A Simple Favor (2018, Directed by Paul Feig) English 6

Starring Anna Kendrick, Blake Lively, Henry Golding, Linda Cardellini, Jean Smart, Rupert Friend, Andrew Rannells

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(6-Good Movie)

Twisty. Sly. Lurid.

Gone Girl came and shocked a lot of people. Amy Dunne, portrayed by Rosamund Pike, is an unforgettable character. Like every huge Hollywood hit, Gone Girl has a host of imitators. What separates A Simple Favor from the cheap imitations is its playful take on the sensationalized material; director Paul Feig (Bridesmaids) and writer, Jessica Sharzer pace the twisty plot with the occasional riff that feels like a wink at the camera. They know this is derivative of Gone Girl and its rip-offs, so that A Simple Favor works both as a comedy-a spoof of sorts- and a thriller-the plot is absorbing and surprising. Anna Kendrick plays Stephanie, the perfect stay-at-home mom who befriends Emily (Lively). They both have grade school age sons, but that’s where the similarities would seem to end, until Emily disappears and it comes out that both women have secrets. Lively plays her role straight and plays it well, creating an enigmatic character that you know is trouble but can’t help but be drawn towards. Anna Kendrick gives the material its gently satirical edge; a fish out of water at first glance, but with the ability to surprise you. Like most of these stylish, over-cooked thrillers, A Simple Favor is incredibly entertaining, well-plotted, and effective, but loses something upon further viewings.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

 

Crazy Rich Asians (2018, Directed by Jon M. Chu) English 7

Starring Constance Wu, Henry Golding, Awkwafina, Gemma Chan, Michelle Yeoh, Ken Jeong, Lisa Lu, Chris Pang, Nico Santos, Sonoya Mizuno

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Not sure what to expect, American born Economics professor, Rachel Chu (Wu), is invited by her longtime boyfriend, Nicholas Young (Golding), to come meet his family in Singapore and attend his best friend’s wedding over Spring Break. To her great surprise, she enters a world of tremendous wealth: sports cars, designer clothes, stunning jewelry. Though they’ve dated for over a year, Nick never told her about his family’s legacy and downplayed the vast fortune waiting back home for him; so much so that Rachel’s single mother speculated that Nick must come from a poor family; one he has to send money to support. He also never told her about the army of scheming, gold-digging women hoping to snag him, the heir to the Young family dynasty,  and who,  later, monitor Rachel’s every move as soon as she steps foot on the island. Rachel accepts the overwhelming situation heroically, hopeful to make a good impression on Nick’s mother, tough and cunning, Eleanor Sung-Young (Yeoh), as well as his Grandmother, Shang Su Yi (Lu), but it quickly becomes clear that she has few allies within the Young family, seemingly within all of Singapore. She has Nick, who loves her and stands up to his family who say she’s not in his class, Goh Peik Lin (Awkwafina), a charismatic friend of Rachel’s from college, Nick’s cousin, Astrid (Chan), as kind as she is glamorous, although she’s facing problems of her own with a husband having an affair, and Oliver, another one of Nick’s cousins, who gives Rachel fashion advice. You’d be right in thinking that Crazy Rich Asians has all the makings of a daytime soap opera, or the setup of a conventional rom-com you watch once on an airplane flight and then never watch ever again. Yes, Crazy Rich Asians is a family melodrama and a romantic comedy, and yes, it’s typical in much of what it’s doing, and yet it’s better than most of the films of its kind. It’s funnier, more appealing, more spectacular, and more colorful than most. To hit all of its genre markers, while seeming fresh and funny, is an accomplishment, and a strong part of the film’s freshness lies in its cast of new stars and the glimpse at a different culture, a culture that’s thousands of miles away, and feels further. Much of entertainment is rooted in escapism, and Crazy Rich Asians is an easy diversion. No doubt, indebted to Jane Austen’s works, specifically Pride and Prejudice, the poor girl ending up with the rich Prince Charming trope will likely never die out. When you think that fairy tale’s been done to death, a film like Crazy Rich Asians proves that it still has juice.

-Walter Howard-

BlackKklansmen (2018, Directed by Spike Lee) English 6

Starring John David Washington, Adam Driver, Laura Harrier, Topher Grace, Jasper Pääkkönen, Corey Hawkins, Alec Baldwin, Ryan Eggold

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Trailblazing within the Colorado Springs Police Department, black cop, Ron Stallworth (Washington), leads an undercover investigation into the local chapter of the Klu Klux Klan, with the help of his partner, Flip Zimmerman (Driver). Subtle? No. Nor is BlackKklansmen as deep or thoughtful as some of the real life figures it glorifies (there’s a stirring scene involving Kwame Ture early in the picture). However, Spike Lee hasn’t lost his ability to provoke,  and hasn’t lost his trademark panache, and he’s working with a story people want to hear. He packs the film with footage from recent white lives matter rallies, Trump speeches, a clip from Gone With the Wind, and an erratic but humorous opening featuring  Alec Baldwin flubbing through a eugenics video. Some of the extracurricular material works better than others, and Stallworth’s penultimate scenes feel too pat to be real, before concluding with a sobering cross-burning that should have been the end. What sticks is Stallworth’s story, both funny and incredible. Exuberant. Outrageous. Provocative.

Teen Titans Go! to the Movies (2018, Directed by Peter Rida Michail and Aaron Horvath) English 6

Voices of Greg Cripes, Scott Menville, Khary Payton, Tara Strong, Hynden Walch, Kristen Bell, Will Arnett, Nicholas Cage

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Theatrical film given to the cast of the popular cartoon television series, Teen Titans Go! stars Robin, Raven, Beast Boy, Starfire, and Cyborg working desperately to be taken seriously and get their own film (like Wonder Woman, Superman, Green Lantern, and Batman). Although no more than an extended episode of the show, Teen Titans Go! to the Movies had the children in the theater in stitches, and I laughed out loud several times, myself. As much meta humor and sly references as a Deadpool movie. Fun. Colorful. Funny.

Eighth Grade (2018, Directed by Bo Burnham) English 7

Starring Elsie Fisher, Josh Hamilton, Emily Robinson, Jake Ryan, Catherine Oliviere

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In Kayla Day, writer/director, Bo Burnham, has given us a protagonist who is smart, kind, thoughtful, motivated, self-improving, and fun. Where, outside of school, do these traits routinely go completely unnoticed? Unfortunately for Kayla (played wonderfully by Elsie Fisher), that’s exactly where she is. Eighth grade. On the cusp of high school, which is even worse. Since she is shy, often awkward, like anybody at that age with self-awareness, not model thin, and cursed with acne, the rest of her qualities go unappreciated, and she gets described as “the weird girl.” The bright side is, for people like Kayla, life does get better, and most of the events during this time, like the ones shown in this film, really aren’t the end of the world, though it feels like they are in the moment. The greatest accomplishment of Bo Burnham’s directorial debut is making us feel it too. The triumphs, the tragedies of 14 year old girl, Kayla. Yes, we laugh, but we wince too. There were moments that I watched this film through my fingers, like it was a horror flick. It’s a unique film that has you watching through your fingers and smiling at the same time.

As for the plot, I’m not sure Eighth Grade can be said to have one. With the accuracy of a documentary, it follows its subject, taking a fly on the wall approach, on the last days of her junior high life. Kicking off with Kayla’s class being subjected to a sex ed video (one that attempts to better relate to the students by acting “hip”), the proceedings only grow more embarrassing from there. She gets invited to the most popular girl in school’s birthday party; by the girl’s mom, not by the girl herself, who refuses to acknowledge Kayla’s existence. She goes to a pool party where everyone seems perfectly comfortable in their bathing suits except for her. She has a crush on a guy: Aiden. A kid who makes faces and weird noises in class. She hears that he broke up with a girl who wouldn’t give him dirty pictures of herself, so there’s a horrifying episode where Kayla thinks dirty pictures could win her his heart. The film also goes one or two darker places, without ever seeming trumped up or anything else but completely natural. One of the film’s highlights is Kayla’s single father, who obviously embarrasses his teenage daughter, simply by existing and being around. He manages to be utterly oblivious at times to her struggles but is also always there when she needs him.

As for the director, I’ve been aware of Bo Burnham, who’s had an impressive amount of success at such an early age, as a comedian for some years now, without ever enjoying his schtick, but a little research shows that he’s a man of many talents: published poet, stand-up comic, musician, now filmmaker. And Eighth Grade isn’t some minor indie success, suggesting one hit wonder. He is a genuine filmmaker, and Eighth Grade is an excellent film.

-Walter Howard-

Mission Impossible: Fallout (2018, Directed by Christopher McQuarrie) English 6

Starring Tom Cruise, Henry Cavill, Simon Pegg, Angela Bassett, Rebecca Ferguson, Alec Baldwin, Ving Rhames, Michelle Monaghan, Vanessa Kirby, Sean Harris

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Another year, another mission. If that sounds cynical, know that it’s intentional, but know also that I’m tremendously impressed by the Mission Impossible franchise’s proven longevity.  Who, besides Tom Cruise maybe, believed that twenty two years later, he would still be playing Ethan Hunt and topping the box office? When a franchise’s optimistic goal is three films to form a trilogy, I doubt anyone could have predicted six Mission Impossibles. More than this, the truly remarkable thing is that they seem to be getting better.  They keep upping the ante. So I’m impressed on one hand, a little fatigued on the other, which is basically how I felt throughout this 2 and 1/2 hour movie.

In Fallout, Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt, tireless and most valuable asset for top secret government agency, IMF (Impossible Missions Force), is up against an anarchist terrorist group known as The Apostles. Apparently, risen from the ashes of Mission Impossible 5’s The Syndicate, The Apostles have been growing and plotting underground for two years since Hunt’s capture of Solomon Lane, and now they’re on the verge of a catastrophic attack on the world’s holy cities Mecca, Rome, and Jerusalem. Hunt’s mission (should he choose to accept it): stop The Apostles from acquiring plutonium which they need to power their nuclear weapons. *Spoiler Alert* The Apostles win the first round, and so it’s up to Hunt and his IMF team-Luther (Rhames) and Benji (Pegg)-along with a CIA operative, August Walker (Cavill),  to retrieve the Plutonium before The Apostles start a nuclear holocaust. Making matters more difficult, wild card MI6 agent and Hunt’s reluctant love interest, Ilsa Faust (Ferguson) shows up, and he can’t truly tell whose side she’s on. Then there’s also a little matter of a rat among Hunt and his team. Between the CIA and IMF, someone’s feeding the enemy information. The CIA thinks it’s Hunt.

Mission Impossible: Fallout does a nice job throwing a lot up in the air, and maintaining a level of intrigue, though I’ll admit being confused often. I do think, by the end, the plot comes together, and am sure a second viewing would help. So too would a viewing of Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation before seeing this one, which I failed to do. Unlike other Mission Impossible entries, Fallout is a direct follow up to the previous film. Tom Cruise is incredible. Much has been made about him doing his own stunts, and yes it is partly a marketing tool, but he deserves the praise, along with the filmmakers for some truly amazing stunt work and action sequences. Where these films always lose me is the third act, when all of the smoke has cleared, and everything’s understood. It’s partly inevitable: the mystery is always more interesting than the solution, but I find that each film loses steam, even while picking up the action, in the climax. Fallout takes its time getting to the final act, and then takes its time during the final act. It’s too long. At least twenty minutes too long. When you’re ready for a film to be over, just as the climax begins, that’s a problem. A more polarizing problem is the level of believability involved in these films. Many won’t care, and perhaps it’s unfair to bring up when talking about Mission Impossible, but I could not get over the physics of much of the action. Surviving plane crashes. Climbing a rope dangling from a helicopter (twice!), rock climbing after an intense fight. Ethan Hunt is a super hero, and I alternate between being entertained and bemused by him.

Fallout succeeds as an elegant, intelligent action blockbuster, but doesn’t surpass what I see as both enjoyable hallmarks and limitations of the durable franchise.

Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again (2018, Directed by Ol Parker) English 6

Starring Lily James, Amanda Seyfried, Colin Firth, Pierce Brosnan, Stellan Skarsgård, Dominic Cooper, Julie Walters, Andy Garcia, Christine Baranski, Cher, Meryl Streep, Jeremy Irvine

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Belated sequel, but also prequel to the jukebox hit play turned musical, Mamma Mia, starring Meryl Streep as Donna Sheridan and a host of ABBA songs. If you remember, that film concerned  Donna’s daughter, Sophie (Seyfried), getting married and wanting to meet her father for the first time. She deduced that one of three men-Harry (Firth), Sam (Brosnan), and Bill (Skarsgård)-was her real father as her mom had flings with them all around the same period. This sequel is about that period. Lily James plays the young Donna, as she sails to Greece looking for adventure, accompanied again by an ABBA soundtrack. This is one of the best of modern musicals ( the genre’s gone out of fashion) and easily the best jukebox musical (I hate Moulin Rouge). Where the first film was fun and extravagant, this film is more. It’s a genuinely strong movie, fantastic show, and all-around good-time.