Category Archives: ★★★★

Eighth Grade (2018, Bo Burnham)

With a single exception, no one expounds onscreen in Eighth Grade. There’s obviously some implied offscreen exposition, but once lead Elsie Fisher stops recording for her updated-daily YouTube channel, director (and writer) Burnham sets the narrative distance and keeps it. Fisher’s got her on-YouTube exposition, which we both see and hear in voiceover as Burnham juxtaposes words and deeds; otherwise, she doesn’t offer any insight. Or, if she does, Burnham doesn’t want to show it. Eighth Grade is a character study, just one where Burnham wants to keep a very respectful distance to the subject. We’re going to be seeing Fisher go through her week and the moments we get to share are mostly ones where she’s processing things going on around her or trying to figure out how to engage with those things.

It’s a big week for Fisher—the last week of eighth grade. The film opens with her winning “most quiet” student or something to that effect. She’s got a single parent, painfully uncool dad Josh Hamilton. It takes Burnham a long time to get to talking about Mom, which turns out to be just the right move because that eventual exposition (the single one) ends up informing back on so much before the film heads into the third act. It’s awesome. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The film has a number of big events in Fisher’s week, strung together by YouTube videos and scenes at school. First up is a pool birthday party, which Hamilton basically forces Fisher to attend. Fisher doesn’t want to go because she doesn’t like birthday kid Catherine Oliviere, who doesn’t like Fisher either but her mom made her invite Fisher. The pool party scene is uncomfortable as Grade gets. The film gets dangerous and serious, but it never gets quite as uncomfortable. Because it goes on forever. And we already know Fisher doesn’t want to go and never would without Hamilton pressuring her. Grade oozes tension from its pores—Burnham’s got three things going on with it. First, he’s doing a character study. Second, that character study has a set present action and a series of events to hit. Third and most important, he’s trying to do those two things from Fisher’s… emotionality. Not point of view events, but her emotional experience of events. The tension is part of that emotional experience. Fisher’s shy. There’s no way she’s not going to be socially awkward with Hamilton as a dad. But even though she’s shy and socially awkward she desperately wants to not be those things, as her YouTube monologues reveal. She’s profoundly unhappy without understanding why or what to do about it, but with a lot of information about what she’s supposed to be doing about it.

The next big event is when Fisher goes to the high school to shadow senior Emily Robinson, who—unlike the kids at Fisher’s middle school—thinks Fisher is awesome. And Fisher perceives it as an expectation to meet, without really understanding what Robinson’s saying. Robinson also doesn’t really understand what she’s saying. Eighth Grade’s characters frequently lack the vocabulary to express their thoughts and feelings. Fisher and Robinson because even though they have the capacity for self-reflection, they’re kids. Hamilton can’t do it because he’s a goof, he’s just not exactly the goof you expect him to be.

The third event is Fisher going to hang out that night with Robinson and her friends at the mall. Hamilton screws it up for Fisher and the night is a mess.

The events don’t correspond to acts, they’re just the set pieces outside Fisher’s house and the school. In addition to the film taking place the last week before eighth grade graduation, there’s also this subplot about Fisher getting back the time capsule she made in sixth grade for her eighth grade self. Burnham writes that one something beautiful, but—as with anything else—it’s all about Fisher’s performance. The complexities of her situation she cannot describe or even properly acknowledge. Because she’s a kid. She’s just got to experience, essay; frame after frame.

Burnham’s somewhat loose with the film’s target audience—there are enough cues for adults, but not too many it drags. Doing a character study of tween from a detached but tight third person perspective on the lead? It’s a lot.

Eighth Grade is a success because of Fisher’s performance. It’s natural without being loose. Every moment in the film feels intentional, every expression on Fisher’s face deliberate. After all, we’ve often only got Fisher’s expressions to move a scene along. She doesn’t talk a lot; when she does, her dialogue feels like punctuation for an already conveyed expression.

The film’s mostly Fisher and Hamilton. He’s good. Fisher’s exceptional. Robinson’s good; Luke Prael (as Fisher’s crush) is hilarious. Burnham does an extraordinary job directing the performances. The way he and editor Jennifer Lilly cut the film together is fantastic. Also fantastic are Sam Lisenco’s production design, Andrew Wehde’s photography, Anna Meredith’s music. Outstandingly executed film.

Eighth Grade is great.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Bo Burnham; director of photography, Andrew Wehde; edited by Jennifer Lilly; music by Anna Meredith; production designer, Sam Lisenco; produced by Eli Bush, Scott Rudin, Christopher Storer, and Lila Yacoub; released by A24.

Starring Elsie Fisher (Kayla Day), Josh Hamilton (Mark Day), Emily Robinson (Olivia), Jake Ryan (Gabe), Daniel Zolghadri (Riley), Fred Hechinger (Trevor), Imani Lewis (Aniyah), Luke Prael (Aiden), and Catherine Oliviere (Kennedy).



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Stalag 17 (1953, Billy Wilder)

Stalag 17 opens with narration explaining the film isn’t going to be like those other WWII pictures, where the soldiers are superhuman and the film bleeds patriotism. No, Stalag 17 is going to be something different—first off, it takes place not on the battlefield, but a German prison camp. Through coincidence, the camp is entirely full of sergeants, which causes a lot of personalities butting heads (but also personalities jibing). This story—the one narrator Gil Stratton is going to tell-takes place right before Christmas 1944. The explanation of the setup is the only time the film feels like a stage adaptation; director Wilder always has filmic uses for Stratton’s narration. Even when the plot’s moving along and the structure is very play-like, it never feels like one. The setting—a barracks in the camp (Stalag 17)—is naturally confined, but never naturally stagey.

The film opens in the aftermath of a failed escape attempt. Two guys try to get out, get caught. Right after they leave, scrounger and black market entrepreneur William Holden bets against the men escaping. His barrack-mates are incensed at his bet, but think little of it until there are subsequent hints there might be a mole in the barracks. Now, the audience already knows there’s a spy because Stratton’s talking about the time they had this spy in the barracks, but it takes the characters a while to catch up. It’s a wonderful play on expectation. The film runs a couple hours and 17’s well into that second hour before there’s much about the spy hunt. Until then, the film’s mostly humor. Because even though it opens establishing the barracks “brass”—barracks boss Richard Erdman, barracks security Peter Graves, barracks tough guy Neville Brand—in conflict with Holden—all with Stratton narration—pretty soon barracks goof-balls Harvey Lembeck and Robert Strauss take… well… center stage. In the non-stagey movie. It’s around Lembeck and Strauss, at least initially, the action plays out. There’s the introduction to the barracks German guard (Sig Ruman), there’s the growing suspicions of the prisoners, there’s Otto Preminger’s camp commander, who manages to be an opportunistic, mean-spirited jackass before he’s anything else. None of the prisoners have anything like Stockholm with the Germans, but it’s clear these German soldiers aren’t the crème de la crème… starting from Preminger down. So the Preminger stuff is funny and funny in how it’s dangerous, without ever being too dangerous.

The film’s very careful about how it portrays the comedy. Lembeck and Strauss are practically a slapstick duo, but Wilder never lets it get out of hand.

Once it’s clear there’s a spy, everyone—starting with the increasingly violent Brand—suspects Holden. Top-billed Holden is simultaneously perplexed and offended, but the film doesn’t increase his time onscreen. It’s still an ensemble, Holden’s still a standout, but he doesn’t get that spotlight just yet.

Not when there are still two more characters to bring in. Don Taylor (who’s second-billed but barely in the film and crucial to the plot) and Jay Lawrence (who’s like third-to-last billed, has nothing to do with the plot, but basically has a whole character arc about being integrated into the barracks culture).

Even after everyone starts suspecting Holden, it takes a long, long time before they act. When they do, no one seems to think through the repercussions, which the script mostly avoids and otherwise just barely addresses, while the performances imply the changes. When it all does end up falling on Holden, it’s not just the plot, it’s how the film’s going to acknowledge its character arcs. They all play through Holden’s perspective, which the film has ever so gently been assuming through the second act.

Of course, then Wilder switches it up again in the third act because, even though Holden’s giving this big, great movie star performance, it’s an ensemble piece.

Wilder completely relies on Holden but is subdued when it comes to needing to rely on him. It’s really cool, how Wilder and co-screenwriter Edwin Blum do all the character arcs. Because the actors are all usually onscreen, or at least they’re all in the same location; sometimes they’re background, sometimes they’re in the main action. And their arcs keeping going throughout; doesn’t slow down for anything, not even when opportunist Preminger thinks he’s finally going to get a promotion and he starts getting more story time.

The best performances—wildly different ones—are from Holden and Strauss. Strauss goes crazy, Holden never breaks a sweat. Wilder and Strauss figure out a way for him to devour scenes whereas Holden’s almost entirely passive. And both actors have to sell those character behaviors without explored motivation. No one, not even Taylor or Lawrence, get much introduction; Stalag 17 picks up in the middle of everyone’s story. Wilder doesn’t even slow down to set up narrator Stratton, which turns out to be fine. Initially odd, but eventually obviously good.

Brand is good as Holden’s de facto nemesis. Erdman and Graves are both fine. Taylor’s good. Great small turn from William Pierson; Wilder understands how to leverage straight comedy and doesn’t shy away from it. The guys playing it straight (like Brand, Erdman, and Graves) are kind of at a disadvantage. They’re not as memorable, which works out because it’s Stratton narrating it from—presumably—the present day, so almost ten years later.

Lawrence is really funny and great at the impressions. Again, Wilder knows how to execute straight comedy and does so.

Great editing from George Tomasini, especially great photography from Ernest Laszlo.

Stalag 17 is an outstanding success and a peculiar one. Not for how it succeeds—cast, crew, script—but for how succeeding plays out on screen. It’s like Wilder had to find a way to tell the story accessibly so he makes all these wide swings and always connects. Or if it’s not him connecting it’s Holden, who takes very short, measured swings, but always connects. It’s a great picture.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Billy Wilder; screenplay by Wilder and Edwin Blum, based on the play by Donald Bevan and Edmund Trzcinski; director of photography, Ernest Laszlo; edited by George Tomasini; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring William Holden (Sgt. J.J. Sefton), Neville Brand (Duke), Richard Erdman (Sgt. ‘Hoffy’ Hoffman), Peter Graves (Sgt. Frank Price), Robert Strauss (Sgt. Stanislaus ‘Animal’ Kuzawa), Harvey Lembeck (Sgt. Harry Shapiro), Don Taylor (Lt. James Dunbar), Jay Lawrence (Sgt. Bagradian), Gil Stratton (Sgt. Clarence Harvey ‘Cookie’ Cook), Sig Ruman (Sgt. Johann Sebastian Schulz), and Otto Preminger (Oberst von Scherbach).


THIS POST IS PART OF THE FOURTH GOLDEN BOY BLOGATHON HOSTED BY VIRGINIE OF THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF CINEMA, MICHAELA OF LOVE LETTERS TO OLD HOLLYWOOD, AND EMILY OF THE FLAPPER DAME.


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Crooklyn (1994, Spike Lee)

Crooklyn is a series of memories. They’re mostly the main character’s memories—and if they’re not, they’re definitely from her perception. The memories start in the spring and go through the summer. Director Lee and his cowriters—and siblings (Crooklyn is semi-autobiographical) Joie Lee and Cinqué Lee frequently change the pace of the memories. Some are long scenes with a lot of action, some are shorter transitional scenes, memorable for their placement in the narrative and their location. The Lee siblings are very comfortable with the film’s narrative distance and changing it; they nimbly move between characters during the first half or so then turn around and slow down to focus on the protagonist. When they speed up again, there’s still the same tighter focus, but a lot more going on and at a different pace.

Zelda Harris is the protagonist. She’s nine years old; the only daughter of schoolteacher Alfre Woodward and successful working musician but not successful composer Delroy Lindo. She has four brothers. Carlton Williams plays the oldest, presumably Spike. He’s a jerk. He also gets the most material to do because he’s the oldest and he and Harris have a whole character arc going on through the movie but it’s one of the quietest subplots, because there’s not much room for laughs. Because Crooklyn has a lot of laughs. Woodward’s intense and the kids are stinkers. And Lindo not really being any help is one of the louder subplots. The masculinity isn’t terribly toxic, but it’s far from good. It leads to some big fights and tense discussions between Woodward and Lindo, which feature some phenomenal acting from the pair. Harris usually gets involved too, since her brothers are too busy being boys. The brothers being boys often contributes to a lot of the humor, which the script never uses to alleviate the drama. The two can coexist, but ones not a solution for the other.

As the film goes on—it starts towards the end of a school year, with Harris dreading the possibility of leaving Brooklyn to visit Southern relations over the summer. There are no scenes at the school. The film either takes place on the block, in the house, or down South. Until the third act, anyway. Third act is a completely different—appropriately—story for locations. But as the film goes on, the Lees take their time establishing the ground situation, establishing the characters, establishing the relationships. Exposition dumps are rare, usually only when they need to give context for an earlier detail, usually from Woodward, who is very fallible, she’s just not fallible about dumb things. She’s never sainted in the film, but she’s closer than anyone else to being a saint. The script doesn’t shy away from children’s cruelty or stupidity (not even Harris’s). It also is very careful in how it portrays Lindo, who takes the longest to get established. It’s a great script.

When summer finally arrives—in the second half of the film—and Harris goes down South to visit aunt and uncle Frances Foster and Norman Matlock and, more, cousin Patriece Nelson, Harris gets to really run the movie for a while. She gets to experience the strangeness of her relations and the South, but not to be aware of how that experience is going to perturb her character development.

Because she’s nine.

When the summer vacation is over, there’s a different Harris, but there’s also a very different situation waiting for her back at home. The script changes the pacing of the memories. Some events get missed, some events have more weight, and we’re watching Harris exist through them and experience them but have no idea what’s happening to her. Crooklyn isn’t a kids movie per se… but it’s also not not a kids movie. The film’s always from a kid’s eye-level, let’s say, and then it turns out that eye-level just perfectly matches Harris’s. It’s a really great script.

Performances—Harris, Woodward, and Lindo are the whole show. There are some really good supporting performances (Isaiah Washington’s performance as a Vietnam vet deserves its own movie). But it’s all about Harris, Woodward, and Lindo. As for whether Harris has better scenes with Woodward or Lindo on her own… it’s probably Lindo, just because how the character development arc goes. But there are still some fabulous ones between Woodward and Harris. Harris knows Lindo’s not exactly the most responsible adult. So lots of gristle for scenes.

Technically, Crooklyn’s near flawless. Great photography from Arthur Jafa, even better editing from Barry Alexander Brown, which is made even more effective thanks to the awesome Terrence Blanchard score. Wynn Thomas’s production design is awesome too. Especially when Harris goes down South and Lee stretches the screen to show it as otherworldly (distorted and televised). The production design is almost more important during that section, since the audience has to see and understand what Harris is seeing because she might not really understand it.

The stretching is director Lee’s most extreme style choice. He’s got a dream sequence, which fits into the film’s existing stylistic flourishes—Spike Lee appears a neighborhood glue-sniffer and jerk, so he gives himself most of the flash. It fits, given how his stand-in, Williams, treats Harris. Meanwhile, Joie Lee–Harris being her stand-in—shows up as a slightly overbearing aunt. Uncredited. Third screenwriter Cinqué Lee doesn’t cameo.

I haven’t even gotten to the soundtrack, which maybe was produced by Alex Steyermark. The use of seventies songs is exquisite, both in the narrative—as a detail—or as non-diegetic accompaniment of the scenes. It’s awesome.

Crookyln’s awesome. Harris, Woodward, Linda, and Lees Spike, Joie, and Cinqué make something special.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Spike Lee; screenplay by Joie Lee, Spike Lee, and Cinqué Lee, based on a story by Joie Lee; director of photography, Arthur Jafa; edited by Barry Alexander Brown; music by Terence Blanchard; production designer, Wynn Thomas; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Zelda Harris (Troy), Alfre Woodard (Carolyn), Delroy Lindo (Woody), Carlton Williams (Clinton), Sharif Rashed (Wendell), Tse-Mach Washington (Joseph), Christopher Knowings (Nate), José Zúñiga (Tommy La La), Isaiah Washington (Vic), David Patrick Kelly (Tony Eyes), Patriece Nelson (Viola), Frances Foster (Aunt Song), Norman Matlock (Uncle Clem), Vondie Curtis-Hall (Uncle Brown), Spike Lee (Snuffy), N. Jeremi Duru (Right Hand Man), Ivelka Reyes (Jessica), and Joie Lee (Aunt Maxine).


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2046 (2004, Wong Kar-Wai)

2046 is a very strange sequel. Because it’s most definitely a sequel to In the Mood for Love. Tony Chiu-Wai Leung and Lam Siu Ping are playing the same characters, a few years after that film. But the way writer and director Wong deals with the previous film and its events… he intentionally… well, I’m not sure if distorts is the right word, because it works out perfectly, but he delays it. 2046 is a sequel to In the Mood for Love, but it’s also a sequel to itself. The film starts in the mid-1960s with Leung moving home to Hong Kong from Singapore. Well, actually, wait. It starts in 2046, a CGI megalopolis with a train and some narration about riding the train and trying to leave 2046. Like it’s a place.

2046 also has Hong Kong significance—when the British “gave” Hong Kong back to China in 1996, the Chinese said Hong Kong would stay the same way for fifty years. So 2046. Of course, it’s also got a significance to In the Mood for Love. But back to the future for a moment. There’s some love sick guy on the train. He wants to leave 2046. His narration also refers to Love, even though nothing else does.

So all the coincidences collide for Leung—mid-sixties Hong Kong had some significant unrest and Leung spends his time sitting it out, dreaming of the future and writing a serial called… 2046 in a hotel room 2047, which he took because 2046 wasn’t ready yet. Leung brings a litany of nightclub friends with benefits affairs home while musing on the goings on around him at the hotel. Faye Wong is the owner’s older daughter, in love with Japanese guy Kimura Takuya. Her dad (Sum Wang) doesn’t approve. Leung distantly watches the heart attack and incorporates it into his stories, which is good since Kimura plays the story’s protagonist in the future stuff. Leung’s also got to fend off Sum’s younger daughter, Dong Jie, who’s too young.

Because even though Leung is supposed to be a casual sex addict, charming the ladies by night, moping about his previous heartache through his writing, there’s got to be a line. And Wong, director, tests it from time to time. It’s a good narrative hook and only there because we still need to like Leung for later, because later is going to get worse before it gets better. Leung narrates the film–eventually even the future stuff–and it’s a very controlled narration. Wong, writer and director, doesn’t want to show too much. Like Wong, actress, appearing for an almost cameo before disappearing, just like when the film opens on Leung and mystery woman Gong Li to set up the Hong Kong homecoming. Wong, writer, is delaying certain things but for very good reasons, which aren’t clear until the end of the second act.

Because it’s not just Leung’s story; there’s also a second story-in-the-story, which Leung writes for writing partner and lovesick buddy Faye Wong for a while in the middle. It’s got a full narrative arc for future guy Kimura and even future Faye Wong. And that narrative arc is later going to matter for Leung and the film. It’s an exceptionally complicated narrative structure. Wong, writer, fractures the narrative in a lot of major ways, sometimes technically surprising ones (but the surprise isn’t the right reaction because they’re inevitable). But he lays out this always forward layer too. For the viewer, who is watching the events of Leung’s life—with tangents—but seeing Leung’s reaction to those events. Macro-reactions, not micro. So very deliberate plotting.

2046 has more than its share of “why is Wong doing this” head-scratchers, but they’re always the exact right move. Because while Wong, director, is keeping with Leung in the present, experiencing new events, Wong, just writer, needs to move the plot in peculiar directions. The film’s got these multiple, dense narrative tense layers and Wong, writer, needs to move between them sometimes rapidly, sometimes not. Wong, director—and with great editing from William Chang and music from Umebayashi Shigeru—has to figure out a way to trigger these movements stylistically. It’s gorgeously done.

The most drastic of the three big narrative shifts is someone I can’t believe I got 700 words into a post about 2046 and haven’t yet—Zhang Ziyi. She’s Leung’s first significant love interest. Meaning she falls in love with him and he treats her like shit.

Remember when I said it was important to like Leung? It’s when he breaks Zhang’s heart, which isn’t really a spoiler because it’s almost still first act stuff. If you took out the future stuff, it’d be first act stuff. 2046—a sequel—is initially just about Leung’s really sexy love affair with his neighbor, Zhang. During that time period, Zhang gets a lot more to do than Leung. It’s not exactly from her perspective, but Wong, director, makes sure it’s real close.

So, in the second act, 2046 becomes a sequel to 2046’s first act, which was a sequel to In the Mood for Love. Only as things go on, it turns out 2046’s first act is a sequel to the end of the second act flashback, which is a sequel to In the Mood for Love. The more Wong, writer, reveals about Leung, either through the present action, flashback, or the future story stuff… the more the narrative distance changes. Narrative distance in this case also taking into account narrative sympathies; assumed intentions as far as Leung goes. 2046 isn’t a mystery, but Wong does almost structure it as one. Really, I guess, the more appropriate phrase would be a secret. 2046 is a secret and Wong is very careful about how he wants to tell it.

Of the three female leads, the best performance is Zhang. Faye Wong is really, really, really close but Zhang wins out. Then Gong. Gong it’s the role. She doesn’t have anywhere near the amount of time as the other two. Gong’s really is the extended cameo it seemed like Wong was getting. Only Gong’s cameo seemed like a really short one when it opened the movie. Because Wong, writer and director, is so forcefully deliberate.

So good.

Leung’s really good. He’s not as good as Zhang, Wong, or Gong. In a way, it’s not his place in the story. Where he’s protagonist. And everything revolves around him. He shouldn’t be overshadowing in that narrative, at least not the way Wong wants to tell it. It’s a very delicate, precise performance. Lots of nuance. It’s outstanding.

It’s just not as good as any of the lead actresses.

Carina Lau has a nice cameo, Wang has some good moments, Ping is hilarious. Not comic relief hilarious, just momentarily hilarious hilarious.

High nineties majority of the film is inside. Restaurants, the hotel rooms, occasionally cars. Quiet moments between characters either on their own or in crowds. There’s one standout party scene, which opens things up for a while, but the scene’s still focused on Leung. Again, the film is exceptionally precise.

Great photography from Christopher Doyle and Kwan Pung-Leung. Great production design from editor Chang. Great everything.

2046 movie probably even works better if you haven’t seen In the Mood for Love, which is a singular description—and, in this case, compliment—for a sequel.

But it’s still a very direct, very intentional sequel.

It’s magnificent.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Written, produced, and directed by Wong Kar-wai; directors of photography, Christopher Doyle and Kwan Pung-Leung; edited by William Chang; music by Umebayashi Shigeru; production designer, Chang; released by Block 2 Pictures.

Starring Tony Chiu-Wai Leung (Chow Mo-wan), Gong Li (Su Li-zhen), Wong Faye (Wang Jing-wen), Kimura Takuya (Wang Jing-wen’s Boyfriend), Zhang Ziyi (Bai Ling), Carina Lau (Lulu), Dong Jie (Wang Jie-wen), Sum Wang (Mr. Wang), and Lam Siu Ping (Ah Ping).



THIS POST IS PART OF THE ULTIMATE 2000S BLOGATHON HOSTED BY DREW OF DREW'S MOVIE REVIEWS AND KIM OF TRANQUIL DREAMS.


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