Ford v Ferrari — 5/10

FORD v FERRARI (2019, James Mangold)

James Mangold’s 2005 Johnny Cash biopic WALK THE LINE was such a hoary compendium of musician-life clichés that it, along with its 2004 predecessor RAY, inspired Judd Apatow and Jake Kasdan to make the hilarious WALK HARD, a lacerating satire of a genre that mightily deserved a good skewering. Marked by one-dimensional characters that only exist to serve or obstruct the protagonists’ goals, and by dialogue that talked down to the audience by bringing all the subtext up into the text, Mangold’s script was bad and condescending enough to propel WALK THE LINE to 5 Oscar nominations as well as a Golden Globe nod for Best Picture.

If ain’t broke — or if it IS, but nobody cares, then don’t fix it? Mangold, this time around, tapped GET ON UP and BLACK MASS writer Jez Butterworth to pen an equally crowd-pleasing and similarly dumbed-down screenplay that would also require its two titanic movie star leads to shoulder the load. Bale and Damon definitely rise to the occasion here: Damon, armed with a wavering Texas drawl, is nevertheless sturdy, confident, and summons the right amount of emotion; by contrast Bale is manic, funny, and wholly convincing as driver-mechanic Ken Miles. The movie might have been well-nigh insufferable without these guys.

Still, the audience has to endure being told everything that’s in front of our eyes, sometimes multiple times. After an establishing sequence underlining Miles as a daredevil rogue with as much attitude as he has talent, Mangold cuts to two suits on the sidelines who say, “He’s difficult… but good!” Not to be outdone, later on Damon’s Carroll Shelby witnesses Enzo Ferrari throw an un-subtitled tantrum in his box at LeMans, only to follow it up with “I don’t speak Italian, but he don’t seem happy!”

There’s also something a little hypocritical about a story that admittedly paints Ford Motor Company as a behemoth with bottomless resources (“we make more cars in a day than Ferrari makes in a year,” “I’ve got a blank check for you”) but then casts it as an underdog. Good old fashioned American ingenuity is gonna defeat those smug-ass Europeans! And because our heroes are a former driver-turned-maverick sports car designer and a loose-cannon Brummie mechanic, they get to take aim at Ford as a stand-in for Those Darn Bureaucrats. In perhaps the baldest spoon-feeding scene, Shelby goes to Ford’s office to answer to a failed attempt with his first run at LeMans. He says they had a good showing, “even with the wrong driver” (Mangold then cuts to Josh Lucas’s sneering Leo Beebe, responsible for kicking “the right driver” — Miles — off the team), “and decisions made by committee” (Mangold then cuts to three suits in charge of marketing)… it’s all a huge insult to anyone who’s been paying attention.

The racing scenes are capably handled, most notably in regards to sound design and mixing, and the 150 minutes are paced fairly well (definitely better than this overlong, redundant movie review). But it’s still a depressingly mimetic underdog sports movie with requisite reaction shots of the cheering son, upset villains in suits, and smirking heroes. I don’t think this is why they call it “Formula” One.

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Knives Out — 8/10

KNIVES OUT (2018, Rian Johnson)

It takes a special kind of confidence to draw so much attention to the exacting clockwork structure of your whodunit that you not only put the word “knives” in the title, but you stage a large portion of the interrogation scenes with the subjects framed around a massive prize-wheel-sized collection of various daggers. Luckily for Johnson, he justifies every ounce of that confidence with a script that manages to be both smarter than its audience at every turn (keep trying to solve it in advance and you’ll look like a fool) and humble enough not to be smug or arrogant about it.

But if this were just a fun Agatha Christie homage (and Daniel Craig’s Benoit Blanc is the southern Cajun version of Poirot’s outsized Belgian accent), it wouldn’t cut as deep — no, this is a pointed rebuke to Trump’s America, an unsubtle attack on the self-righteous, entitled attitudes of wealthy, white-American blue-bloods who resent immigrant workers coming to take their jobs and their money. There’s a running gag about Marta’s origins (every time she’s discussed, nobody can remember which South American country she’s from: Ecuador, Paraguay, Uruguay, Brazil…) and her stupid little Hyundai looks weak and pathetic, but she uses its narrow size to nearly escape the police in a car chase. The intelligent working class finds advantages in their disadvantages.

Since this is a talky, exposition-heavy script, Johnson’s dialogue has to do a lot of the character building, but it does so with clever panache most of the time (Collette’s Gen-X gold-digging widow “read a tweet about a New Yorker article about” the detective, but Curtis’s silver-spooned Boomer actually read the profile). It goes too far in one sequence, heavy-handedly showing the family debate politics in a redundant feud over immigration policy. The movie’s subtext already addresses this; why textually litigate it? Also, there’s a seemingly huge plot hole I won’t reveal but has me mostly worried that because Johnson’s so much smarter than me, it isn’t actually a hole but just something I wasn’t wise enough to solve. At least that puts me in good company with every other member of this cast.

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Doctor Sleep — 6/10

DOCTOR SLEEP (2019, Mike Flanagan)

Ewan McGregor plays grown-up Danny Torrance exactly like he should — which is as a cross between his compassionate but fearful and tortured mother Wendy and his alcoholic, violent and dangerous father Jack. Similarly, Flanagan directs this Shining sequel with two disparate DNAs: half is indebted to Kubrick’s one-of-a-kind classic, and the other is linked to King’s outsized imagination dependent on allusions both religious and supernatural.

Take the Overlook, for example. In King’s book of The Shining, it blows up, and a safe Wendy and Danny move to Florida. In Kubrick’s film, the Overlook thrives post-Jack’s-death, enveloping his spirit into the hotel with the rest. So what does Flanagan do? He starts off the movie with Wendy and Danny in Florida per King, but leaves the Overlook in tact, per Kubrick. (And that allows him to do all sorts of Kubrick cosplay, re-casting young Danny and Wendy [complete with identical voices], reshooting the big wheel, the carpet, the creepy girls, Room 237’s ghosts, the blood gushing from the elevator, and even the office Jack — and now Danny — sat in for job interviews; not since Spielberg’s READY PLAYER ONE has a modern film been so reliant on what Kubrick lent to the cinematic zeitgeist). Eventually, however, the unchecked impulses that have marred King’s later work (absent the merciless editing, edgy danger, and bone-dry humor of his early masterpieces like Cujo and Thinner) rear their heads here, and Flanagan can barely keep all the plates spinning together.

There’s the go-nowhere subplot of Danny (Dan, now that he’s an adult!) working in a hospice center and, along with an ominous cat, ushering the elderly to the afterlife (and granting the movie its title). There’s the relationship between Dan and Abra (her actual name! Short for Abracadabra for real!), a tweener with The Shining whose powers are vaguely superhero-ish — broadly powerful and undefined — in a way Danny never was in the earlier works. And strangest of all is the cabal of hippie vampires led by Rebecca Ferguson, who kidnap kids with Shining and use them as human vape pens to inhale their powers in steam form, which they keep in martini shakers in Ferguson’s RV. I guess they’re… “Vape-ires?”

Flanagan’s career breakthrough was the horrifying OCULUS, both visually scary and emotionally soulful in its examination of grief. But since 2016, he’s been working at such a rapid pace that his characteristic shtick (ruminations on loss and family dressed in horror-movie outfits) is starting to wear thin. In the past three years he’s released HUSH, OUJI 2, BEFORE I WAKE, GERALD’S GAME, the impressive 10+-hour opus THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE (season 1, with season 2 forthcoming), and now this. Each one has a different take on grief and trauma, but each one is also photographed by Michael Fimognari, who is developing an annoying digital look drenched in soft blue low-contrast light, color-timed within an inch of its sallow life. DOCTOR SLEEP suffers from the same look, separating it even further from Kubrick and Alcott’s striking celluloid sight. And while he’s always careful to be faithful to King (GERALD’S GAME was maybe too faithful), Flanagan is so much more interested in the subtext that the movie lacks genuine scares. There are striking moments, but they’re devoid of unhinged danger. It’s slick, professional, and maximal, but doesn’t burrow into your brain. I never said that about Kubrick’s film, and I definitely never said that about any Stephen King book written through at least the early ’90s.

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The Irishman — 10/10

THE IRISHMAN: I HEARD YOU PAINT HOUSES (2019, Martin Scorsese)

When Frank Sheeran hears that his daughter was shoved by a local grocer, he marches down to the corner and kicks the guy out of his own window and then breaks his hand against a concrete curb with his shoe. But he doesn’t do this alone — he makes a point of bringing his daughter with him. And Scorsese directs this scene with one simple shot: the camera is planted on the street in wide angle, not moving. We see Sheeran and his daughter arrive at the market; Frank leaves her outside, enters the grocery, then we see the guy through the window, he gets rustled out by Frank, the glass breaks, loaves of bread go flying, and then the curb assault begins. Frank’s daughter is watching the whole time, standing in the exact spot to get the best view of a bloody, mangled hand by her own dad’s doing.

This unshowy but effective scene is THE IRISHMAN in a nutshell. Scorsese’s camera does perform its notorious gliding moves now and then, but his style is muted in old age. A far cry from the manic, staccato rhythms of THE WOLF OF WALL STREET, this is a contemplative, often quiet film with long takes and subtly gorgeous compositions. And this shot says so much — Frank does not shield his children from his crimes, as much as he thinks he’s protecting them. He comes from a world where you pass along the ethics of this life. If you push a little girl, you get what’s coming to you. As for us in the audience, we’re Frank’s daughter — Scorsese has given us a front row seat to the violence, so we learn everything these people do. Everyone has secrets, but nothing is in the shadows.

Scene after carefully written scene, this heavy, titanic epic feels like a career stamp for Scorsese, who has made an instant American classic with the dexterity of CITIZEN KANE and the weight of THE GODFATHER. It looks into the heart of an executioner and finds a complicated life filled with regret, remorse, and betrayal. By going specific, it speaks universally. Taking place over about 50 years, it draws parallels between world wars and inter-gangland rivalry. Presidents of countries are like presidents of unions. Power corrupts, fractures friends and families, and leads to the unavoidable violence endemic to human nature. And those who survive are burdened with the scars their sins carved on their souls — they are on crutches, in wheelchairs, suffering all kinds of disease… their skin wrinkles, faces encrusted, limbs weak. These enforcers of justice in the mob try to play God by determining when people are killed and by what. But death comes for us all, by a bullet or by old age, and the longer we live with what we’ve done, the more we’re haunted by it. This is why Frank needs the door cracked open a little bit. He sits with his back to the wall. And because he lives on his schedule (and robs others of their own), he’s the one going into a funeral home and buying his own coffin — and even asking for a discount.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t zoom out even further and mention some meta-issues. Martin Scorsese recently published a brilliant, mournful, profound op-ed in the New York Times about the film industry at large. He’s right that it feels like this kind of film is becoming a dinosaur; an anachronism. Brad Grey was the head of Paramount until 2017. He made bold choices and gave great filmmakers rope to make artful Hollywood studio pictures. He green-lit Alex Garland’s ANNIHILATION and Darren Aronofsky’s MOTHER! He had a great relationship with Scorsese and after making films like SHUTTER ISLAND and SILENCE, he started on THE IRISHMAN. But his films started tanking. He got pushed out of Paramount, and died months later of cancer at age 59. Paramount then dropped domestic distribution rights to THE IRISHMAN in February 2017, and only Netflix stepped in to save the production (they also bought ANNIHILATION in December of that year).

Was Grey the last studio head who would take risks? Will the future be, as Scorsese says, “perfect products manufactured for immediate consumption, [lacking] something essential to cinema: the unifying vision of an individual artist?” Perhaps. Most of you reading this won’t see this galvanizing cinematic wonder on the big screen: you’ll see it on your TV screen thanks to Netflix, the only company who would pay the $159 million price tag. Is it a feedback loop? More people watch this on Netflix, so Netflix does more of them and studios like Paramount don’t? Perhaps. And, even worse, perhaps that’s for the best. Last night, when I saw this in one of Los Angeles’ nicest theaters, the crowd was a disaster. The back row of dude-bros were a loud mess. Dropping beer glasses, threatening to beat up other audience members, and cackling at every gunshot. One of them had to be kicked out halfway through. If that wasn’t enough of a distraction, there were the dozen other people who couldn’t bear to go three and a half hours without pulling out their phone to scroll through emails, social media posts, or text their friends, thus blasting the rest of us with Apple’s bright blue light. As I’ve said before, the threat to cinemas isn’t technology or cinema itself: its people. You can blame Netflix, you can blame Marvel, you can blame economics itself. Our biggest problem is other human beings. THE IRISHMAN is a nice thing. Movie theaters are nice things. This is why we can’t have nice things.

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Jojo Rabbit — 2/10

JOJO RABBIT (2019, Taika Waititi)

George Carlin said you can joke about anything; it just depends on how you construct the joke. Anthony Jeselnik explores these boundaries by ensuring that his ostensibly offensive jokes take aim at deserving targets — for example, in this joke (“My grandmother was so racist she told us Santa Claus was black, so that when we found out he didn’t exist it wouldn’t upset us so much”) the target is the racism of the elderly, not blacks or Santa Claus.

So, yes, I think you can joke about the Holocaust, and I think Waititi knows this. The problem (and for me, a particularly huge problem) is that although the targets of his jokes in this movie are Nazis and Hitler, the jokes aren’t funny enough or smart enough to counter the very palpable sense of softening cuteness applied to said Nazis. Sam Rockwell’s character is a notable example of one of the heroes of the movie — saving two lives in noble sacrifice, proving himself to be a hell of a cool SS commandant. As for the lovable little scamp at the center, he spends the majority of the movie spewing some of the most abominable anti-Semitic hatred you could imagine (most of it right to Anne Frank’s face, and the rest of it in dialogue with his imaginary friend, Adolf Hiter), just so we can pat ourselves on the back for approving of his eventual enlightenment that Jews aren’t so bad after all.

One of the supposed saints in his life is his mother (played with uncharacteristic confusion by Scarlett Johansson), who never tries even remotely to cure her son of his loathsome views. She’s secretly working to aid the Jews and rebel against the Third Reich, but never does what a good parent would actually do — and set an example for her son or challenge his venomous hatred. Her ostensible defense is by shielding him from her actions she’s protecting him, but first of all it doesn’t protect him, and secondly that’s not a good reason to passively encourage the sweeping enthusiasm of Hitler Youth. As for the kid’s imaginary friendship with Der Fuhrer, Waititi’s broad, hammy performance is pitched at a shrill and detestable level — his anachronistic sense of humor is aimed at making a mockery of Hitler, which is better than praising him of course, but also defangs one of the most evil war criminals in human history, as if he’s just a goofy figment of your imagination — whew! Glad he isn’t a real person committing genocide! That would be terrible.

And that’s the general tone of this misbegotten Wes Anderson clone: a mushy, sweet, twee satire of WWII atrocities drained of any violence (except one tastefully hidden recognition of a major character’s death) or acknowledgement of the repugnant traumas suffered by my ancestors. And since it isn’t funny (Rebel Wilson is particularly obnoxious in her clueless scramble for a comic register), we’re left with not much to grasp. Thomasin McKenzie is quite good and acquits herself of a role that basically amounts to waiting for the help and rescue and friendship of a pre-adolescent Nazi, and Waititi continues to display a sharp eye for wide-angle frames and editing that understands where comic timing should hit. It’s just that with a script this dour, none of the technical skill can save it. When the end credits roll in the colorful red-and-black font of the SS, it’s almost as if the Holocaust was actually nothing worse than a misguided David Bowie needle drop.

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Pain and Glory — 8/10

PAIN AND GLORY (2019, Pedro Almodóvar)

When director Salvador (played by the consistently great Antonio Banderas, shifting out of his late-period DTV action movies to deliver yet another hard-working performance of intelligence and tenderness) tells a former actress of his that a particular movie plays better now than it did 30 years ago, she tells him “It’s your eyes that have changed. The film is the same.” Almodóvar just turned 70 years old and is finally working like a filmmaker polishing his last chapter: patient, ruminative, and reflective. In that scene he’s challenging the notion that movies can “age well” or feel dated. His acknowledgement that works of art are static, and their impact can only be felt in relation to the relative association with its audience — and their particular life circumstances — is key to understanding the connection between a filmmaker’s relationship to cinema, and his relationship to himself.

As a narrative, it’s kind of all over the map. It takes detours in its wandering focus — whether on a reunion with a former actor, a dalliance with heroin addiction, flashbacks to a formative youth and a complicated mother, chronic health problems, and most notably the return of a former lover — but uses these loose strands to weave a life that isn’t easily summed up or turned into a simplistic message. Instead it lends memories a dreamlike quality, finds ways to turn experience into quasi-fiction (“the neighbors don’t like you talking about them”), and comes to terms with the fact that we can’t return to the past but we can embrace it with the wisdom that can only come from the present. This is a colorful, heartfelt piece of work directed with classical strength and pulsating with sloppy, endearing brush strokes.

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The Lighthouse — 7/10

THE LIGHTHOUSE (2019, Robert Eggers)

A dissertation on entropy disguised as a visual adaptation of a Decemberists song. When we first see the faces of our two protagonists, they stop and stare right into the lens, holding a pose like one of those old-west photographs where proper people had to sit for half an hour just to get a selfie. They then make their way into the lighthouse and begin a laborious structure that includes night shift, day shift, cleaning, hauling, and rule-following (the manual says no drinking!). By the end, more shit has hit the proverbial fan than you could ever anticipate in a two-hander that basically plays like a comedic stage play: Waiting For Captain Godot.

Other than the entropy through-line, and the general investigation into stir-craziness / loneliness-to-madness, it’s hard to figure out just why Eggers even wanted to make this movie. If anything it’s a braggadocious actors’ exercise, giving Dafoe and Pattinson the meatiest roles they’ve ever had, which they justify ably. Pattinson comes off a bit worse, mostly because of an uneven accent, high degree of difficulty with his arc, and the high standard he’s set recently with stuff like GOOD TIME and THE LOST CITY OF Z. Dafoe, on the other hand, is absolutely stunning. He gets to play his Ahab parody with full-gravel voice, under-lit face like a ghost-story raconteur, and never ever breaks character.

Eggers doesn’t just plop his camera down and rely on the performances. He squeezes them into a 1.19:1 (silent film era) aspect ratio, visually cramming these guys together more than even their living conditions indicate, and punishes the soundtrack with a relentless foghorn and the implacable crashing of waves against the unforgiving rocks that surround them. He drains them of color by shooting with 35mm black-and-white film stock on a century-old lens, focus often getting the best of Eggers and his cast. The ghost of Kubrick vaguely haunts the proceedings, with aspects of 2001, A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, and especially THE SHINING peeking into this sea shanty world. The result is a peculiar spirit, a spiked punch of a movie that looks and sounds like nothing else this decade or beyond — much of it is impenetrable and little of it is revelatory, but it’s a thing to behold nonetheless.

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