Film Review – 8th Grade

Bo Burnham has written and directed a gem of a movie about coming of age in modern times. I thought it was a sweet, sad and very funny look at the life of a modern teenager and how it might actually not be all that different from your own past experience. I highly recommend it.

Elsie Fisher stars as Kayla, a 13 year-old daughter of a single dad who is trying his best to be there for her but, of course, he’s nothing but a source of embarrassment. She is of the smartphone generation and the recurrence of faces lit by digital screens was a motif I could not help but notice. What’s so great about the film is the relatability. I was 13 in the late 80s, a very different time, yet I can fully identify with all of the awkwardness and angst of trying to fit in while also standing out. It is a bewildering time, and I’m not sure technology has the influence some people of my generation and older think it does. The awfulness of being thirteen is probably universal, regardless of time or place. That was certainly the impression I got watching this film.

The movie has a really wonderful tone of polarization. Throughout the film we see these kids who are either clueless about how uncool they are or massively overcompensating for it. Many times the music works marvellously as either a counterpoint to what we’re seeing or a huge amplification. One of my favourite scenes involves Kayla going to a pool party (where she is so dreadfully embarrassed about appearing in a bathing suit that she almost has a panic attack in the bathroom while getting changed) and the shot is of her standing in the window looking at everyone frolicking and the music is this hilariously overdone electronic number that feels like the worst parts of a rave and a circus combined.

The casting of Elsie Fisher is easily my favourite part of the movie. She feels like a completely genuine 13 year-old with slightly wonky teeth, bad skin and bad posture, not one of the 25 year-old models who usually get the part. She’s the most endearing character I’ve seen in ages and really just wonderful. I understand Bo Burnham made a point of auditioning real teenagers, not necessarily actors, and the result is a really believable supporting cast who aren’t just clichés.

There are some dark moments and some sad ones which help give the movie more dimension than just a series of gags and jokes, but it never gets too dark. For example, one scene shows the kids in school doing a practice drill to prepare for the event of a school shooting, but it is played for laughs by having the kids as indifferent to it as a fire drill. There was only one moment in the movie that made me feel actually uncomfortable, as opposed to amusedly uncomfortable, which is the currency the movie is dealing in all the time, but that is not a criticism. Without giving anything away, I think the scene played out just the way it should have and in a way I was grateful for it even though I felt for a moment that it threatened to pull the whole movie down.

I really liked 8th Grade a lot. It’s a really sweet coming of age comedy that shows how being a teenager today is probably not all that different from the way it was when I was a teenager. Elsie Fisher’s Kayla is the most refreshingly charming awkward movie teen I’ve ever seen. I highly recommend it if you want to laugh and maybe shed a tear or two at its sensitivity. Beautiful.

Retro-Review – Leon: The Professional (1994)

I revisited this classic of 90’s action cinema when I found it on Netflix the other night and have to say it was quite enjoyable. I think in many ways it is quite dated, but mostly it has aged well, and the three leads (Jean Reno, Gary Oldman and an 11-year old Natalie Portman in her film debut) are its heart and soul. I still like it about as much as I did when I first saw it, which is to say very much.

Jean Reno plays Leon, a hitman and loner whose next door neighbor is murdered by crooked cops (led by scenery-chewing Gary Oldman as Stansfield) over missing drugs, with only the middle child, Mathilda (Natalie Portman), escaping by the dumb luck of having gone to the corner store when the bad guys came in. She turns to her mysterious neighbour for help and he reluctantly takes her under his wing. Luc Besson’s New York crime fantasy is awfully 90’s sometimes in its fashions and lighting styles, but the director has a flair for slick action set-pieces, even if credibility takes a back seat to some of the set pieces. Best of all, the movie feels very brisk and tight, moving from scene to scene at a nice pace so the movie doesn’t feel like it’s almost two hours long.

The action is very capably handled by Besson, who casts such charismatic actors in the leads that you become emotionally invested even though what’s going on is plainly ridiculous. Jean Reno is great as the understated hitman with a  heart of gold and he has great screen presence. He’s the perfect foil for Natalie Portman’s streetwise moppet, too-cool-for-school yet wide-eyed and curious at the same time. There are weird Lolita-esque undercurrents in their relationship which give the movie an interestingly odd tone quite different from other urban crime action movies, and I know the European cut has at least one scene cut from the US version (the one on Netflix) which treads the line, but it is what makes the movie remarkable among 90’s action films. Gary Oldman rocks in every scene he’s in, giving a great show of contained craziness as a psychopathic crooked narcotics detective. Again, his character is not believable, but the actor is so much fun to watch that I didn’t really care.

The movie is a great example of turning mediocre material into something highly watchable through great casting and clever direction. In other hands, I can easily imagine the movie being a boring, cliché-ridden technical exercise but Luc Besson has a wonderful eye and sense of humour in the way he balances brutal violence with corny sentiment and real tenderness, as well as a few jokes amid the weirder shadings of the Reno/Portman relationship. It’s definitely an exceptional action movie.

I would say Leon: The Professional is worth watching if you haven’t, and worth re-watching if you have. The cliché plot supports a strangely dynamic relationship story and the casting of Reno, Portman and Oldman is superb as they all deliver distinct, magnetic performances. The balance of elements is very capably handled by Luc Besson, a director with great aplomb at turning something stupid into something fun.


Retro-Review: Anne of Green Gables (1985)

Thirty three years have passed since CBC aired their adaptation of Lucy Maude Montgomery’s novel, Anne of Green Gables, starring Megan Follows, Colleen Dewhurst and Richard Farnsworth. I remember it being something of a Canadian cultural event when I was ten and quite enjoyed it then but haven’t really seen it since. I was astonished upon revisiting it to find two things: firstly, just how well I remembered the scenes and events and, secondly, how good it is even by today’s standards.

Anne Shirley is an orphan in 1890s eastern Canada, taken in by Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert, a brother-sister bachelor-spinster couple. Anne is excrutiatingly earnest and hyper-articulate in her quest to prove herself worthy of love and respect. The film covers about three years of Anne’s life, from 13 to 16. The thing that struck me most is how affirming the story and the characters are. It’s a very difficult line to walk between being optimistic and being Pollyanna-ish. This adaptation really handles it well and its good cheer never feels forced. I admire filmmakers who can present a charming, pleasant world that draws me in rather than repelling me with saccharine sentimentalism.

The cast is marvelous. Megan Follows is perfectly earnest and very convincing at ages 13 through 16, really appearing to transform as the character does. Richard Farnsworth is endearing as a man of few words but such expressive eyes and unassuming body language that you never doubt his emotion. Colleen Dewhurst is magnificent as the stern-but-loving matron who raises Anne. The supporting cast are all agreeable and one or two stand out as more than just supporting players, but nobody has the charm or charisma of the three leads.

Another really striking feature of the film is the cinematography. This TV movie could use a Blu-ray make-over, but even at a poor screen resolution I was taken in by the majestic scenery. It really is exceptionally well shot for a mid-80s TV movie. The score is also distinctive and wraps the whole thing up in sweet emotions that made me fall in love with it. Altogether, it’s about as close to cinematic as something of its kind can get.

I really love Anne of Green Gables a lot more than I thought I would. It is superb filmmaking, making an impression on me at age ten which has not diminished. I remembered a lot more of it than I thought I would, but I was also taken in by the cinematography and music, to say nothing of the charm of the three leads. I am a fan of Anne.

Review: Glow (Netflix)

I just finished watching season two of the Netflix series Glow starring Alison Brie and Marc Maron based loosely on the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling TV show of the 1980s – and I love it. I think it is my favourite series. I think the characters are great and the writing and staging very emotional and uplifting. I think it’s a really exceptional show.

I was reluctant to watch the first season when it came out last year because I thought the show looked cheesy. I was surprised at how well-written it was and found myself caring deeply for the characters and their fates, but then I started to notice the number of female names in the credits around halfway through and was delighted to find out most of the creative talent behind the scenes are women.

I’m always aware of where my entertainment is coming from. I think you should treat food for your mind the same way you treat food for your body, and a steady diet of junk is bad for you. Most of the stuff that gets made is, in my opinion, junk, just re-hashed ideas that almost always come from the brains of white men. I want different voices and different perspectives. But it’s vital that it be entertaining – I have little patience for messages or agendas. That Glow manages to be both is what makes it stand out for me.

I love the comedy gold that the series gets from contrasting earnestness with cynicism. The show is fairly wise and very well-balanced, in my opinion, often poking fun at the clumsiness and vulgarity of the sport depicted but never demeaning the characters themselves. There’s nothing mean about it. Everyone is appealing and there are some unexpected depths to many of them and for all it’s sarcasm it’s also very uplifting. The show has brains and heart.

Glow is a Netflix original series which I adore for its compassion and its comedy. The characters are all great fun and it’s refreshing to watch a show run mainly by women, mostly because you wouldn’t know it was if you weren’t watching the credits. It’s beautiful to me because it shows that, in all the ways that really matter, men and women are more alike than they are alien. I really believe divisions between the sexes are almost entirely bullshit and shows like this make me feel less alone in that outlook.


Retro-Review: City of Lost Children (1995)

Last weekend I had the opportunity to go to a screening of The City of Lost Children, a gem of French cinema from the 1990s which I have long adored. I love it for its baroque production design, the casting of fabulously unusual faces and an overall cartoonish sensibility that makes it a dark fairy tale adventure full of surprises and laughs.

I’ve seen the film several times but it is only now that I feel I comfortably have a grasp of the plot, because it is serpentine with endless detours into side-gags. Broadly speaking, in the fable-like setting of some dark quasi-early-20th century sea port town, children are being abducted by a mad scientist living in an off-shore laboratory where he drains them of their dreams in order to stay young. I think. Honestly, I’m still not sure if that’s entirely accurate, but our central protagonist, One (Ron Perlman), is a fairground strongman whose little brother is stolen, triggering a quest to find him, aided by 10 year-old Miette (Judith Vittet), a street-urchin and sort-of leader of a gang of child street thieves.

There are a lot of subplots running parallel to one another throughout the film’s running time, so much so that I can’t really explain any more of the plot because it would take too long and it’s more fun to discover for yourself. The show moves along at a good clip and never really lags, with loads of detail in every frame. The filmmaking team at the helm, Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro, would later go on to make Amelie (2001) which is a great example of their flair for fantastical elements and buoyant humour, though City of Lost Children is much darker in tone. Along with Delicatessen (1991), the duo have made three fine films which made me fall in love with French cinema.

I also want to make special mention of the casting of this movie. It is full of the most interesting looking people you’ve ever seen in a single film. The only pretty people are the children, almost as if to suggest that we all start out pretty until life twists us into broken adults. I also love how Miette plays as the classic fatalistic French femme, cynical and world-weary, yet tagging along with the vaguely simian strongman, One, focused on his quest. They make an endearing pairing of brains and brawn.

I love The City of Lost Children. I think the way its whimsy plays off the darker undertones is delightful. Wonderful cast, a pleasantly convoluted plot, gorgeous production design and flashes of humour make it a joy to watch. Thanks to this and the other works of Jeunet & Caro, I am a confessed fan of French film. Great fun.

Authorship Matters

How many times have you watched a disappointing film and thought “who was responsible for this mess?”  How many times have you watched something and thought “who was responsible for this masterpiece?” In most art forms a sole creator can take credit, but not so in things like film and tv. There, the creative process is so complex that it relies on collaboration and compromise with so many egos and opinions of so many artists involved, every one of them certain that theirs is the best way forward, that it is amazing anything good comes out at all. So many talented people working in so many departments all delivering their best may make for pretty pictures, but handsome actors and exotic locations won’t save you from the boredom of a bad script. What sets the great ones apart from the vast majority of mediocrity is, I believe, primarily strength of story.

Authorship is a nebulous notion when it comes to movies. No matter what the screenwriter (or even the novelist upon which a film adaptation may be based) has written, there are too many unpredictable factors that influence how the shooting progresses for it ever to come out exactly as planned. Every one of the artists involved contributes something different to the process that moves it in ways that could not be foreseen, overcoming production challenges with creative solutions. And then there are the flourishes that can alter an innocuous line into something full of menace or love – great actors give characters a depth and dimension beyond what the page says. What you end up with on film more or less dictates what you can do in the final edit, and in some cases there may not be any footage shot for scenes written, forcing yet more creative solutions. When you think about it, it is remarkable that anything coherent emerges from the process of filmmaking at all.

The question, then, is what makes a good film? There are many, many factors, of course, but I think, at the heart of it all, a strong story that everyone can agree on and work toward is the most essential aspect. Story is the reason everyone pays attention to a movie, anyway. When it is bad, the audience disconnects. What makes story good? Continuity and logic. Once a rule or plot point is established, it must be adhered to and characters should behave logically toward it. James Bond is a highly trained spy and able to master just about any vehicle, but if you were to have a sequence in which he drives badly you would need to establish a story-reason, such as poisoning, for it to be logical.

Stewardship of the story rests with key creative personnel who all need to share a common goal, but as the leading figures in the process it is vital for the producers and director to share a common vision and give each other what they need to deliver a good product; the producers because they are responsible for the project in its entirety and the director because he or she is in charge of making sure everyone is pulling together during filming and editing. Writers are, of course, vital. Without them there is no script and nothing to shoot. They do all the hard work of justifying every plot point and characterization, inventing the world of the story and creating the framework for the entire project to hang all its efforts on. Writers can be thought of as the creators or the originators of a story, but unless they are involved in rewrites during shooting and editing, they can’t claim authorship of a film any more than the producer or director. Film is collaborative.

The problems are difficult enough to  deal with on a single film. Sequels are a whole other thing for which I would say it helps to keep key creative personnel on board for any continuation, but not essential. One of the most famous examples of a superior sequel is ALIENS (1986) which was made seven years after its predecessor by a completely different creative team. A large factor in the success of ALIENS, I believe, is the ways in which it respects and builds upon story material established in the first film. All sequels are essentially whores, turning tricks on a proven formula to make money, but the better ones give you something new in addition to what you came back for and, therefor, a reason to care.

Strength of story and its stewardship throughout the filmmaking process is the most important aspect of a great film. For it to carry over into more than one film is rare but not unheard of. The chances of story integrity are stronger when key creative personnel carry over, but as long as the previously established facts about the characters’ world remain intact and respected, the chances of something good or great coming out of the process are much improved. Ultimately, it all comes down to respecting the story and, by extension, the audience.

Retro-Review: Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

David Lean is a master of spectacle. This World War II-era film is a deserved classic of cinema with great characters in epic locales. It’s a treat to the eyes and ears and, even though it might be a little slow and old-fashioned, it’s still one of the all-time great films.

The story, based on a Pierre Boulle novel, is about the Japanese army using prisoners of war to build the Burma-Siam railway and the Allied efforts to sabotage it. It opens in the camp run by the stern disciplinarian Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa) where a ragtag assortment of POWs (including William Holden as Shears) are laconically carrying out the orders to build a railway bridge across the River Kwai under hellish conditions. One day, a huge number of British army soldiers and officers led by quintessentially stiff-upper-lip Colonel Nicholson (the splendid Alec Guinness in Oscar-winning form) march into camp as the newest prisoners. After a clash of pride between Nicholson and Saito a strange, grudging respect forms and soon Nicholson, out of an excess of pride, has his officers and troops helping to build the bridge, but a better bridge built to British engineering standards. Meanwhile, Shears escapes and reaches safety but is soon recruited into a British mission to sabotage the bridge, based on his first-hand knowledge of the area.

The movie was a huge winner at the Oscars, winning seven of the eight categories in which it was nominated, including best picture, and it’s not hard to see why. The film is really spectacular with huge set pieces involving hundreds of extras in really exotic locations. Today these things could be done easily with CGI, but in 1957 everything you saw on screen had to photographed and that fact makes the images all the more astounding. Anchoring the story, however, are great performances by Hayakawa and Guinness as men of immense pride and pragmatism, who might have been friends in another time and place but are forced by circumstance to be adversaries. It’s a very interesting balance and Alec Guinness is truly magnetic as the perfect army officer whose optimistic belief in civilization, especially in its British form, is absolute. I loved him from start to finish.

The movie does have some drawbacks, in my opinion. For one, it is very long, clocking in at two hours and twenty minutes, and it is slow-paced, so you kind of feel every minute of the running time. As impressed as I was by the Guinness/Hayakawa plotline, I found the William Holden plotline somewhat less engaging. I like Holden, but he’s a bit of-his-time in his acting style, in my opinion. The film has a very old-fashioned feel in some of its performances and slightly stagey action, but it’s not an action movie so I can let it go. It also has the ring of unaware racism appropriate to its era in the way the British officers haughtily dismiss the engineering attempts of the Japanese, but it’s hard to be sure there isn’t some intentional ring of irony. I mean, Nicholson is almost over the top in his Britishness while still being charismatic and endearing. I think the filmmakers were sophisticated enough to be poking gentle fun at the attitude of people who were, after all, a generation before themselves while recognizing there is something to be said for uprightness and propriety.

I really liked Bridge on the River Kwai for a lot of reasons, Alec Guinness being far and away the first. I also thought it was absolutely beautiful to look at and the plot was interesting enough that I enjoyed the film’s leisurely pace. The suspense of setting up the charges to blow the bridge and the ensuing risk of discovery worked very well, in my opinion, and the explosion (spoiler alert!) is quite a feat of pyrotechnics for 1957 which stands as strong as most things done today. I thought the film had an interesting philosophy about pragmatism and pride which came out in the good writing and great performances. All-in-all, I think Bridge on the River Kwai is a great example of big-scale classic filmmaking and a lot of fun to watch.