What to Watch: Eighth Grade, BlacKKKlansman, The Spy Who Dumped Me, Sharp Objects

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Eighth GradeEighth Grade

Can a movie about what is arguably the worst year of school be delightful, insightful and impactful? The answer is a resounding yes.

Comedian Bo Burnham (find his stand-ups “Make Happy” and “What” on Netflix), writer and director, has captured the angst and ennui that envelops nearly every girl on the cusp of high school.

Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher) lives with her father (Josh Hamilton). She gets single-digit views for her YouTube videos, in which she doles out advice. The irony of someone so profoundly meek (she’s voted “quietest” in her class) confidently dishing out adages and support isn’t lost on Kayla. Despite the fact that she prefers to isolate-through-earphones while at the dinner table, she is, somehow, aware of how much her father cheers her on.

While the notion of “cringe” is simply synonymous with eighth grade, Burnham’s tale is more relatable and empathetic than “train wreck.” Instead, he’s able to explore the processes that nearly every girl endures — before an event, a party, an online chat with someone you “like,” and the inevitable decisions inherent in growing up. Kayla may rehearse what she’s going to say, how she’s going to act, but it’s clear that in the actual situation, she’s more than likely to be flustered.

Fisher is a wonder — she’s effervescent, if not conventionally beautiful, and it makes her all the more perfect for the movie. Burnham allegedly was inspired by social media for the story and dialogue, and he is effective in creating a unique and yet universal voice for a teenage girl (despite being male).

“Eighth Grade” is not only a reflective film but ideal for Kayla Day’s peers who will definitely recognize themselves or their friends. She’s someone to root for, empathize with and love — in other words, all the elements you need to be entertained, but educated, too.

BlackKKlansman

“BlackKKlansman” is unquestionably Spike Lee’s best film to date. Lee has been known to overstate his message, occasionally to the point of betraying his established characters (1991’s “Jungle Fever” is a perfect example), but whether he’s demonstrating remarkable restraint or has so finely crafted this film, isn’t immediately clear. He juggles three hats in the film; writer, director and producer. And he is a resounding success at each.

Based on a biographical true story, the film is a biographical comedy-drama about Ron Stallworth,  a black police officer who goes deep undercover in a 1979-set Colorado Springs, CO, and infiltrates the KuKluxKlan (his initial encounters, albeit lengthy and detailed, are conducted via phone; when he has to reveal himself to them, he has a well-briefed white colleague stand in for him).

Often, period films are inadvertently revealed as false by the parade of brand new and shiny cars that populate the film. In reality, in the 1970s (and other periods as well), people didn’t necessarily all have meticulous, cared-for cars. In fact, many people had “klunkers,” and older models. Given the fastidious care some car owners give to their vintage collectibles, movie cars are often “too nice” to really have been running around the roads. There’s none of that anachronism in “BlacKKKlansman.”  In addition to the cars, locations and sets, the wardrobe, hair and makeup are also spot-on and provide viewers with what feels like a very immersive experience.

A large part of the film’s engagement can be credited to star John David Washington (and yes, he’s Denzel’s son) as Stallworth, and Adam Driver as Flip Zimmerman, his Jewish co-cop who must portray the physical embodiment of the white supremacist Stallworth has established, through phone contact, and lengthy conversations. Both deliver fine, understated performances. The curiousness and camaraderie Lee elicits from the actors make the character just “seem real,” as one audience member claimed. The nine-month operation is effectively depicted, and, as many filmgoers and critics have noted, profoundly resonant, prescient of issues today.

Today David Duke may be assisted by his local plastic surgeon (his tightly pulled face likely reveals the work of a plastic surgeon’s knife). But back then, he was was reportedly “charming” and convincing. “That 70s Show” star Topher Grace takes on the mantle of playing the young(er) Duke. It’s only through Grace’s innate likeability does Duke come off as any kind of human.

Each element brought together to create “BlacKKKlansman” has almost lovingly been puzzled together. Lee has exceeded his previous successes and presents audiences with a film that is deeply entertaining and thoughtful. He’s telling a true story, that, for all intents and purposes, should have changed perceptions in American. However, in fact, as those of us living through it now can attest, the racial prejudices and attitudes, once suppressed have risen to the sludgy surface.

The Spy Who Dumped Me

By now, the formula is familiar, and it’s the tried-and-occasionally-true fish-out-of-water plot. Repressed and suppressed woman (or women) find they have to develop super human instincts and powers for great consequence. In 2015, it was the Melissa McCarthy film “Spy.” In 1994, Jamie Lee Curtis took on the mantle in “True Lies.” In 1984, it was JoBeth Williams’ (very underrated, and ill-conceived, super-hard-to-remember in title) “American Dreamer.”

This year, it’s Mila Kunis and (well-deserved) funny “It-Girl,” Kate McKinnon who, via some pretty unfortunately lazy writing (Susanna Fogel, David Iserson) end up across the pond (in Europe) being chased by the bad guys. This happens all because it turns out Kunis’ pert beau (a douchey Justin Theroux) broke up with her and he’s a spy. The action just isn’t original enough, and, moreover, the dialogue just isn’t funny enough to merit paying for this film.

The plot is forgettable, which is forgive-able if the characters and theme are engaging enough. Unfortunately, despite the proven cuteness, cleverness and all-around funniness of Kunis and McKinnon (the later is human comic gold) the movie falls flat. Poor Gillian Anderson (as the boss lady) takes her Lady Dreadlock (from “Bleak House”) character into contemporary times and delivers a similar performance. She’s wasted, as is, ultimately, everyone in the film.

You know you’re in trouble when the funniest bits of the film are in the trailer and there’s little else to recommend it. It’s simply not as entertaining as the aforementioned share-in-storyline films. “The Spy Who Dumped Me” was disappointing, even for someone who went into the movie with little expectations.

Sharp Objects

Sharp Objects

“Gone Girl” — while brilliantly executed — was both a divisive film and book. Gillian Flynn’s grim story is about even more grim characters. There are moments of shocking violence, and, it’s clear (SPOILER ALERT) that evil triumphs in the end. No one is happy, or, in this world, has a right to be. Despite the dramatically different opinions, it is still a well-crafted novel and an equally well-done film.

The same can also be said for Flynn’s most recent adaptation, the just-finished cycle of the HBO series “Sharp Objects.” The book is emotionally dense, with charming, secretive, and duplicitous characters peppered throughout this Southern(ish) saga.

Amy Adams plays Camille Preaker, a newspaper reporter on the cusp of something brilliant. Her editor Frank Curry (Miguel Sandoval, in a bit of inspired casting — they’ve even given Curry an African-American wife, apparently, to showcase diversity), who serves as a surrogate father, has enough faith in the dour, hard-drinking Camille to send her bag to Wind Gap, her hometown, where one little girl has been murdered, and another is missing. Curry wants her to find and tell the story of her lifetime. Who is killing little girls?

Camille reluctantly (there’s a lot of staring-into-the-mirror, apparent soul searching, and many a deep breath) asks her mother if she can stay in the massive Victorian home in which she grew up. Tall, with turrets, a huge wrap- around porch features rocking chairs and other forms of seating with which to relax and take the air (when it’s actually a good vantage point to see who is coming and to gossip about someone out of (and sometimes within) earshot.

Camille’s relationship with her super Southern Belle mother Adora (Patricia Clarkson) is, to put it mildly, strained. She never knew her father. Her mother remarried and the couple had a daughter. Camille and her half-sister Marian (seen in flashbacks) were tight, even though Camille was busy with school activities (a cheerleader, even!) and Marian was quite sickly. Eventually, Marian died, launching Adora into a very deep depression. Whether a direct result or not, Adora and Allen (Henry Czerny) conceive again, resulting in a second half-sister for Camille, Amma (Eliza Scanlan).

As Camille delves into the investigation, she raises the hackles of the town sheriff (and apparent ardent admirer of Adora), the not-helpful, resentful Chief Vickery (Matt Craven). She also provides a foil (in more ways than one), for the “big city” officer brought in to investigate the murders, Richard (“The Mindy Show’s” Chris Messina)

As was the lead in (again, a novel and a movie)  “Girl on the Train,” Camille is an alcoholic, which may or may not make her an unreliable narrator. In addition to the mystery at hand, “Sharp Objects” examines relationships; with a hometown, a step-parent, a little known “new” half-sister, a very distant and disapproving mother, health and self-care, a new romance. It presents a hard look at the nature of trust, self-worth, self-reliance, steadfastness, and more.

There’s a lot to be said in “Sharp Objects,” and this mini-series (there are eight episodes). It’s definitely worthy of a binge-watch and while the characters are heartbreaking, the mystery and intrigue are very well played throughout. Look for many Emmy nominations for this series.

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N.F. Mendoza is a Culver City resident, who has worked at the Los Angeles Times (staff writer), People Magazine (staff correspondent) and TV Guide (West Coast News Editor), among other publications. For several years, she was a regular reviewer for The Hollywood Reporter, an entertainment-industry trade publication. She has freelanced for Daily Variety, Readers Digest, USA Today, Emmy Magazine, Animation Magazine, The Seattle Times, Inside Television. Two columns she wrote weekly for the TV Times section of the Los Angeles Times were syndicated nationally. She is the author of four chapters of the book I (Heart) TV by the editors of TV guide. She currently teaches college-level composition and continues to work as a freelance writer and editor.

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