Bo Burham’s Eighth Grade is a coming-of-age story for a digital generation. But even though young Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher) must mature her way through a world of Snapchat and vlogs and the other trappings of Generation Z, her struggle is still timeless. Awkwardness knows no timestamp, and anxiety existed long before YouTube. Eighth Grade is replete with superlatives, but it starts with the duo of Fisher and Burnham. Fisher’s performance is astonishing, especially for such a young actor. Burham’s writing pops with realism and his direction oozes confidence, impressive for a feature debut. Together, the two infuse the film with a bittersweet realism and a staunch statement that it is always hard to grow up, but it is always possible to make it through.
Leigh Whannell’s Upgrade is a wonderful and devilish little concoction of a film. At its center is Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green), an old-fashioned “works with his hands” kind of guy who restores old cars in a near-future where all of the cars drive themselves. After an accident leaves him a quadriplegic, one of his more wealthy and influential clients offers to help him by implanting an experimental chip in his brain called STEM that will allow him to walk again.
It works. And then the chip starts talking to him.
In Ready Player One, in order to fit all the pop culture references, you’re gonna need a bigger boat. Steven Spielberg hovers over a mountain of movies, television shows, video games, and other ephemera of pop culture like so many mashed potatoes, obsessively sculpting them into something that only he can see (a good movie). Like Indiana Jones with snakes, in Ready Player One, it always has to be pop culture references. The film simply isn’t much to phone home about. Schindler’s List.
Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood has been a cultural touchstone for generations of children, your humble blagger included. In Morgan Neville’s documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor, the edifying force that is Fred Rogers resounds in every scene – despite the man’s typically reserved candor.
In RBG, directors Julie Cohen and Betsy West tell the fascinating life story of Ruth Bader Ginsberg in a relatively routine way. Those who watch a lot of documentaries won’t have their hair blown back by any stylistic flourishes or innovations. Instead, RBG is perfectly content with the wheels that have already been invented: archival footage, talking head interviews, and primary sources like court documentation. With these tools, Cohen and West weave together an inspirational tale of an American trailblazer and outright hero: Ruth Bader Ginsberg, second woman to sit on the supreme court and unabashed defender of the rights of minorities – particularly those of women.
In film or on stage, performance is a strange thing. Sometimes, the audience values showmanship and wants to see the raw talent of a performer laid bare under the lights. Sometimes, we crave realism – some indefinable feeling that the thing we are seeing on screen is genuine and true, their soul laid bare instead. To achieve one of these is rare, the stuff of chilled spines and tears. What then when an actor pulls off both, simultaneously? And, what when both leads of a film do so? Well, that’s A Star is Born. That’s magic.