Saturday, September 8, 2018

The Top 10 Best and Worst Trailers of 2017-2018

Dearest readers, I come bearing tidings that will prove debilitating, if not to many others, then certainly to me. One of the most cherished traditions at the Files has been our semi-annual trailer update, in which I render pithy takes and take-downs on all the film previews I was subjected to in my excursions to the cinema. Unfortunately, because of either a Word malfunction or my own negligence, I have lost the document containing all of the trailers I logged between summer 2017 and summer 2018, a list I could try to reconstruct from memory at the unavoidable expense of omitting those movies I’ve entirely forgotten.

While I was looking forward to revisiting a hundred-odd advertisements and writing blurbs for every one, no matter how punishing to myself, I do perceive one upside to this travesty, that being I have an excuse to revamp the trailer update into a more clickbaity, digestible listicle format. Downsizing is en vogue right now; just ask the Academy, amusingly convinced that their plummeting ratings are due mainly to a 3-hour runtime.

I have accordingly condensed our own ceremony down to 15 trailers, the ten best and five worst I saw between June 2017 and 2018, because as sweet as revenge is, we want to keep a more positive vibe on this corner of the web.

WORST 5. Annihilation
It’s only a matter of time before Paramount goes belly-up and Disney controls half of the film industry. The only reliable IP they can turn a profit on is the Mission Impossible franchise, and even those are laden with expensive location shooting and low merchandising value. The Transformers flicks are keeling over in America, and I give Viacom five years until they sell their dud machine to Disney.

Let’s talk about this trailer. I don’t have so little faith in American consumers as to think them fundamentally averse to a movie like Annihilation. Granted, as movie tickets rise in price, we are living in an increasingly event-based, disparate market, with the ten highest-grossing movies devouring more than 30% of market share, but I have to believe that demand persists for artistic and thought-provoking sci-fi. Alex Garland’s Ex Machina made more than $25 million in theaters, and his sophomore feature isn’t that slow or challenging by comparison. Annihilation packs one of the most entrancing and theatrical finales since 2001: A Space Odyssey, so why couldn’t Paramount just advertise it as the cerebral and psychedelic horror that it is? Instead they tried to seduce viewers with a shoot-em-up romp through monster-infested swampland, when guns and monsters constitute about four minutes of the film.

It goes without saying that viewers didn’t take kindly to the lies.

BEST 10. Downsizing

I can’t for the life of me comprehend how this movie was misinterpreted so vastly by so many people. Popular consensus latched onto what the movie seems on its face to concern, i.e. the existential perils of global warming and overpopulation, and willfully ignored all the nuances in its weighty and speculative script, which satirizes Generation X’s egoism and elitism better than the Oscar-winning Get Out. Even the casting of outspoken environmentalist Matt Damon seems purposeful in a meta, facetious way. The film isn’t great by any means, but it is in dire need of re-evaluation.

Anyway, Damon was on a roll with the trailers for last year. Half of my love for this particular one owes to the fantastic and relevant invocation of Talking Heads, while the other half owes to the great special effects and production design on display. I also have to thank the editor for not disclosing the entire plot, which ironically led to a chorus of angry YouTube comments shouting the trailer down as “false advertising” for the “worst movie ever”, when another edit would trigger just as many complaints of, “I feel like I just saw the whole movie, lol, saves me from buying a ticket.”

BEST 9. The House That Jack Built

I will admit my partiality towards this preview. Ask me what film I’m looking forward to the most that I’ll probably have to drive 50 miles to see, and the answer is The House That Jack Built. Yes, Lars Von Trier has been on a losing streak, bottoming out with the risible Nymphomaniac, but my inability to predict his next move keeps his artistry exciting. Judging by this trailer, which would doubtless make David Bowie proud, I expect his first film in five years to proffer more pessimistic ruminations on man’s depravity and the problem of pain, although Von Trier’s religious views are splattered so across the map that I could be completely off base—I did write a long paper on that subject, which may or may not resurface at some point. Regardless, it is fitting that the trailer for Jack should break the typical rules of composition, considering that its filmmaker has constantly strived to do the same with his craft, for better and for worse.

WORST 4. The Shape of Water
While we haven’t strayed too far from the topic of showing too much in advertising, this trailer spoils basically everything short of the last three minutes of its associated movie. The Shape of Water isn’t exactly intricate or daring in its narrative, but flashing this spot in front of unsuspecting audiences waiting for their movie to start borders on criminal harassment. I can say that because we live in a Relativist society where “harassment” means anything I want it to mean.

BEST 8. Suburbicon

I can already assure you I’m in the minority for heralding this trailer, as Suburbicon charitably vied to give a more embarrassing theatrical performance than Luc Besson’s galactic bomb Valerian. Not even leftist critics condoned George Clooney’s outdated, anti-racist “satire”, slapping it with an impressively awful 29% approval rating. Apparently making fun of white suburban communities can only get so much comic mileage in 2017, when we’ve already seen countless, oh-so-funny Subversions of the pristine nuclear family Mythology.

I deliberately avoided supporting Suburbicon in theaters, which wasn’t a hard endeavor for the short two weeks it played, but I do find it admirable how the trailer editor managed to rein in and obscure the more untenable or patronizing dimensions of the plot. There’s almost no way to glean from the advertising that the movie’s actually about racism, and I’d wager that some naïve seniors wandered in expecting a morbid Coen-esque comedy along the lines of Burn After Reading. The trailer is funny and propulsive thanks to the track by Run the Jewels, who are fast usurping Kanye’s throne as the most valuable names in movie trailer scoring. For the span of what felt like an entire summer, I somehow encountered this preview before every remotely adult-oriented movie, and yet I never grew tired of reciting it from memory.

BEST 7. First Reformed
I have mixed feelings on the marketing endeavors of A24. On one hand, they have mastered the discipline of compressing their movies down into singular, two-minute short films, each conveying the theme or mood peculiar to the whole. Even when their trailers turn out to be flagrantly misleading, as in the notorious misfire It Comes At Night, A24 tend to give a sharp and accurate taste of the kool aid that they’re selling. I have already praised some editors herein for their dastardly Achievement in Tricking People, but I can also appreciate the clarity and honesty with which this left-wing indie distributor presents most of its productions.

Nowhere are these principles more evident than in the trailer for First Reformed, which filled me with awe every time I had the luxury of taking my seat in time. Many of the more striking shots are taken out of context, suggesting a more fantastical plot than in the actual movie, but the melancholy and apocalyptic tone of the trailer ultimately stays true to Ethan Hawke’s despondent priest. One consistent strength of A24’s trailers is sourcing their music straight from the film, and the choral backing here is especially haunting. I liked those Suicide Squad trailers as much as the next DC fanboy, but those didn’t count for much when the songs were cut out of the movie.

So what are my grievances with this marketing style? Frankly, I’d be a lot more inclined to A24 if they weren’t so damned inclined to methods that can only be described as cheating. Almost every one of their trailers plucks a handful of quotes from toxic or useless tech blog critics who echo the Tomatometer 90% of the time and vainly correlate their ideology with art. If I wanted to read an adulatory review from a bastion of cuckoldry like The AV Club, The New Yorker, The L.A. Times, or Indiewire, I would do a search for those, not seek out a trailer. More often than not, leaning on such journalists’ talking points has exacerbated backlash against A24’s product; would general audiences have hated Hereditary so much if the trailer hadn’t boldly sold it as “this generation’s The Exorcist”? Likewise, how does reducing First Reformed to an “update of Taxi Driver” do it any favors when the two films have almost nothing in common, style- or narrative-wise?

I adore the last 40 seconds of this trailer, a purely visual glimpse into my favorite film of the year, but citations in marketing are a fallback for the lazy or logically impaired. A24’s snobbish culling of the critical intelligentsia is the film industry equivalent of celebrity endorsements for deodorant, cars, soft drinks, or Xbox’s, and should be treated with the same scorn we levy at all those other offenses.

WORST 3. Venom
Several months back, a Pepperdine friend acted appalled when I admitted that I hadn’t yet seen the trailer for Sony’s Venom stand-alone movie. “It looks so good,” he exclaimed. “You’ve got to look it up right now.” Now believe it or not, I had initially planned on waiting to catch the Venom trailer on the big-screen, where I could experience the anti-hero’s origin in all its glory (again). Based on this recommendation, though, I made sure to watch the trailer at work that very night, and I dare say none of it was lost on my 20-inch monitor. Imagine how crushed I was to see that Sony’s CG quality control has actually declined since 2007, or that Tom Hardy had agreed to besmirch his nearly speckless resume with such an odorous pile of black goo.

Hope for the superhero genre is a mistake.

BEST 6. Mission Impossible: Fallout
Imagine Dragons have to be my least favorite band of all time, so I’m really saying something when I call this virtuosic preview one of the year’s most best. The remix of Friction with the Mission Impossible theme is perfectly aligned with every punch and collision for maximum impact. The trailer shows off just enough of the action to pique one’s interest without spoiling everything (unlike those Dark Knight trailers that just couldn’t resist the flipping truck), and Henry Cavill’s reloading shotgun arms will be enshrined in the annals of action movie history.

BEST 5. Under the Silver Lake
Violent Femmes deserve to be used in more movie trailers. I have but the foggiest notion what this movie is about, but it sure looks vibrant, sexy, and off-kilter, and in today’s climate of slapdash, mundane franchise fare, that’s enough for me. It’s a shame A24 elected to shelve it for six months after a handful of bad reviews from the notoriously thin-skinned attendees of Cannes. If that move was a matter of maximizing returns by skirting around summer blockbusters, then I can see their rationale, but if it’s a matter of re-cutting for a better reaction, then the decision reeks of a company betraying its mission statement.

It Follows definitely sits atop the mound of throwback horror movies overhyped by insecure horror and arthouse fans, so I have faith that director David Robert Mitchell and Andrew Garfield can deliver another hit.

WORST 2. Peppermint
“Social media has lit up with support for her.”

Female-centric action movies need to be retired in America. Name a less intimidating vigilante or revenge movie hero than Jennifer Garner. I’ll wait.

BEST 4. BlacKkKlansman
Whatever team concocted this trailer deserves an Oscar, because they clearly understood better than Spike Lee how to tell such a compellingly odd story. The trailer takes lines of dialogue that aren’t funny in the film and injects them with hilarity through the power of editing, while also omitting (most of) the nauseating anti-Trump posturing so as not to alienate a third of the film’s potential audience. It nobly recasts a tonally-confused and morose diatribe as an undiluted farce, which is what the movie should have been along, considering that nothing of consequence happened in the real Ron Stallworth’s investigation.

It takes restraint and a modicum of discretion to edit a trailer as enticing or deceiving as this, both attributes in which Lee is sorely lacking. The title cards themselves are a riot, promising, “DIS JOINT IS BASED UPON SOME FO’ REAL, FO’ REAL SH*T.” Incredible.

BEST 3. Isle of Dogs
One of the few reprieves for a long time that made waiting for family movies a bearable exercise, the Isle of Dogs trailer impeccably balances the whimsy, adventure, and overflowing love for Japanese aesthetics that would come to distinguish one of Wes Anderson’s most divisive pictures. In long-form trailer fashion, the three-song structure imitates the rising action of an actual film, and a cascade of timpani drums at the end ensures that viewers will be crushing their armrests in anticipation. Yes, the unveiling of the cast has an aura of snootiness to it (“Check out all the famous actors I sweet-talked into voicing my movie! I’m a celebrated American auteur and can cast whomever I want!”), but cinephiles like me are honestly fickle in such matters, and Wes Anderson has earned the right to brag.

Get ready to jump.

WORST 1. The Darkest Minds
I’ll give this trailer some comedy points for laying bare the blasé detachment of some Hollywood executives in their 40s or 50s trying in vain to relate to teenagers. It’s an irritatingly embarrassing showcase of a cynical, money-grubbing product that’s arriving at least three years too late. Lionsgate can’t even afford to finish its Divergent series because people are so burnt out on YA twaddle, yet Fox has the arrogance to think it can turn a profit on a flagrant X-men rip-off, colored with some one-dimensional personality types and violent, youth-led resistance against the big bad government. Hell, they even cast an actress from The Hunger Games as the lead, because why would you take a chance on someone new when you can simply take the road more traveled?

Didn’t someone give Fox the memo that Gen Z is the most conservative audience since the Silent Generation? This uninspired garbage would barely break even in 2014, so their insistence on releasing it theatrically in 2018 confounds me. If anybody in the United States was really hankering for another of these properties, they’d be more compelled to seek it out on Hulu, next to media darlings like The Handmaid’s Tale. The convenient advantage of streaming services is that users will gobble up sub-par entertainment because those publishers operate on a sunk cost subscription model; people don’t feel as cheated if they watch a trashy movie or TV show because they’ve already paid their $10 for the month. Then again, there’s a reason why more people pirate Game of Thrones than pay for it, and there’s a reason why Fox is being absorbed by Disney, which remains better at responding to market cues despite the company’s antipathy to art.

BEST 2. Bad Times at the El Royale
For my money, one of the best genre trailers since Prometheus. It isn’t bound to spawn a lot of copycats, but that’s mostly because the format is built so firmly on the actual content of the film. Whoever edited this clearly studied up on trailer crutches—taglines or critic quotations that describe the subject matter, actors’ names popping on screen after their close-ups, trendy or ubiquitous pop songs that aren’t in the movie, jump scares, etc.—and made a concerted effort to walk without them. The song that carries it appears to originate from the film itself, characters get surprising and memorable introductions, and the mid-trailer tonal shift highlights the dark comedy that director Drew Goddard (of Cabin In the Woods) will probably bring to the table. I especially like the quickening of the cuts right before smashing into a wide tracking shot of a woman fleeing the hotel, as the vocal soundtrack gives way to frantic drums. That’s how you send chills up the spine and feet running to the multiplex.

BEST 1. mother!
The version of the teaser I’m reviewing sadly appears lost forever, although the official trailer is a fair substitute. If you had the fortune of seeing Dunkirk in its first week or so, then you may have gotten an early look at mother!, or listen, more precisely. The teaser itself consisted of nothing more than a black screen, harried dialogue, alien, indescribable sound effects, a momentary close-up on Jennifer Lawrence’s eyes, and the revelation that a new Darren Aronofsky film was coming out in less than two months’ time. It was the most disarming example of minimalist, guerilla film marketing I’d ever seen, and it’s nowhere to be found online.

Bravo, Paramount. Katniss Everdeen fans may not have bought into your elusive, go-for-broke ad campaign, but I sure did. Even your poster designs showed real audacity, for what other company would proudly flaunt and own their negative reviews?

Monday, August 13, 2018

Indie Movie Round-up #1 – Sorry To Bother You, Eighth Grade

Kids are out of school, it’s too hot to go outside, and Hollywood still can’t find new ways to drive people to the AC-pumping multiplex. The well of original ideas is running increasingly dry in Western studio film production, as evidenced by a seemingly unprecedented deluge of summer sequels: Deadpool 2, Incredibles 2, Ant-Man 2, Avengers 3, Jurassic World 2, Mamma Mia 2, Equalizer 2, Unfriended 2, Ocean’s Eleven 4, The Purge 4, Hotel Transylvania 3, and more. As a critic, I have begrudgingly kept up with many of these, though most of them save for Jurassic World weren’t worth thinking, talking, or writing about after I’d vacated the parking lot.

Keeping this stagnancy in mind, which will only fester now that Disney-Fox is projected to control 40% of all ticket sales, I’m looking to the festival circuit for more stimulating entertainment. Some of the movies featured in this series will be good, and others very not-good, but I hope that even the not-good ones will provide ample fodder for discussion.

... Apology not accepted.

In the weeks leading up to it, Sorry to Bother You was being pegged as this year’s successor to Get Out. If, by those comparisons, critics meant to call it out as an overrated, trendy genre film by a first-time director who isn’t as smart as he thinks, then they may have pinned the tail on the ass, so to speak. Whereas Get Out was functional as a horror thriller, though, Sorry to Bother You is only a nuisance, completely inept at conveying its communist message in a manner persuasive to blue-collar Trump supporters.

Cassius Green is an unemployed guy squatting in his uncle’s garage and perpetually deferring his rent. I refer to Cassius so vaguely because he doesn’t have much of a background or character, which is a pretty impressive feat for a nearly two-hour film crammed with archetypes. Before we even get a firm sense of his status quo—usually the first step in a story diagram—Cassius lands a sales job at a telemarketing firm called Regalview, where a profane and world-wise Danny Glover counsels him to use his “white voice” for better results.

The premise that speaking in a certain dialect and tenor (dubbed here by useful white leftists David Cross and Patton Oswalt) can make consumers more amenable to unsolicited marketing is ridiculous on its face, but the satirical dressings of the film can theoretically excuse its cartoonish racial depictions. Less excusable is the lack of any unifying focus in the script. Despite having Get Out’s Jordan Peele in the producer’s chair, Sorry to Bother You is not fundamentally about racial inequity, and the white voice gag seems designed as both red herring and time-filler.

Director Boots Riley, of the hip-hop trio The Coup, has his sights set firmly on capitalism, and in this jab at criticism we see the full extent of his ideological stupor. After exercising his “white voice”, Cassius gets promoted to the position of power caller, thereby alienating the malcontented workers at Regalview who have been conspiring to unionize for higher pay. The film’s dramatic arc is based on the premise that Cassius is betraying his roots and proverbially selling his soul in the act of pursuing a more profitable career. His friends and colleagues affectionately call him “Cash” for short, lest the downward spiral of “Cashius Green” be lost on us. This premise rings false for the simple reason that Cassius has no discernible roots, nor any reason to flagellate himself out of fealty to those who have no motivation to move up the corporate ladder. The script essentially stoops to chastising its protagonist for attempting to better his lot responsibly, to pay his rent through means both legal and ethical. Social justice trumps self-advancement, and lobbying for an inflated minimum wage is nobler than seeking a job that requires more than some high-school education.

Cassius is dating a modernist artist by the name of Detroit, who is fully committed to the union movement, wears edgy feminist clothing, and obviously serves as a foil to her boyfriend. She’s also played by Tessa Thompson of Thor: Ragnarok and Dear White People, which means that try as it might, Sorry to Bother You cannot claim the infamy of being the worst film I’ve seen all year. Somewhere within the last 40 minutes, it’s revealed that another corporation, WorryFree, which mirrors Google in its paternalistic ownership of employees, has been turning people into human-horse hybrids for cheap manual labor. Anticipating a backlash by his mutant slave army, the CEO of WorryFree proposes a 7-digit sum to Cassius in exchange for him temporarily masquerading as a puppet advocate for the equesapiens.

The blatant takeaway of this plot twist is that capitalism figuratively strips workers of their humanity, reducing them to beasts of burden and raping them. In case the audience is too daft to pick up on his hilarious pun, Riley includes a scene of two people interpreting a lewd sculpture of a WorryFree executive and a horse-person. “I think the artist meant that WorryFree is literally dehumanizing people,” says Detroit. “And literally f___ing them?” rejoins the other bystander. America, I hope you’re taking notes on this important and timely statement.

Cassius exposes CEO Armie Hammer as a mad and cruel scientist on popular TV, which promptly leads to the businessman being praised by the president of the United States and exalted as the reincarnation of Jesus. Having lost any hope for recompense from the republican, legislative process, the equesapiens embrace violent revolution as their sole recourse and start wreaking havoc in the streets. The films ends with Cassius acknowledging the selfish error of his ways, saying something to the effect of, “Now that the Regalview callers have unionized, maybe we’ll start to see some positive change. I should have stuck with you guys all along.” Then he turns into a horse-man and barges through the door of Hammer’s house. I rest my case that this is a movie made for idiots.

Old (Brazil) vs. new. Who wore it better?

Riley’s debut has been marketed as an energetic “surrealist” social commentary, in the vein of Repo Man, Brazil, or maybe Joe Versus the Volcano. Unlike those Criterion-certified classics and certain others, Sorry to Bother You gives no incentive for repeat viewings, since every aspect of its world is sharply presented in the foreground. Much of the movie is shot in generic indie shallow focus, drawing one’s eyes to the actors and regrettably obscuring their surroundings. Whereas a Terry Gilliam film invites careful inspection because of his wide-angle lenses and immaculate set design, Riley takes viewers on a programmatic tour of a near-dystopian Oakland, stopping to point out every oh-so-clever detail he imagined. I couldn’t rattle off from memory all the earrings that Tessa Thompson sports, or all the variations of the photo in Cash’s bedroom, but I wouldn’t be surprised by any of them the second time around. Sorry to Bother You mistakenly evokes The Lego Movie through a vulgar reality TV show that bears an insipid similarity to “Where Are My Pants?” One of the best satires of the decade, The Lego Movie manages to delight and grow on me every time by virtue of its manifold background details, which are merely seasoning on its funny and thoughtful story. Having sat through its third act twice now for research, I’d be lying to say the same about Sorry to Bother You.

To his credit, Armie Hammer tries his hardest to save the affair, giving his only great performance since The Social Network. Most of the actors are working in a grounded and natural register, reacting too incredulously to their world’s chaos, but Hammer seems to grasp the absurdity of the movie and takes his zealous, materialist villain appropriately over-the-top. In a boldly emasculating role, David Cross also dredges up cheap laughs as Cassius’ white voice, although I reiterate that the white voice could be removed wholesale without compromising the narrative. The musical score is never boring, dabbling in many genres and calling to mind older sci-fi pictures. Movies and music are different media, however, and the latter is but a tool to straighten out the essential form of the former. If I wanted nothing more than to hear some great music, I would just go listen to Year of the Snitch again.

Where Sorry to Bother You completely, irreparably lost me was a noxiously quirky stop-motion sequence credited in the film to a certain Michel Dongry. Any kino fans worth their salt would recognize this as a cheeky nod to the French surrealist director Michel Gondry, most well-known for the Oscar-winning Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and a bunch of Björk music videos. Some people would undoubtedly praise this scene as a clever admission of and homage to Boots Riley’s artistic influences. I took it as a confession that he was wasting my time, which would be far better spent watching Michel Gondry or girding the capitalist system that made his facile message movie possible. It’s never too late to learn Mandarin, Boots. I hear that China has a thriving film industry built on freedom of expression.

Eighth Grade Reading Level

Perhaps the most aggressively-pushed and Sundance-y movie to come out of Sundance this year, Eighth Grade is being hailed right and left as a small miracle of vicarious expression. Young cinephiles everywhere are wrestling with a conundrum, which goes something like, “How does a 28-year-old white male comedian who started out on Youtube understand so lucidly the ordeals of an awkward, reserved middle-schooler who happens to be the opposite sex?” The movie poster seems to capitalize on this perplexing contradiction by citing the always reliable pull-quote dispenser Indiewire, whose critic praised the movie as “so rooted in the feminist adolescent experience that it often feels as if Bo Burnham cracked open a whole mess of girls’ diaries to pen it”.

To be fair, I also might have wrestled with this question, assuming I’d never picked up a book by Charles Dickens, C.S. Lewis, Pearl Buck, or even J.K. Rowling. At the same time, it shouldn’t surprise us that identity politics go hand in hand with diminished expectations. When “You can’t say that, only we can say that,” becomes the mantra of a stultified society beholden to Cultural Appropriation, the universal praise heaped upon Eighth Grade is a wholly predictable byproduct. “The fact that so-and-so managed to tell such an authentic story about X minority besides himself honestly blew me away,” remarks some L.A. cineaste who is paid much more than I. “This film is an instant masterpiece.”

Is it embarrassing to the state of American culture that writing a protagonist of a marginally different background than the author is taken as a symbol of genius? Probably so, but I’m not buying the marketing narrative that Kayla was a giant leap outside of Burnham’s comfort zone. Centered on a shy and web-savvy teenager who makes simple, unedited vlogs in her bedroom, Eighth Grade is hard to interpret as anything other than a thoroughly autobiographical film, laced with many updated memes and cultural references to misdirect the unwary viewer. Watching this in a packed theater on opening night lent an aspect that I wouldn’t trade for the privacy of my home. Lurking close behind me, a group of guys would whoop and laugh uproariously at every youthful idiom or piece of iconography: when Kayla signed off with a chipper “Gucci,” when the sex ed teacher said, “It’s gonna be lit,” and especially when the other staff member did a dab. Sitting on my other side, another spectator would add to the Regal ambience by firing off urgent texts at five-minute intervals. As if the 4K digital projection wasn’t already crisp enough, the glare of her iPhone in the darkened theater added a semblance of augmented reality to Burnham’s pressing techno-nightmare.

Eighth Grade was bought by the indie darling distributor A24, which has made a philosophy of taking generic tropes and formulae and smugly doing the opposite of them. This creative strategy, which itself passes over into formula with time, has resulted in widespread, unquestioning accolades for the company’s works, but tends to divide commoners suckered in by high Rotten Tomatoes scores. Look no further than A24’s horror offerings for a microcosm of the company’s reactionary approach to storytelling. It Comes At Night and Hereditary were championed by critics and the casual arthouse crowd for going so against the grain of “cheap scares” or “gore-fests”, but being artistically contrarian wasn’t enough to thrill general audiences or hardcore horror fans, who loathed and maligned such films.

Going into Eighth Grade, I expected certain rules to be broken, surprises to be sprung. Why else would the elites of A24 take it under their wing? Imagine my surprise when the actual film played out exactly the way that I predicted, over and over again. Alack and alas, I would go so far as to call it the most clichéd young-adult movie of the last couple years, in a genre that’s already steeped in clichés and platitudes.

All of Kayla’s peers see her as a quiet and insecure teenager, but her opening webcam monologue assures us otherwise. In reality, she’s just saving her words for the right people… cue a lesson in how to recognize your real friends from fake ones! Despite her warped perception of herself, Kayla reluctantly receives the Most Quiet student award, setting her on a path of glum introspection (and extrospection) compounded by a pool party for the popular Kennedy, appropriately dubbed the recipient of the Best Eyes award. In older movies, Kennedy might have filled a Mean Girl mold, but in Eighth Grade she doesn’t get to exchange more than a word with the hero, despite being the closest person to an antagonist. Nay, she hardly gets to speak a word at all, since the entirety of her character can be reduced to the evil hot girl who is too absorbed in her phone. At least Regina George got a personality. To point to Mean Girls as a great film or even a good one would be a nostalgic misstep, but Burnham inadvertently reminds us just how far YA movies have fallen with the advent of universal cell phone ownership.

At the pool party we get snapshots of two other characters who will add to the omelet of clichés: the confidently detached, profane Aiden and the nerdy, bespectacled misfit Gabe. The former character’s first appearances are humorously paired with throbbing EDM and slow-motion, accentuating the disconnect between Kayla’s infatuation and the older audience’s awareness that Aiden is a 14-year-old dweeb. Most of the funniest scenes can be credited to either of these young actors, though that doesn’t excuse their thoroughly exhausted roles. From the moment the Nerd pops up from underwater wearing oversized goggles, any seasoned coming-of-age viewer will be hard-pressed to miss that he’s the True Friend, and that Kayla will ultimately discard her bad boyfriend for the less popular, less cute guy.

I couldn't fit this tidbit anywhere else in the review, but Eighth Grade would have the best use of an Enya song if not for L.A. Story and Fellowship of the Ring.

From recognizing bad influences to gaining respect for a downtrodden father figure, Eighth Grade follows convention to a T, only daring to break away in its relative lack of conflict. Kayla lives in extraordinary privilege and doesn’t have to grapple with much of anything, aside from standard boy problems and worries about sexual competence, which Burnham presents in a disturbingly forthright manner given Pedowood’s ongoing PR crisis—although let’s be honest, we all stopped paying attention to #MeToo about 10 months ago. While the movie could choose to explore the dynamics of a single-parent household, it never treats the absence of Kayla’s mother as a difficulty, relegating her to the perimeter of the film and passing most maternal qualities onto her father. Mark embodies a liberal’s idealized modern man: soft-tongued, sensitive, and supportive of his daughter no matter how impertinent and testy she can be. He never loses his temper, never raises his voice, never admonishes, and that makes for extremely cinematic drama! File this movie in the same critically-acclaimed cabinet as Call Me By Your Name and Love, Simon, which also featured the Progressive and Accepting Dad trope. If anything, the purity of Kayla’s father gives us license to loathe the main character, a bratty teenager who’s more attached to her screen than to the real people in her life. “You said on Saturdays I could do what I wanted,” she shouts at the dinner table, “And right now I want to look at my phone!” Charming.

Burnham constructs the film on such wooden stakes that the ending scenes undermine his itinerant, pseudo-realist Sundance foundation. When Kayla finally stands up to the evil hot girl Kennedy and scolds her for “trying to look cool all the time”, the impact of her courage is lost on us, not least because our protagonist spends about the same proportion of film time playing on her cell phone as our antagonist. Why does a film like this need to have villains, much less a triumphant arc in which a good guy lectures the bad guy about her moral superiority? If Burnham truly aspired to break new ground, then he would eschew such reductive character types altogether, but he’s too dedicated to plucking the essence of middle-school from his memory, withholding none of the angst or petty jealousy.

In fact, resolving for comprehensiveness in 90 minutes or less does more to handicap Eighth Grade than prop it up. Sparing even a minute of scrutiny to the sequence of events will cause the timeline to implode. Ostensibly the film takes place during Kayla’s final week of schooling, so one would expect the kids to be mired in final exams or panicking over them. On the contrary, though, most of the brief glimpses of class life suggest an academic year that is merely beginning. Hinting that the Parkland school shooting was a theatrical drill months before its two seconds of fame is certainly a bold artistic stroke by Burnham, but what does such a drill accomplish within the world of Eighth Grade, being staged two days before many of the kids transfer to a different institution that will necessitate a different drill? Kayla’s behavior is also irrational for someone on the cusp of high-school, as she desperately scrambles to expand her social circle two days before graduating.

This is the type of screenplay that will win over some for its “honesty” and “accuracy” and irritate others for those same reasons. In writing workshops, authors who are penning child characters will hear that they must forcefully strip away their pretenses and sophistication to sound more authentic. Bo Burnham appears to have taken this advice and executed it to the detriment of his final film. The dialogues in Eighth Grade form a knotty web of self-deprecating babble, sycophantic compliments, and monosyllabic words that don’t mean anything. Wouldn’t it behoove a girl interested in podcasting to find a more precise way of communicating her thoughts than “cool”, “awesome”, “weird”, “amazing”, or “dumb”? I’m not asking for these American teens to start spewing Aaron Sorkin speeches, or even to cut back on their ums, likes, and youknows, but I doubt it would lessen the film if the characters didn’t all express themselves the same way.

Aside from their obvious linguistic monotony, Burnham’s scenarios also tend to bore in their subject matter. Most of the conversations never amount to being about anything concrete, hence regressing into circular admiration and encouragement. With the exception of one late reference to Rick & Morty, the characters seem to inhabit a political, social, and cultural vacuum, to the effect that any dialogue must revolve around their perception of each other and themselves. This pattern is hard to explain to anyone who hasn’t seen the film, so I will just say that the scenes documented herein are #notmyeighthgrade. As a 13-year-old, homeschooled grammar Nazi, I not only imagined myself to be the most intelligent person alive but wanted to prove as much to everybody else, dropping the most flowery words I knew and seldom foregoing a chance to argue about politics, books, or film. Even my friends who peppered their speech with superfluous “likes” took a keen interest in weighty classics, e.g. the Divine Comedy, or at least in Christopher Nolan movies that fused action entertainment with entry-level philosophical themes. Perhaps I’m inclined to reject the vacuity of Burnham’s dialogue for exposing just how unrepresentative my upbringing was, but I don’t think he does justice to the pretentiousness of eighth-graders.

One of the most definitive motifs in Eighth Grade—that of endless, passive scrolling through selfies, gifs, and homogenized corporate entertainment—doubles as a perfect analogue for the experience of watching it. Like an adorable cat video, a reaction clip from The Office, or a stale Spongebob meme, the film offers nothing but a procession of things we’ve seen a hundred times before, and in a way that’s comforting. Eighth Grade doesn’t aim to challenge or upend anyone’s worldview, and so it is compulsively watchable and shareable. Whether you’ll want to hit that subscribe button and come back for more... well, that is a different question.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

In Age of Trump, Pepperdine Weighs Validity of Free Speech

Article written by George Stefano Pallas. Democratic Socialism and incivility practiced by the author are his alone and do not necessarily reflect nor should be construed as those of the Author.

For many Pepperdine University students, the Sandbar is a welcoming safe space to grab a $6 smoothie from Jamba Juice, retrieve the mail if they’re lucky enough not to have classes, snap some sunset selfies for their Instagram stories, and enjoy some hot beverages not from Starbucks while listening to all-acoustic covers of Disney songs during coffeehouse nights. Some have even gone so far as to call the Sandbar a “Third Place,” though this label may appear vacuous to any homeless man who tries to take a nap on the couches therein and is promptly evicted by DPS officers.

Unbeknownst to most frequenters of the Sandbar, the building also plays host to the communications of the Intercultural Affairs (ICA) office. ICA holds chief responsibility for “build[ing] a diverse community of respect, learning, understanding, equity, and inclusion”. As part of this mission, the department has reserved tickets for students to see Black Panther on opening night (under an event subtitled “Deconstructing Black Mythos”), sponsored bus rides to the 2017 Women’s March in L.A., and hosted various events on gun control and immigration enforcement.

The ICA office has a wall set aside at the rear of the Sandbar, nearby the restrooms, that changes in content roughly every month to reflect topical news items or subjects. For example, in celebration of Black History Month, the ICA wall featured several photos of African-American artists who have made great strides to advance music as an art form. The artists spotlighted on the wall included Chance the Rapper, Drake, Beyonce, Lauryn Hill, Kendrick Lamar, and J. Cole, among others.

In the middle of April, the theme of the ICA’s corner turned to freedom of speech, concurrently with several Pepperdine clubs that were re-evaluating the virtues of that same right. Several posters were taped to the inside of cabinets, juxtaposing arguments in favor of free speech with arguments opposing it.

The display repeatedly called upon the reader to ponder the appropriate treatment of offensive speech, asking, “Are all forms of free speech acceptable?” “Should free speech apply for individuals in positions of power?” and, “Is there a difference between free speech and hate speech?” In the case of the last question, the author of the pro-free speech argument seemed to acknowledge the existence of Hate Speech, but contended, “There is no free speech when banning hate speech… because the definition would be subjective.”

Contrarily, the anti-free speech argument insisted that Hate Speech is “not the same thing” and “should not be protected under the law”. The second text pointed to Germany for support of its position, commending the country for banning the expression “Heil Hitler” as Hate Speech. The poster neglects to note the successful, recent sentencing of a U.K. YouTuber named Mark Meechan, who was arrested and convicted of “grossly offensive” behavior for filming and teaching his girlfriend’s dog to raise a paw upon hearing, “Sieg Heil.”

The Sandbar display concludes with an appeal to contact the ICA office, university chaplain, or counseling center “if you have experienced Harm by the speech of others”.

The Sandbar exhibit on freedom of speech only symbolizes one component in a university-wide re-examination of the issue enshrined in the U.S. Constitution. On April 9, 2018, the Convocation Office of Pepperdine held an hour-long event called “When Speech Hurts: Intersections of Faith, Speech, and Wellbeing,” in which four faculty members shared their views on freedom of expression, fake news, and constitutional limitations.

One of these panelists, Distinguished Professor of Political Science Christopher Soper, led by saying, “I am not a free speech fundamentalist,” and elaborated that some forms of speech should not be allowed because they “undermine self-governing democracy”. Dr. Soper received a Ph.D. in political science from Yale University and currently teaches such classes to Seaver undergraduates as “Constitutional Law” and “Religion and Politics”.

When the conversation turned to an upcoming campus visit by Ben Shapiro, Dr. Soper said that he would not condone accepting Richard Spencer or Alex Jones to speak at Pepperdine, opposing the latter radio host on the basis that he “denies” the narrative of the 2012 Sandy Hook school shooting. Asked what students should do to prepare for a controversial speaker like Mr. Shapiro coming to a sold-out event, Psychology Professor Nivla Fitzpatrick advised the crowd to go about all their daily routines, stay calm, and “let other people who speak up know that you stand with them”.

Both of these evaluations of free speech closely follow a trend at Pepperdine of reappraising the value of open discourse. In late 2015, BSA-affiliated students called the value of the liberal principle into question by appealing to President Benton to ban the since-defunct Yik Yak app on the grounds of the university, which is attended by more than 3000 voting-age adults. The campaign stemmed from anonymous texts allegedly posted by a student that were critical of the Black Lives Matter movement.

University Chaplain Sara Barton would later weigh in on a similar object of controversy, using her freedom of speech to publish a poem on the Freedom Wall denouncing the freedom of speech exercised by someone else. We covered Barton’s social protest and the abasement of the Freedom Wall generally back in 2017.

Pepperdine’s annual tuition currently stands at $53,680, an increase of 3.7% over the previous year and not including rent, which totals between $1450 and $1625 a month for a shared bedroom.