White Boy Rick- Movie Review

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White Boy Rick may not add up to the sum of it’s parts, and while there are some great performances, impressive sets, and a great score, the film ultimately feels like a collection of scenes that lack a consistent narrative through line. That’s not to say that the film doesn’t work, but it’s hard to invest in the story when the film seems to end and begin multiple times. Perhaps this material would have worked better as a miniseries than a movie, but as a 110 minute film it’s sporadically entertaining.

Based on a true story, the film follows Ricky Wershe Jr. (Richie Merritt), a teenager living in Detroit who managed to become involved with illegal firearms dealing, the cocaine market, and the FBI all before he turned 18. The film focuses on Wershe’s rise to power, and the impact his actions had on his father (Matthew McConaughey). Undeniably, Merritt and McConaughey are the highlights of the film; their relationship is built on respect and love, and seeing the two try to provide for each other as they go down very different paths is emotionally resonant and at times heartbreaking.

Unfortunately, the film seems to have an issue with committing to the father/son story. While we obviously need to see how Wershe Jr. rose to prominence, the FBI subplot feels mismanaged and not thoroughly explained, and we spend too much time with Ricky and his criminal friends where we could’ve spend more time developing Ricky’s familial subplot. There are also some strange structural choices; the most exciting elements of the film happen roughly halfway through it’s runtime, which makes the second half feel less essential in comparison.

That being said, there’s still a lot to enjoy in White Boy Rick, particularly seeing how Ricky was both a victim of a corrupt government operation and how his desire to help his family led him down a dark path. Director Yann Demange, who’s brilliant debut ’71 was under seen, is able to craft exciting and energetic montages and transitions, which give the film a kinetic feel at times. The performances save a lot of the weaker elements, making White Boy Rick a solid, if unremarkable, crime thriller. Grade: B-

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The Predator- Movie Review

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THE PREDATOR

The Predator is just so bad. Bad on every conceivable level. Bad to the point that it makes you question-was it intentional? Some sort of failed attempt at parody isn’t inconceivable, as writer/director Shane Black’s directorial efforts have been brimming with self awareness and encoded in a sense of irony, from his brilliant deconstruction of hardboiled noir (Kiss Kiss Bang Bang), his subversive and cathartic superhero romp (Iron Man 3), and his masterful private eye buddy duo (The Nice Guys). Blame studio interference, blame poor marketing, or blame the cast for not knowing what they’re in for, but the ultimate blame lies with Black himself; this is the first of his films where I’m not sure he’s in on the joke.

After a mysterious creature from another planet kills his men, Army Ranger Quinn McKenna (Boyd Holbrook) is deemed unfit for duty and silenced by his government. Holbrook befriends a group of insane ex-soldiers (Trevante Rhodes, Keegan Michael-Key, Thomas Jane, Alfie Allen, Augusto Augilera) and a scientist researching extra terrestrials (Olivia Munn) to track down the creature that killed his team. There’s also a government official character played by Sterling K. Brown who wears jackets and says things.

What makes me lean away from suggesting the film is a product of self awareness is it’s blatant script and technical faults; there are jokes, one-liners, and expositional monologues made by characters that are so bad that surely, *surely* they were an attempt at parody, but the film’s direction doesn’t neccessarily indicate otherwise, nor do the film’s characters develop to the point that those sort of lines would feel appropriate. I try to evaluate the film as it’s own thing, but compare this film to the 1987 original; within the first fifteen minutes, we know exactly who each character is and what their schtick is, but in Black’s rendition, schtick is the only thing he’s got.

If we’re sticking with comparisons to the original, a clear difference made early on is the portrayal of the Predator. In John McTiernan’s 1987 classic, the creature is shrouded in mystery to make it more primal and scary, but Black makes a choice early on in the new film to let you know everything about the Predator and show you in it’s entirety. This is clearly a choice, as Black isn’t going for a thriller per se, but he doesn’t take advantage of it either. It’s these sort of choices that make the third act plot revelations, ridiculous side plots involving McKenna’s son with autism, genuine discussions about PTSD with the soldiers, and the film’s embarrassing attempt at sequel bait feel all the more lazy; they’re half cooked ideas at parody that are mixed into a film that’s not sure what it’s identity is.

It’s also evident how poorly produced the entire film is; early on the editing choices are strange, stringing together unrelated scenes in an order that seems counterintuitive to fluidity. Many scenes feel choppy, as if there were shots or moments completely lifted, and the film’s plot hangs on paper thin logic. There’s also just straight up bad technicals; the CGI looks half rendered and terrible, the sound effects are inconsistent, and the action scenes are lacking in creativity, minus some admittedly inventive deaths (which remain consistent with the theory that Black was in on the joke).

The first half of the film is straight up unwatchable, but as the second half begins I was genuinely engrossed as the film’s plot mechanics somehow managed to get dumber with each passing scene. It’s at that point that I was almost convinced Black had duped us with the opening in order to give way to a ludicrous third act, but even then the third act still fails any logic test and isn’t really as fun as you’d want it to be. Still, I do want to give credit to the cast; while the script doesn’t really present any opportunities, the actors seem to be having a good time, and Holbrook in particular gives the film the sort of macho, wink at the camera sort of charm it’s looking for.

The Predator is an aggravating and befuddling film, and I think I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s terrible but I don’t hate it. Perhaps a poorly produced midnight movie is what Black was going for, but the film feels like an incomplete and conceived attempt at even that. Sure, I laughed a lot, but as the film went on I found myself laughing at it more than I was laughing with it. I give props to Shane Black, a very talented filmmaker, with going for a wild reinvention of the action movie, I’m just disappointed it didn’t work. Grade: D

The Wife- Movie Review

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The Wife is an expertly crafted character piece, with every element of the film designed to exemplify the brilliant performances. While the film’s pace is slow, each moment and action has ramifications that set up interesting confrontations, and director Bjorn Runge trusts his audience enough to hide many of the most important developments in the smaller details. It’s a deeply frustrating film, not because of artistic failure, but because of the genuine emotions evoked when watching this Shakespearean drama unfold.

Legendary author Joe Castleman (Jonathan Pryce) has been informed that he’s set to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature, and travels to Stockholm with his wife Joan (Glenn Close). Joan begins to question her life choices as their family gathers and secrets are revealed, and the situation complicates as an obsessive biographer (Christian Slater) follows the couple in hopes of uncovering lost secrets. Close and Pryce have never been better; Close is perfect at hiding suppressed emotions and never quite opening up all the way to anyone, and Pryce is great as a despicable character who’s insecurities motivate all his actions.

While flashbacks are often a lazy tactic, the film’s flashbacks are utilized perfectly to give certain revelations at all the right moments and draw comparisons to current events. The heavy lifting early on gives us all we need to know about these characters right away, building to a great third act where everything falls apart at all the right moments. It’s a great showcase for these actors, but also a great film about the challenges that writers face. Grade: A-

BlacKkKlansman- Movie Review

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BlacKkKlansman is a terrifically timely movie, and although the film’s primary motivation seems to be drawing comparisons between its historical context and today’s world, it has the benefit of telling a wild true story story that seems stranger than fiction. Although a undercover crime thriller like this seems like it’s fit to be a straight up thriller, the film is more about conversations; a majority of the film is stimulating discourse between characters, as well as a seedy exploration into the ugliest side of humanity, and the realism and wit that is found in the film’s script translates into an enthralling film.

Based on a true story, BlacKkKlansman follows Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), the first black cop on the Colorado Springs Police Force. After contacting members of the Klu Klux Klan over the phone, Stallworth enlists fellow cop Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) to impersonate him and infiltrate the organization. Together, the pair is works together to stop a terrorist attack on members of a black student union.

The film embraces the ugliness of the world head on, and the depiction of the intense bigotry of the KKK, as well as the casual racism Stallworth faces from other cops, is difficult to watch at points. This brutality is cleverly interjected with humor, as the ridiculous true story is filled with ironies and often hilarious situations, and Spike Lee plays on all the humor that could be found in this situation. Still, the film doesn’t have any easy answers, and the film features a lot of interesting conversations, from Stallworth’s discussions about trying to change the police force from the inside with a student leader (Laura Harrier) and Zimmerman’s contemplation of his Jewish heritage in the wake of his undercover operations.

John David Washington delivers a star making performance, and although we’re naturally going to be rooting for his character in his noble quest to break barriers in the police force and stop terrorists, Washington maintains a charisma and confidence that makes him electrifying onscreen. Driver is also terrific, and although he doesn’t have any huge scenes, he plays on his character’s moral dilemma in the most subtle of ways. There’s also a standout performance by Topher Grace as David Duke; the film makes a point of making the leader of this horrifying organization more of a sitcom bully than a supervillain, and although Lee makes Duke the butt of many jokes, he remains a disturbing presence, and Grace does a great job at making sure we’re laughing at him, not with him.

The film is slightly too long, and although there are no major subplots that could be removed, some scenes drag on slightly too long. While it is more of a conversation piece, the third act does feature an edge of your seat sequence that’s preceded by some insightful observations about two communities. BlacKkKlansman has a lot to say, but it’s also a very enjoyable ride with characters you can’t help rooting for and some true insights. Grade: A-

Mission: Impossible- Fallout- Movie Review

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Mission: Impossible- Fallout isn’t just the perfect Mission: Impossible film, it’s pretty much everything you could ask an action movie to be. This is a franchise that has built itself on excellent craftsmanship from unique filmmakers, and a star that cares perhaps a little too much about giving the audience the most authentic movie possible. Fallout is the culmination of a twenty-two year odyssey of consistently outdoing our expectations. The staging and precision of the action is simply gorgeous; everything from the lighting to the majestic score to the dance-like choreography is so perfect in it’s composition that it’s almost difficult to simultaneously revel in the craftsmanship and lose oneself in the experience. It’s not that they don’t make them like this anymore- they don’t make them like this period.

Despite thwarting members of the Syndicate terrorist organization on a previous adventure, Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) is once again joined by Benji (Simon Pegg) and Luther (Ving Rhames) in order to stop the insane anarchist Solomon Lane (Sean Harris) from possessing nuclear weapons. Hunt is begrudgingly paired with the brutish C.I.A. operative August Walker (Henry Cavill), but his duty to his mission is questioned by the appearance of old flame Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), who has her own agenda. Perhaps the plot is derivative of other Mission: Impossible films, but Christopher McQuarrie knows when to key the audience into upcoming twists and when to genuinely surprise them. The logic is sound enough for the world McQuarrie has created, and there’s enough added stakes and complications added throughout to increase the unpredictability.

As always, the craftsmanship on display here is simply unparalleled. While the creative action setpieces and ludicrous stunts are a hallmark of the series, McQuarrie has brought a strange sense of beauty to the experience; the shots are gorgeous, and while some haunting dream sequences are beautifully realized, even the most visceral of action scenes look like portraits (a nightclub sequence in particular is striking its use of color). Each scene is filled with movement; there’s a direction and kinetic energy to each scene, with the action feeling both relentless and unpredictable. This is also a credit to how sharp McQuarrie’s script is; even the expositional scenes feel urgent, and there’s enough humor from these well rounded characters to give necessary tension breakers.

Of course, the other appeal of the Mission: Impossible films is the unmatched star power of Tom Cruise. One should look no further than Cruise’s extensive thirty year filmography to see that he is a great actor (I could name about twenty truly great films he’s starred in), but his power as a movie star is unique. Cruise has created a symbiotic relationship with his audience; he cares about the realism and authenticity of the stunts and emotions, and in turn, he cares about the audience, so seeing his effort makes him all the more exciting. Cruise has an electric presence onscreen, lighting up each scene with confidence and charisma, and the unrelenting character of Ethan Hunt is a perfect match for the tone of these films. Cruise is also backed by a great ensemble; Pegg, Rhames, and Ferguson work very well together, and there’s a lightning in a bottle magic of seeing them onscreen together that goes beyond the script.

Fallout isn’t a traditionally inventive film by the standards of plot mechanics, but there’s a deep love for the medium of film seen here that simply isn’t seen in other directors, stars, or franchises. Mission: Impossible has always been about realizing the incredulous and exciting, yet taking the time and effort to do so, and Fallout is a tribute to that spirit. I can’t say enough of the experience of seeing a film like this unravel, other than the obvious- this is why we go to the movies. Grade: A+

Won’t You Be My Neighbor?- Movie Review

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Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is a brilliant piece of filmmaking; it’s the rare documentary that is able to trace the impact of an individual on the a larger cultural movement as well as singling out his specific achievements. The documentary does a great job at tracking Fred Rogers’s journey from childhood to his career on television and eventual stardom, but what makes it such a moving piece of work is the pureness of Rogers’s personality; here was a man whose purity and compassion made him peculiar, and Won’t You Be My Neighbor? beautifully takes the time to look at how these core values educated people in their darkest times.

While the film follows a fairly straightforward path of Rogers’s origins on television and tracks the success of his series henceforth, the documentary smartly focuses on clustered thematic ideas, showing how Rogers crafted his characters based on the people in his life and how he used current events to craft the show’s storylines. The interviews give the perfect amount of personal connection needed to exemplify the importance of these events, yet it’s often that the film’s best moments are when it simply rolls footage of Rogers; here was a man that gave so much and cared deeply about people, and the purity of these acts of kindness feel all the more touching when considering Roger’s surroundings and troubles.

Perhaps the message of Won’t You Be My Neighbor? may be simple, and while the film does an impressive job at showing how an inventive man harnessed a new medium in order to attract an immense fanbase, it’s ultimately about the power of empathy and installing a sense of emotional maturity at a young age. Perhaps the most moving thing is that Rogers was at some points unaware of what an impact he had, and that his persona onscreen wasn’t a character. Anything considered even remotely radical about Rogers was done so out of compassion, and Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is a beautiful tribute. Grade: A+

Ant-Man and the Wasp- Movie Review

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Marvel had commonly prided itself on delivering films that are fun and lack self-serious, and of all the characters in their mythology, Ant-Man demands that attention more than any. 2015’s Ant-Man may not rank as one of the best of the genre, but its approach to the genre as a relatively low-key story about a father trying to atone for his mistakes and pull off a heist was perfect. Ant-Man and the Wasp delivers on many of the same factor, but also gives us more of what was demanded from the first film, namely more creative action, more humor, and more Evangeline Lily.

After aiding Captain America in battle, Scott Lang/ Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) is under house arrest and has avoided contact with his former associates. After receiving a mysterious message from the long lost Janet van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer), Scott teams up again with Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lily) and her father Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) to find her, while a threat looms in the form of an enigmatic figure known as Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen).

Rudd is a naturally charismatic screen presence, and his hapless, goofy persona is a welcome contrast to the superheroes we usually see. There’s a definite development to the character, as we see his desire to save people as a superhero contrasted with his desire to protect his daughter. Similar to how the first film’s heart was centered on the relationship between Lang and his daughter, Ant-Man and the Wasp draws its motional core from the search for Janet and the excellent relationship between Lily and Douglas. Lily is perfect as Scott’s more competent partner, yet the familial tragedy gives her the needed vulnerability.

Rudd, Lily, and Douglas work extremely well together and have developed a great onscreen repertoire with some terrific banter, and their charismatic relationship leads much of the film. This is definitely a comedy first, with many side plots and elements feeling somewhat unimportant to the overall story other than to add comedy, and for the tone of the film, they fit in well. Randall Park is uproarious as a quirky FBI agent looking for his big break, and I also enjoyed Walton Goggins’s sweet-talking southern arms dealer and the charming duo of Judy Greer and Bobby Cannavale. That being said, the film is once again stolen by Michael Pena, who’s quirky anecdotes, memorable one-liners, and perspective on the events of the film make him the standout of the cast.

While the character of Ghost may lack the screen presence held by Infinity War’s Thanos or Black Panther‘s Killmonger, the character’s backstory is set up reasonably well, specifically involving the incorporation of Laurence Fishburne as a character genuinely caught in the crossfire. The character’s backstory is definitely tragic, but for the most part Ant-Man and the Wasp keeps things light and fluffy, and despite many diversions, none of the gags overstay their welcome. The action is also genuinely jaw dropping at some points; director Peyton Reed has found a way to use scale and the characters’ powers creatively, and the third act is genuinely relentless in delivering an exciting chase spectacle with the perfect sprinklings of spectacle.

Ant-Man and the Wasp delivers everything I wanted in a sequel, and while it may not have as strong of an emotional character arc as the first film, it definitely expands the world and characters in a creative manner while also keeping the stakes personal and the comedy consistent. As a comedy alone there’s the appeal of many charismatic people delivering solid jokes, and as a comic book film it’s well rounded, while not leaning too hard on it’s connections to the overall Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s a blast. Grade: B+

A look at how I’d fit Ant-Man and the Wasp into my rankings of the Marvel Cinematic Universe films:

20. Iron Man 2

19. Thor: The Dark World

18. Thor

17. The Incredible Hulk

16. Ant-Man

15. Captain America: The First Avenger

14. Iron Man 3

13. Avengers: Age of Ultron

12. Ant-Man and the Wasp

11. Doctor Strange

10. Avengers: Infinity War

9. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

8. Black Panther

7. Iron Man

6. Guardians of the Galaxy

5. Captain America: The Winter Soldier

4. Spider-Man: Homecoming

3. Thor: Ragnorak

2. The Avengers

1.Captain America: Civil War

Sicario: Day of the Soldado- Movie Review

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While I was very impressed by 2015’s Sicario, I wasn’t completely convinced that the film needed a sequel. I’m still not entirely convinced that the film needed a sequel, but Sicario: Day of the Soldado is a very impressively made thriller, and while it will most likely be dissected for its continuation of the “cycle of violence” themes perpetrated by the first film, its a purely visceral experience that’s operating on a high functioning technical level. While he doesn’t quite have as taught and reserved a touch as Denis Villeneuve, director Stefeno Sollima has crafted a nail biting suspense piece that uses violence and set pieces to only increase our sense of dread and anxiety.

With drug cartels now classified as terrorist organizations, C.I.A. agent Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) is enlisted by the U.S. Government to start a conflict amongst the drug cartels. Graver enlists his old ally Alejandro (Benicio del Toro), but Alejandro has his own motivations for hunting down cartel leadership and is determined to carry out justice his own way. Despite some mildly cheesy military dialogue and a strange desire to give every character a “badass introduction moment,” the character work here is very strong; Graver is forced to wrestle with the ugly side of an already ugly business, and Alejandro remains an enigmatic character who’s tragic history guides his hyper-focused missions.

While the film asks a lot of questions about the place of the U.S. on the border and its role in the violent conflicts, perhaps too many questions to be asked in a two hour action movie, it’s a relatively straightforward story regarding the capture of a cartel leader’s daughter. While the scope is lightly less focused than in the first film, the simplicity of the story allows the hyper-violent shootouts and brutality to see more authentic, and even when it’s easy to get lost in the nuances of the story, Benicio del Toro remains a riveting actor to watch onscreen. The side characters all contribute to the story and are given payoffs overtime, and while some could accuse the ending of being a little corny and on the nose, I liked the way it opened up the possibilities of the universe while acknowledging the harshness of its reality.

The final act of Sicario: Day of the Soldado is a masterful sequence of seemingly catastrophic events, where each sequence could’ve easily served as a denouement. It’s surprising, shocking, and very well executed, with Sollima keeping the audience on the edge of their seats throughout the film. It’s a thoroughly nasty film, and while it lacks the moral center that Emily Blunt’s character provided to the first film, it’s a captivating experience. Grade: B+

American Animals- Movie Review

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American Animals is truly one of the more interesting heist films in recent memory; not only does the incorporation of real-life interviews make the film more authentic and playful at the same time, but directory Bart Layton takes the time to look at post-heist anxieties and examine the implications of an event like this on young men. Unlike most heist films, these characters are not in it for the glory or fame, but rather a fulfillment that’s been lacking in their lives, and American Animals takes the time to look at these men and the lines they cross in their search for meaning in life.

Based on a true story, the film follows a heist to steal rare priceless books carried out by four Transylvania University students: Spencer (Barry Keoghan), Warren (Evan Peters), Chas (Blake Jenner), and Eric (Jared Abrahamson). The dynamic between Keoghan and Peters is established early on, and the film smartly establishes Keoghan as a moral compass and Peters as a unreliable narrator. Abrahamson also does some great work here, specifically as he struggles with the possibility of violence, and while I felt Jenner was underused and underdeveloped overall, he has a fantastic emotional breakdown that stands among the film’s best scenes.

The heist scenes are executed brilliantly and feel frantic and desperate, just as the characters are. While the film takes painstaking detail in the details of the plan and its implications, the last minute anxieties and changes make for some truly thrilling sequences. The post-heist scenes are just as thrilling; this is a rare robbery film that focuses on post-traumatic stress and allows us to empathize with the crushing pressure forced upon the characters, yet the film is more interested in tracing the roots of their desires to pull off the heist than justify them, which makes for a stronger experience overall.

American Animals is a unique true crime experiment, as it uses its narrative and characters to look at themes of ambition and desire, yet still delivers a tour de force thriller that makes the most of its small scale. I was invested in the story of four friends searching for an escape from reality, yet I was simultaneously able to reflect upon how the real actions of these men affected their community. It’s an interesting balancing act of exploring characters and real people at the same time, and I was riveted by the sense of dread perpetuated by this harrowing thriller. Grade: A-

Ocean’s 8- Movie Review

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Ocean’s 8 is an amicable, good natured summer romp, and despite some structural issues, the film is very sleek, whimsical, and fun. A film like this relies both on the “gee whiz” zaniness of pulling off a seemingly impossible heist and a good deal of charisma from it’s impressive cast, and in both senses I think the film succeeds.

After being released from prison, Debbie Ocean (Sandra Bullock), sister of the infamous criminal Danny Ocean, has her mind set on another impossible heist stealing jewels from the Met Gala. Teaming with her best friend Lou (Cate Blanchette), Debbie pulls together a unique group of women, each with their own speciality, in order to pull off the heist. It’s hard to balance a cast like this, but each character has a moment to shine, with each group member filling an important role in the heist.

The Ocean’s series has always benefited from the sleek charisma of movie stars, and Sandra Bullock is really strong here, giving hints of vulnerability throughout whilst remaining the mastermind needed to anchor the group. While I felt that Blanchette was underused, I enjoyed the dynamic she had with Bullock. Anne Hathaway’s character has by far the most interesting arc, with Hathaway handling some of the film’s most outwardly funny moments. It’s not a comedy in the strictest sense, but the cast gets some good quips, and the dialogue throughout is fairly strong.

If I had to pick out some structural issues, I think the film could’ve spent more time developing the characters prior to the heist, and while it’s hard to give each character a full arc, the film’s post-heist events are somewhat stretched out, and I would much rather have spent some time focused on letting the cast shine. While there Debbie has an interesting enough motivation in trying to get revenge on her ex-lover (Richard Armitage), there’s a lack of tension in the heist, and I would’ve liked more scenes of conflict between the characters.

Stephen Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven is one of my favorite films of all-time; a masterpiece in style, tone, and payoffs, it’s a subtle tribute to the power of movie stars that’s more about conning the audience’s emotional and literal expectations than it’s effective plot mechanics. There’s a little bit of the Soderbergh magic that’s lost in Ocean’s 8, but overall I found it to be a very enjoyable heist film with some thrilling heist scenes, as well as some gleefully fun transitional moments that are elevated by the sly direction. I’d be up for more adventures with this cast, and Ocean’s 8 fulfills its desire to redo a modern classic. Grade: B