Category Archives: 2018

Thunder Road (2018, Jim Cummings)

Writer, director, and star Cummings has really long takes in Thunder Road. Usually of himself. The film opens with Cummings breaking down giving the eulogy at his mother’s funeral service, which kicks off his life going downhill. Not his mother dying, but the funeral service breakdown. Cummings already isn’t a good public speaker and he’s emotionally distraught and there’s dancing involved. Mom was a dancer. His small city responds by turning him into a viral joke.

Good thing Cummings isn’t very tech savvy.

The film runs ninety minutes. Cummings’s plunge takes up the first hour. He hits bottom and sort of treads water until it’s time for the big finale. Road has a very short third act, which is simultaneously fine—there’s only so much of Cummings’s constant personal failures one can endure—and not what the film needs. It’s what Cummings, star, needs; there’s nothing else Cummings, director, can do on the budget. Any further personal meltdowns would require explosions. But the ending also reveals just how little Cummings, writer, has actually done with the story. None of the other characters are fleshed out. Cummings, director, has great instincts for directing his cast and for how to edit their performances (he edits with Brian Vannucci) to imply depth but never development. It’s all about Cummings’s character. Hence the long takes.

And Cummings’s performance is phenomenal. It eclipses everything else. And probably would if Cummings gave anyone else anything to do.

Nican Robinson gets a bit. He’s Cummings’s partner. See, Cummings is an incredibly unlikely cop and Robinson has to take care of him once the grieving process destroys Cummings. Or does it? It’s never believable Cummings is a decorated police officer much less a still employed one. His temperament is all off. He shows concern for someone else once in the movie—Jacqueline Doke’s a teenage girl out with boys she shouldn’t be out with—but otherwise he’s an egomaniac. Of course, everyone he knows is a shit. The treatment he gets for his breakdown at his mom’s funeral makes every single person in the film unlikable.

Of course, Cummings’s immediately previous relationship with his mom is never explained. Neither is how he ended up married to harpy caricature Jocelyn DeBoer, who has successfully turned fourth grade daughter Kendal Farr against Cummings. Of course they both disappear after a while, which seems like it might be budgetary. Like, even though DeBoer has left Cummings for her divorce attorney, she doesn’t show up in court to see Cummings break down there. Because if there’s a location, Cummings is going to have some kind of breakdown in it.

Some of the issue is the narrative distance. Because Thunder Road is somehow not a character study. Not with the size of the deus ex machina Cummings employs at the end. And the only reason he’s able to get away with it is because of his performance. Otherwise it’d flop.

Cummings’s script is great when it comes to the monologues. His monologues, Robinson gets something close to one… well, no one else. But Cummings’s monologues are great. And the writing for the supporting cast is good too. The script gives them more material than Cummings’s direction lets them have. Everyone’s got to be looking at Cummings at all times.

Thunder Road started as a short film and would probably work better as one. Or a mini-series. The ninety minute film skips over way too much without Cummings able to justify the brevity. He does a lot with his budget, but Thunder Road feels pretty incomplete.

Really nice photography from Lowell A. Meyer. Pretty good soundtrack selections. Cummings’s composition is fine; it’s all about the length of the take and how he and Vannucci cut it.

Besides Robinson, the most personality in the supporting cast comes from Shelley Calene-Black as Cummings’s lawyer in one scene and Chelsea Edmundson as his de facto estranged sister. Edmundson is just thrown in to fill out the runtime but she makes an impression. Farr is fine as the kid. Even though she’s a little shit. And DeBoer’s an adequate harpy ex-wife caricature. It’d be nice if Farr and DeBoer got real characters. But they don’t. Because Thunder Road is all about Cummings.

Cummings’s character is also a bit of a dope, which makes everything about his situation hard to believe. At one point he wrecks his house but it’s hard to imagine how he was able not to destroy it in the previous year he’s been there.

The breakdown at the funeral never feels like an inciting incident but regular behavior from Cummings, which sort of sums up the whole problem. These characters only exist when onscreen, including Cummings.

Good direction, great monologues, and exceptional lead performance though. Thunder Road just never transcends its constraints; worse, Cummings never even tries to transcend them.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by Jim Cummings; director of photography, Lowell A. Meyer; edited by Cummings and Brian Vannucci; production designer, Charlie Textor; produced by Natalie Metzger, Zack Parker, and Benjamin Wiessner; released by Vanishing Angle.

Starring Jim Cummings (Officer Jim Arnaud), Nican Robinson (Officer Nate Lewis), Kendal Farr (Crystal Arnaud), Jocelyn DeBoer (Rosalind Arnaud), Ammie Masterson (Celia Lewis), Shelley Calene-Black (Donna), and Chelsea Edmundson (Morgan Arnaud).


This post is part of the The “Cops” Blog-A-Thon hosted by J-Dub of Dubism.

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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).



Thistles and Thorns (2018, Kalie Acheson)

Thistles and Thorns opens with a girl (Madison Vance) going into a forest preserve after school. Vance is practically beaming as she does, which doesn’t initially make sense—when she’s walking on the street—but does once she’s in the forest, looking around at all the nature. She goes to a rock formation and gets a storybook out of a hiding place. She starts reading the book (Thistles and Thorns) and the action moves into the book.

The lead of the fairy tale is Yazmin Monet Watkins, who’s on a hero’s quest. Watkins also narrates the short from this point, reading the fairy tale. Watkins’s reading style is storytelling, excited by the text, so even though Vance has disappeared from the screen, Thorns feels like someone is reading it to her, being told to her; the story has a life of its own. It takes a minute or two for Watkins’s narration to really sell that tone. The transition between Vance and the fairy tale she’s reading is pretty sudden, even with the visual cues.

And Watkins’s narration is somewhat detached from the onscreen action. There’s no dialogue from the characters on screen, just Watkins reading the dialogue from the fairy tale. It also takes the narration a moment to catch on because the direction of the fairy tale itself is so fantastic, there’s not room to think about anything else, especially after director Acheson starts moving the camera. When the fairy tale starts, it seems like Watkins is moving through a realistic forest. As real as the one Vance entered at the beginning, albeit a fairy tale one. But Thorns’s set design is expressionist and entirely shot in profile. Acheson will move the camera behind Watkins but it’s always temporary, it’s always going to move back to that profile shot, showing this imagined landscape. The way the camera is always in a tracking shot makes Thorns feel like a story book being read, the action always being revealed from the right side of the screen, which works really well juxtaposed with the narration.

Watkins’s quest has a nice moral and a suitably positive, expansive finish for the tale. The direction, Watkins’s two performances, and the production design make Thistles and Thorns something special.

3/3Highly Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Kalie Acheson; written by Yazmin Monet Wakins and David Vieux; director of photography, Kyle Stryker; edited by Ethan Coco and Charles Latham; music by Dre Babinski, Selina Carrera, and William Collela; production designers, Acheson and Latham; produced by Acheson and Latham for Animi.

Starring Yazmin Monet Watkins (Assata), Kelli Wheeler (Hummingbird), Himerria Wortham (Fox), and Madison Vance (school girl); narrated by Watkins.


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Dirty Computer (2018, Alan Ferguson, Emma Westenberg, Andrew Donoho, Lacey Duke, and Chuck Lightning)

Dirty Computer is hard to explain. It’s fairly easy to describe—it’s a fifty-six minute short film (or “emotion picture” as creator Janelle Monáe describes it) compilation of Monáe’s music videos for her Dirty Computer album. There’s bridging footage to contextualize the videos. It’s a dystopian future where Monáe has finally gotten busted for being “dirty.” Dirty mostly seems to mean Black and queer, but only based on the people targeted. Anything Other is “dirty,” which is one of those things Dirty ought to just go ahead and make clear and get past instead of implying until a breaking point.

The contextualizing, bridging stuff is Dirty’s biggest problem. Directors Andrew Donoho and Chuck Lightning do fine setting it up with Monáe being brought through the sterile, future deprogramming center to the big room where they’re going to zap her memories, but then the music videos start and, by the second or third one, it’s real clear the music videos are directed much better. Worse, Donoho and Lightning stumble through the dialogue scenes. They leverage Tessa Thompson, who’s Monáe’s already brainwashed ex and the only actor who can make the direction and Lightning’s script actually work, but at Monáe’s expense. It’s all going to be okay, fine, but doesn’t get to okay because their handling gets better. In fact, the framing stuff only works because of the story and how effective the music videos (and Monáe in the music videos) become.

Dirty Computer’s first staggering success is in how it contextualizes music videos (and an album both as a single release and collection of songs) in a narrative. Then comes to second ending and it seems like it’s going to chuck all that success only for Dirty to surpass itself and contextualize itself—the music video collection, the emotional picture—both in terms of its narrative and its cultural reflectiveness. With a song. An accompanying song playing over the second finish, hash-tagging the movie itself before informing the first song, informing that song’s video, informing that video’s adjoining bridges, all over it. Had Dirty not been uneven, had Donoho and Lightning just been upfront, that second peak might seem like a plateaued victory lap but since it was uneven, it did meander away from Monáe, the second peak just keeps rising. It’s awesome.

The music videos have these familiar motifs. They’ve got Thompson, they’ve got Jayson Aaron, they’ve got this retro-cyber-punk early nineties thing going on with the production design. The future still has all the same iconography, it’s just a little fetishized, which makes sense given the mainstream sterility. So there’s clearly something going on with the videos and how they relate not just to their bridges but each other. And it’s not… obvious. It has a lot to do with how Monáe’s “character” develops through the songs. Because the about-to-be-brainwashed Monáe doesn’t have control over the songs, which are her memories. Instead it’s doofus white guys Dyson Posey and Jonah Lees; only Lees isn’t as much of a doofus and even he’s able to see what’s going on. Unfortunately, Lightning takes too long for him to catch on, which ends up wasting Lees, who’s the only other actor in the scripted bridges to succeed. Though Monáe does get better after her first big dialogue scene. And, by the end, you know that scene was the directors’ fault, not hers.

Dirty Computer talks about so much. Looks at so much. It’ll go from muted to loud with a snap. The songs are excellent, the music video editing by Deji LaRay is masterful, Monáe’s performance is magnificent. Peerless, actually. Without any victory lap ego. The Dirty Computer music videos are an object lesson in superior music videos; they’re exquisitely shot, edited, photographed, but Monáe’s performance is essential. It changes with every cut in the videos, without ever losing focus, always intensifying. She’s awesome.

Dirty goes from being a collection of great music videos to a great collection of great music videos to something even more layered. Emotion picture? Maybe; but it’s the only one for now, right? Is it a great emotion picture or are emotion pictures great by definition. Only Monáe knows.

3/3Highly Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Andrew Donoho and Chuck Lightning; screenplay by Lightning, based on a story by Janelle Monáe, Nate ‘Rocket’ Wonder, and Alan Ferguson; director of photography, Todd Banhazl; edited by Donoho and Taylor Brusky; music by Wonder and Wynne Bennett; production designer, Fernanda Guerrero; produced by Nicole Acacio and Ian Blair for Wondaland.

Music videos written and directed by Ferguson, Emma Westenberg, Donoho, and Lacey Duke; edited by Deji LaRay; produced by Justin Benoliel, Judy Craig, Melissa Ekholm, Maya Table, and Blair.

Starring Janelle Monáe (Jane 57821), Tessa Thompson (Zen), Jayson Aaron (Ché), Dyson Posey (Cleaner #1), Jonah Lees (Cleaner #2), and Michele Hart (Virgin Victoria).


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