavily involved in the action).

The first experiment takes place on Staten Island and the government offers $5,000 to simply stay on the island on Purge Night. It’s a payday many just can’t pass up. Other incentive offered is a bigger payday for all the crimes you commit. Want to kill a lot of people? Then, wear special contact lenses that videotape your night and you’ll have a nice payday if you survive.

A lot of this film doesn’t work because we know the Purge’s purpose – combatting overpopulation and thinning out the herd, especially those on welfare so the government doesn’t have to take care of them. It’s uninteresting when they repeat the politics, and since they have to establish the new characters, it takes 25-30 minutes to get to any action.

The main characters are Nya (Lex Scott Davis) and her brother Isaiah (Joivan Wade), who live in a low-income apartment building on Staten Island. They have a good chemistry but they’re not memorable.

Her ex-boyfriend Dimitri (Y’Lan Noel, TV’s Insecure) is a drug kingpin who’s trying to protect his business from competing drugl ords who would use the Purge as an opportunity to take him out. He’s also protecting the citizens since the government wants to take out Staten Island’s black population. Dimitri’s a highlight who can be threatening but also sweet when it comes to Nya.

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Lex Scott Davis and Joivan Wade in The First Purge. (IMDb)

He’s heroic and has a likable charisma for a drug kingpin, and has a good presence in the action scenes. Noel has the most presence of the main cast in general. He is a reason the film feels more like an action movie than a horror film this go around, as some it’s more akin to The Raid: Redemption than a Purge movie.

It still maintains its jump scares, but these are stupid. The franchise has evolved a lot from its original conception of home invasion horror and commentary on human nature to this boring affair. It’s also bogged down by its commentary on American extremism – featuring characters dressed as KKK members and Nazis.

The franchise has never been subtle but its subtext feels really in your face this time, especially one of its main references to Donald Trump – a Purger that hangs out in the sewers that traps Nya and grabs her by the pussy. If the action isn’t a clear enough reference, she then runs away calling him a “pussy grabbing motherf–.”

Also problematic are the film’s villains. The masks are toned down this time, but because of the Purgers’ lack of creativity. The Staten Island purgers are boring – but perhaps this is because in The Purge the participants had eight years to perfect their killing style.

The more creative Purgers are silly, from a pair of old women, accompanied by the Dazz Band’s “Let It Whip” whenever they’re on screen, who rig stuffed animals with explosives, to the film’s main antagonist Skeletor (Rotimi Paul). He’s a junkie and a psychopath who seems to be the only one who really wants to purge.

He’s over the top in every sense of the word, spitting all over the place as he talks. He’s totally crazy and Paul goes completely into the role. The character’s dumb– just because of his over-the-top nature – but he’s also the most memorable villain since Rhys Wakefield’s Polite Leader of the original film. Skeletor just might be the only thing I remember about this bad prequel.

Score: 40/100

Tag (2018)

Released: June 15, 2018. Directed by: Jeff Tomsic. Starring: Ed Helms, Jeremy Renner, Jake Johnson. Runtime: 1h 40 min.

The concept of Tag could sound like the silliest thing ever. It’s literally grown men playing tag because they’ve been playing the game for 30 years and they get together every May to play. The concept only works because it’s true. The film’s based on a Wall Street Journal article called “It Takes Planning, Caution to Avoid Being It” by Russell Adams.

The article’s about a group of 10 friends who started playing the game in Spokane, Washington, in high school, but resumed the game again in 1990 at their high school reunion. A main difference of the stars of the article are their ages – average Joe’s in their late 40s – and these characters are thirty-somethings who started the game on the playground.

It seems that the film has only taken the concept of the game as our main characters are a core group of five instead of the real-life 10, but this is effective for purposes of simplicity. We first meet Hogan ‘Hoagie’ Malloy (Ed Helms) dressing as a janitor in an attempt to tag his friend Bob Callahan (Jon Hamm).

He wants to round up the gang, which also includes Randy ‘Chilli’ Cilliano (Jake Johnson) and Sable (Hannibal Burress), to go to the wedding of their best friend Jerry (Jeremy Renner) to tag the untagged before he retires from the game.

We get the exposition that they have been playing the game for 30 years when Wall Street Journal journalist Rebecca Crosby (Annabelle Wallis), the gender-swapped stand-in for the actual article’s author Russell Adams, interviews Bob for an article but follows this story instead.

The characters have a nice bond because the game was conceived as a way for them to stay in touch and build their friendships around, and the film surprisingly has a ton of heart. It also shows good examples of fun competition and unhealthy competition, like Hoagie’s wife Anna (Isla Fisher) who is willing to do a lot to find out where Jerry is in town. She’s not actually able to play, but she has a lot of funny, overtly aggressive lines.

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Jeremy Renner and Jon Hamm in Tag. (IMDb)

For me it’s more than grown men just playing a game of tag because it’s about embracing your inner child and not forgetting to have fun. This film’s fun, and the comedy is outrageous for a reason. Characters dress up as old ladies in efforts to tag others, and it’s that much funnier because it happened in real life.

The elaborate scenes of characters trying to tag each other are just generally hilarious and it must have been a lot of fun for writers Rob McKittrick and Mark Steilen to figure out these set pieces of them trying to tag each other. They’re super creative.

In one scene we get inner monologues of what the characters are thinking as they’re trying to tag Jerry – and Jerry’s monologue is mostly assessing the situation like a military operative. My favourite line of inner dialogue in this scene is from the journalist as she sees a doughnut flying in slow motion: “This is why print journalism is dying.” I was probably the only one who really laughed at this at the theatre, but I thought it was a funny comment on the type of story she’s covering.

She does have a point – but it’s articles like the one Russell Adams wrote that make amusing films like this happen. At Tag’s core, it’s a story about human connection and staying in touch. It even got me a little emotional near the end. As for the comedy, the outrageousness of the characters trying to avoid being tagged is what makes this so much fun, and its over-the-top comedy really worked for me.

Score: 75/100

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (2018)

Released: June 22, 2018. Directed by: J.A. Bayona. Starring: Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, Rafe Spall. Runtime: 2h 8 min.

This review contains spoilers.

Picking up three years after 2015’s Jurassic World, the dinosaurs on the island of Isla Nublar are in danger as the island’s volcano is about to explode and the U.S. Senate rules that they aren’t going to intervene with the dinosaur’s deaths.

Meanwhile, Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard) now leads an organization called the Dinosaur Protection Group and the film’s adventure kicks off when she receives a call from Eli Mills (Rafe Spall) – who works for an old friend of John Hammond – that they plan to relocate the dinosaurs to a different island where they can live peacefully.

Raptor specialist Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) also tags along because Blue is still on the island and her survival is his motivation. The first half of Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom features decent action on the island. But for the most part, the film’s more of the same, as we learn that Mills plans to sell the dinosaurs as weapons at an auction at his boss’s manor.

Spall’s great but his character is one-note and another forgettable human villain of the new trilogy. He’s also like Hoskins (Vincent D’Onofrio) of the first film, who wanted to use the raptors as weapons. Hoskins suggested dinosaurs could replace robots as war’s future, but now they can replace robots and combat nuclear war. But the argument’s basically the same and it’s annoying that they repeat all of this.

The main point is these dinosaurs are deadly and can turn on you at any point. That’s something Owen understands. He’s badass and the videos of him raising Blue are heartwarming. His development isn’t expanded on other than that. Claire’s development keeps growing as someone who loves the dinosaurs, an interesting change from when she only cared about her career and thought of the dinosaurs as numbers on a spreadsheet. Pratt and Dallas Howard still have a good chemistry.

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Chris Pratt and Blue in Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom. (IMDb)

The film has such a focus on its plot that it doesn’t develop Owen and Claire further than that and focuses on the new characters. This includes Franklin Webb (Justice Smith), a nerdy programmer who brings humour, and dinosaur veterinarian Zia Rodriguez (Daniella Pineda), who is super likable and has more purpose than Franklin.

Also new is Benjamin Lockwood (James Cromwell), Eli Mills’ boss, who is retconned into the universe as someone who helped John Hammond develop cloning technology. I was confused because I couldn’t remember if we ever saw him in previous films – Claire is very excited to meet him and we do not feel this excitement – but he’s just a new character.

His granddaughter Maisie Lockwood (Isabella Sermon) is our eyes and ears at the manor for the first half of the film as she listens in on Spall’s conversations – like when he yells at her because he’s on a very important phone call – as the heroes are still on the island. She’s fine and has a nice chemistry with Owen and Claire, but her character does have silly moments.

The film’s mostly non-stop action but it does have some nice, emotional moments. This includes a shot of a dinosaur that closes a chapter on the island. It’s well directed by J.A. Bayona and the cinematography by Oscar Faura – who’s shot Bayona’s four feature films – elicits such emotion in this scene.

Bayona capably directs the scenes on the island and finds his stride when the film’s tone evolves and turns into what you’d imagine a Jurassic Park-themed haunted house would be like. He delves into fears of monsters coming in through your window in one tense scene. Michael Giacchino’s score matches these scenes perfectly, and Oscar Faura’s cinematography is my favourite aspect.

It’s a nice change of pace from the first half of the film where characters run from dinosaurs on a giant island. Now, they’re running from a new creation in a gigantic mansion. The tone changes believably with the story and it has a decent flow – even if everything’s not interesting. Much of the film’s tone is dire – which makes sense, since it is a fallen kingdom.

Score: 65/100

Action Point (2018)

Action Point. Released: June 1, 2018. Directed by: Tim Kirkby. Starring: Johnny Knoxville, Eleanor Worthington-Cox, Dan Bakkedahl. Runtime: 1h 25 min.

I like Johnny Knoxville. He’s funny. But then a terrible film like Action Point comes along and no matter how contagious his laugh is, you (probably) won’t laugh with him. Keep in mind, this is a film that thinks alcoholic bears and Chris Pontius wearing thongs is the funniest thing in the world.

Knoxville stars as D.C. Carver, who we first meet as an old man reminiscing about the good old days when his daughter, Boogie, would visit him at his amusement park called Action Point which the daredevil runs with his friends, complete with a waterslide and an alpine slide and all.

The summer’s 1979 and Boogie (Eleanor Worthington-Cox) comes to visit, but attendance is down because a corporate amusement park opens in town. Action Point’s employees need to figure out a way to attract people to the park, and meanwhile a villainous land owner named Knoblach (Dan Bakkedahl) really wants the property shut down for some reason. It’s a half-decent plot in the 80s or even the mid-2000s, but in 2018 it’s dull and unfunny.

The film’s inspired by a notoriously unsafe New Jersey park called Action Park and Knoxville was inspired to make the film after he saw a 14-minute documentary called The Most Insane Amusement Park Ever (link here). It’s interesting and makes the lawlessness of the place look totally fun. It’s a shame because this lifeless film doesn’t capture any of that nostalgia or spirit.

The characters aren’t developed outside of D.C. and Boogie. The twentysomethings that work at the park have cool jobs and that would have been fun to explore (like the summer jobs in Adventureland or The Way Way Back) but screenwriters John Altschuler and Dave Krinsky don’t give them anything to do.

Benny (Chris Pontius) is also an employee at the park. He’s a lifeguard but has more interest in telling stupid stories than saving anyone drowning. The character’s awful, and so is Pontius, but he hangs out with D.C. more than the others, so much so he even gets a love interest (Camilla Wolfson).

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Johnny Knoxville in Action Point going down the alpine slide. (IMDb)

A decent part about the film is the father-daughter chemistry between Knoxville and Worthington-Cox as his daughter Boogie. The relationship humanizes the boring D.C., as he’d be a complete asshole otherwise.

The relationship’s one-note and the main drama of it is that Boogie wants to see The Clash in concert this summer and brings it up repeatedly to D.C. When there’s drama because of this it’s not believable because it stems from bad communication from Boogie, and simply shouldn’t be a conflict. The film also thinks you’ll care about the conflict, but you won’t.

The story’s truly where Action Point falls flat on its face. At least with the Jackass movies we knew it was just stunts, and Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa had a decent story and good stunts. Action Point has mediocre stunts and a terrible story. Maybe this would have been better if most of the Jackass crew would have been in the film besides Knoxville and Pontius – but these two seem to be the only ones interested in still doing this stuff while in their 40’s. Still, props to Knoxville to doing his own stunts.

The plot’s so paper-thin I’m convinced it only has the scenes of D.C. as a grandpa to pad the 85-minute runtime. It’s 15 minutes of filler throughout and it offers nothing to the story. It’s either filler or Knoxville just wants to be dressed as an old man in all his films, but in Bad Grandpa at least there was a reason.

There’s a scene of him as a grandpa here that’s so bad I considered walking out. It’s a gross-out gag with his granddaughter painting his hideous looking toenails the colour of blood. There’s no comedy here and my gut was telling me this film would never get any better, and I should have listened.

Score: 25/100