An Indie Coming-of-Age Comedy and Two Action-Packed Sequels

By BILL GEIGER | Aug 15, 2018

Lately the movies I’ve been watching have left me with a certain emptiness, and I finally figured out why. What I miss is the feeling of rock-’em, sock-’em, blow-up-the-city movies. I want movies to shake my seat, put me right in the cockpit with the pilot and let me feel what she feels in a dogfight with another jet.

The problem, of course, is that Michael Bay has not directed anything this summer. There was no new “Transformers” film to sate the urge for destruction. Chicago, Los Angeles and Seattle breathed a collective sigh of relief since they were spared from Bay’s annihilation. We did have an “Avengers” film, and a “Deadpool” sequel, a new “Jurassic Park” flick, and a “Star Wars” film to distract us, but it still felt like something was missing.

Now there was a new “Mamma Mia,” flick, an upbeat sequel to the 2008 original that I steadfastly avoided screening and writing about back in ’08 because I knew my sarcastic evil self would take over and try to waste the film, despite whether or not I liked the ABBA music it is entirely made of. For the record, I do like most ABBA music. But looking at the previews for its sequel, filmed a whole 10 years after the original, even its subtitle screams how to think about it: “Here we go again.” As you know, that’s a loaded comment if ever there was one.  Even the coming attractions turn me off. I’ll certainly be avoiding “Mamma Mia” at all costs.

So knowing what I didn’t want to see has helped me understand what I did want to see. This week we have films fighting each other for recognition. In the action-packed department we have “Mission: Impossible – Fallout” and “The Equalizer 2.” In the indie mode, we have “Eighth Grade.” Let’s start there and build up to the roller coaster ride.

Director Bo Burnham has made his name and staked out his acres of success on YouTube. This millennial knows his way around a visual story, and he has created one that peers into the awkward age of eighth grade, that no-man’s-land of childhood friendships and junior high school and those first tentative steps of sexual awakening.

Thus, he called his film “Eighth Grade” and brought in Elsie Fisher to star as Kayla, the protagonist, the eighth-grader trying to establish her identity as all kinds of pairings and couplings take place in the minds and hearts of her fellow students. It is a dangerous role, and a courageous one, and Fisher does her level best to translate it on screen. Its difficulty lies in the point of focus, that of a device-obsessed kid or a person seeking recognition amid a sea of device-obsessed kids.

With Kayla, we’re given a cheat-sheet, a series of YouTube postings where she shares her views of how things are supposed to be. This is the real Kayla, the uninhibited Kayla, the way she sees herself in this tough, awkward patch of life. But the Kayla she reports to her peers and teachers is almost catatonic, roaming the halls and haunting classrooms like a specter, barely making eye contact with her fellow students.

Entwined in this mess of a life being lived is Kayla’s father, Mark (Josh Hamilton), who finds his route to understanding his daughter is fraught with detours, and is burdened with an ever-changing map that he knows is wrong only when he blunders with an answer or idea that seems like it has nothing to do with the question being asked. Poor Mark is unsure of everything he does around Kayla, and since anything he says can trigger an outburst of Homeric proportions, he tiptoes around the rooms of their conversation, trying not to knock lamps off the tables.

Lest this sound too depressing, Burnham has infused his film with some humor, but it is important to note in the context of what I’m about to say that the humor that at first comes across as slapstick itself defers to more serious and troubling thought as the film progresses.

As a case in point, Kayla has her eye on an eighth-grade boy named Trevor (Fred Hechinger), who, like many or most eighth-grade boys, is completely caught up in his own world. Right before the year ends, during an armed-shooter drill (itself a depressing thought in a movie about adolescence), Kayla crawls on her hands and knees over to Trevor’s desk, in order to ask some inane questions.

The progression of their repartee eventually takes on a sexual nature, and Kayla sends out a feeler or two, to which Trevor must ask about whether she performs oral sex. She says she does, to which Trevor nods approval; then Kayla heads to the internet to find out what that particular kind of female to male oral sex means. The look on her face as she reads that type of clinical definition elicits howls of laughter from the audience.

As does her attempt to “practice” the act on a banana. Her father walks in and asks what she is doing with the banana, itself a joke of major proportions, but this one comes from the fact that Kayla does not like to eat bananas, leaving her in an awkward position this time, but she still manages to turn the event’s misfortune on her unwitting father. Note to Kayla: When practicing techniques for oral sex, take the banana to your bedroom; don’t practice in the kitchen.

Late in the movie Kayla decides to accept an invitation to the mall from her new friend, a high school senior named Kennedy (Catherine Olivere) whom she’d shadowed when her class went to the local high school to spend a day. Inevitably, when being driven home, Kayla was the last in the car to be dropped off, and the driver, Riley (Daniel Zolghadri), quiet and unassuming earlier in the film, suddenly comes on rather strongly to Kayla, who must learn her first difficult lesson when it comes to sex.

Her father eventually turns out not to be as stupid as she thought, and Kayla even has a “first date” with a nerdy kid named Gabe (Jake Ryan) that was kind of sweet and amusing and provided a nice coda to the film.

“Eighth Grade” might make you squirm a bit as you see yourself in the awkward attempts Kayla uses to make friends, or to tell someone off, or to navigate the pitfalls of adolescence, but luckily for her, there are no overt bullies that need to be taken care of, so we can settle on the fact that no Transformers come calling, nor is there a lot of singing and line dancing a la “Mamma Mia.”

On that, we can feel pretty good.

*   *   *

From the awkwardness of adolescence to the self-assuredness of an ex-military commando who goes by the name of Robert McCall (Denzel Washington), we go from “Eighth Grade” to “The Equalizer 2,” the terse-titled sequel of Antoine Fuqua’s mega-hit “The Equalizer” from 2014. You have probably heard this bit of odd trivia, but throughout his long career, this is the only sequel Denzel Washington has ever made.

It is a good sequel, but suffers some from sequelitis, that debilitating sickness that happens to films once they drink too many times from the well of success. McCall’s backstory, which is most likely best suited to a one-off film, is, we guess, spent in the employ of some kind of government agency. Apparently he has now retired from that agency, and can now choose whatever jobs he wants to do, in the mode of a Good Samaritan.

He is very good in his work, and as a sort of calling card, he is able to scan a room and assess a threat from wherever that might be, locate the means by which to neutralize that threat, then do everything in the correct sequence once the bad guys begin to come at him. To make it more of a game, he sets his watch’s timer to see how long it takes him to contain the room. It was all very novel in the first film – but he gets the chance to do it in the sequel just once.

More of his backstory comes out in the sequel, since the one person who was his “control” in the business he was in, Susan Plummer (Melissa Leo), is harmed by the bad guys, and McCall has to rely on the men on the team who followed him into that dirty business. McCall must watch out for them, though. Things aren’t as rosy as they were when he was in the employ of his former bosses.

This fact allows the film to devolve into a hunter-hunted story, as the “team,” which has gone rogue and off the grid, comes after McCall. He has to set up the killing field to his liking, and the hunt takes place during a fairly strong hurricane that impacts the seaside town in which he lived his former life. It seems McCall is able to confront his demons, and indeed put an end to the hunting, during the climax of the hurricane.

He can still help a young man avoid a life of selling drugs, and even help an older man find his sister. This sort of kindnesses is the calling card of the new McCall, the one who wants to be a help to society, not a hindrance.

“The Equalizer 2” might have a fine pedigree, and have been directed by a noteworthy director, Antoine Fuqua, but it still could be rather pedestrian. Notch that up with the bludgeon of Michael Bay, and the Transformers might have added just the pep this flick needed. Or what could beat a line dance from the “Mamma Mia” crowd singing “Mamma Mia”? McCall and his demons could have joined in.

Pedigree and star power might be solid, but you still need a good story to stay ahead of the game in the movie business.

*   *   *

In the opening scenes of “Mission: Impossible – Fallout,” a courier comes to the door and gives Ethan Hunt a package. He opens it to discover a copy of The Odyssey by Homer. He opens the book and sees the small tape player that will relay his mission to him. That mission, should he decide to accept it, like most or all of the others, would be to locate a set of crazy terrorists who have morphed from an equally crazy band of terrorists, neutralize them, and save the world. This time, however, they are looking to possess three nuclear cores of plutonium.

Still pretty close to the other missions, so the movie tells us. But The Odyssey is a fine symbol, since Hunt travels the world over and has a fine antagonist, or should I say antagonists, in Soloman Lane, in The White Widow, and in Erika Slone. And besides Slone, played wonderfully by Angela Bassett, two other women figure prominently in Hunt’s odyssey, namely Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) and former wife Julia (Michelle Monaghan), Circe, maybe, and Calypso.

Like the second “Equalizer” was a pretty deep dive into the closed book of Robert McCall’s life, so, too, is “Fallout” a look into the complexities of Hunt’s life, especially as they deal with the recent past, particularly the terrorist Lane (Sean Harris), whom Hunt has chased and captured, and now must turn over to the British MI-6. I have to say that the writers have sacrificed nothing to get the story told, and the story is brilliant in its intricacies, plots and subplots, whodunits and whatchamacallits.

Slone, the CIA section chief under whom Hunt’s Impossible Missions Force falls, has been out to get him since the last two films. This time, as she outlines the mission (seems the first mission description was superseded), she decides to send along an insurance man in the person of August Walker (Henry Cavill), more of a goon than a CIA man, whose only credits in the spy biz are unfinished jobs. The reason they were unfinished was Walker wound up killing his quarry.

So Hunt’s got to take the one person he should be staying away from (Lane), trade him for the info on some plutonium cores, then get those terrorists who want them, and finally go back and get the first one (Lane). Easy-peazy, right, especially for an old con artist like Hunt. Even more so because Hunt’s bros, Luther and Benji (Ving Rhames and Simon Pegg, respectively), have his back, no doubt.

Well, Ilsa Faust begins to home in, coming somewhat out of left field; Walker’s somewhere nearby, Slone is nosing around through Walker, and even Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin) is snooping around, sure that Hunt is going to blow the business wide open again. Then, near the film’s end, Hunt sees and speaks to Julia, long after fearing her dead. Talk about an about-face. All in a day’s work in Hunt’s profession.

What a roller coaster ride! If you can, be sure to see this film in Dolby Sound. It’s more expensive, but totally worth it. “Mission: Impossible – Fallout” is certainly a trip, with car chases, motorcycle chases, car/motorcycle chases, car/boat chases, foot chases, chases up buildings, fights in churches, fights in nightclubs, fights everywhere and anywhere. I’ve got to give Cruise a lot of credit. He’s 56, but he runs everywhere in this film. He gets hit while riding a motorcycle, thrown across the hood of a car and onto the street – then gets up and runs like the wind. Amazing.

No need for Michael Bay here. “Fallout” had so much going on that Bay’s pyrotechnic displays would have been like piling it on. And no need of “Mamma Mia,” either. ABBA can stay where it’s at, deep within the nexus of the “Mamma Mia” franchise. Cher is in it now, after all.

Still … it might have been neat to see the cast of “Fallout” line dancing in Belarus, where the final part of the film takes place. Ethan wouldn’t have been running in this fantasy; in fact, he would have had to sit the line dance out. He was recovering from injuries. That way he’ll be ready for the next “Mission: Impossible.”

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