Friday, November 15, 2019

Oscar Bait: Ford V Ferrari

Wait, I thought YOU wrote down where we parked the car.

Here's something I never have to see again and yet have seen in no less than three movies in the last week: A scene where the wife of the hero chews out the hero for doing the very thing the hero will be known for doing. Typically, it's the wife of a cop, or a doctor, but in Ford v Ferrari it's the wife of race-car driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale).

And in this case, it is such a contrived bit of drama because when we're introduced to Mollie Miles (Caitriona Balfe), director James Mangold makes it very clear that she's into the whole car thing, and clearly knew the type of man she had married. That introduction gave me hope this very dude-centric movie had at least tossed us a token cool chick. Alas.

And Ford v. Ferrari (better titled Le Mans '66 abroad) is definitely a bro-fest, with bellowing performances from Matt Damon as Carroll Shelby (what's with Matt Damon and characters named Carol/Carroll?), Tracy Letts as Henry Ford II, and Josh Lucas as weasely Ford executive Leo Beebee.

As much as I love that era of muscle cars, I'm way less interested in the sports cars and auto-racing of the time. And that's probably why I had never heard the story of how then VP of Ford Motor Company Lee Iaccoca (Jon Bernthal) decided in the mid 1960's that the company should win the 24 hour Le Mans race to help boost sales, and if that meant buying Ferrari to do it, so be it. When that scheme crashed and burned, they decided to make their own race car, roping in racer and car designer Carroll Shelby (he of Shelby Mustang fame), who in turn recruited racer and engineer Ken Miles to help build it.

For a movie about fast cars, it drags, and at two-and-a-half hours long it could have used some serious trimming (might I suggest a certain scene involving a screaming wife?) That said, the performances are solidly entertaining, by both the cars and the actors (though sometimes the cars overshadow the stars). I'll also say Christian Bale, an actor who has always annoyed me in some way or another in every movie I've ever seen him in, gives what I think is his most enjoyable performance ever. Director Mangold films the racing scenes well, thankfully not resorting to nausea inducing shaky camera work, and for the most part, the action is indeed exciting and crowd pleasing. But anyone who has watched a race, especially a long one, can't deny it can get monotonous. The same holds true for Ford v Ferrari.

Friday, November 8, 2019

'Doctor Sleep' Bids Good Day To Mr. Kubrick

"Yeah but where's MY Dr. Sleep when I need him?"

Stephen King's 2013 novel Doctor Sleep is a sequel to his 1977 novel The Shining. It is most definitely not a sequel to Stanley Kurbick's 1980 movie The Shining, a movie King famously hated, and the book makes no real nods to Kubrick's interpretation of his story. King's Doctor Sleep exists in a world where the evil Overlook Hotel burned to the ground, and there was no such thing as a hedge maze.

But you can't make a movie sequel to The Shining and pretend Stanley Kubrick's version never existed, especially if you want to sell a lot of tickets. So director and writer Mike Flanagan's Doctor Sleep is hybrid of both. It's King's story set in Kubrick's universe.

To accomplish this, Flanagan doesn't simply use original footage from The Shining. When it comes to incorporating moments from that earlier film into this one, he recreates and recasts, so that the film opens with young Danny Torrance riding his tricycle through those familiar hallways, passing a familiar doorway, and seeing a familiar bather in a familiar bathtub.

But we quickly see that this isn't the Danny we remember. He's been recast, along with his mother Wendy (by Roger Dale Floyd and Alex Essoe, respectively). And I'll admit I had a visceral negative reaction when I saw those new actors, even as I marveled at the masterfully recreated costumes and sets; I went in expecting a sequel, not a remake.

But that slavish recreation of The Shining is only a fraction of the film's (bloated) 151 minute running time, and the majority of the film centers on a grown up Dan Torrance (Ewan McGregor) who has learned to silence the very real demons that haunt him, through a combination of booze and mental lockboxes, the latter a trick taught to him by Dick Halloran (Carl Lumbly).

After hitting rock bottom he finds friendship and AA, settling down in a small New Hampshire town, taking on shifts at a hospice, where his psychic abilities lend themselves well in leading the dying into that good night. This skill earns him the nickname "Doctor Sleep."

The moments Dan Torrance spends with the dying, along with scenes of him at AA and embracing friendship, are all heartfelt and authentic, and imbue the film with a tenderness and sadness that is a welcome change of pace for a horror film, as is the inclusion of a young girl of color as the story's heroine. Teenage Abra (Kyliegh Curran) is also gifted with "the shine," and she develops an unlikely, sight unseen friendship with Dan. But her supernatural gifts are like a beacon to the band of baddies that are the film's villains.

Lead by a beautiful woman known as Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson), the "True Knot" are a gang of vampiric gypsies who gain immortality from the "steam" the emanates from people like Abra and Dan, though steam from children--especially frightened, dying children--is the most powerful; they suck that shining out of their victims like bong hits.

Their murder of a young, "gifted" boy is perhaps the film's most horrifying and disturbing scene, and it's a reminder that much of The Shining was centered on the terrorizing of a child. And perhaps that's part of why that film has had such a lasting impact. We've all been scared children (the most unlucky being children scared of their own parents), and for adults who become parents, knowing their child might be in danger is perhaps the scariest thing of all.

Doctor Sleep delves into areas centered on the effects of trauma and the heredity of addiction, with Dan Torrance literally coming face-to-face with the spectre that was his murderous and alcoholic father, Jack (Henry Thomas, playing yet another creepy father character in a Mike Flanagan movie, fills in for Jack Nicholson), and it's when Dan is facing those kinds of demons that the film is its most effective. The trip back to the haunted Overlook, while certainly fun, in a pandering-to-the-fans kind of way, is just a Halloween attraction compared to the knowledge that you might grow up to be exactly like the person you most loved, feared, and hated.

Doctor Sleep is too long, and relies a bit too much on what Stanley Kubrick created before it. But it also did something The Shining, a scary but classically cold Kubrick movie, never could. It made me scared and sad.

Friday, November 1, 2019

Oscar Bait: Motherless Brooklyn

Is Oscar?

Edward Norton is no stranger to the Oscars, albeit thrice as a nominee, but never a winner. His latest drama, Motherless Brooklyn, seems like the ultimate in Oscar bait, in that he wrote, directs, and stars in it, and his role, as a low level detective with Tourette syndrome, is the kind of showy performance the Academy loves.

Alas, it's likely Norton won't even make it to nominee status this year, because while Motherless Brooklyn is beautifully shot and entertaining, it's also too long, and aside from its tic-ridden protagonist, doesn't do much that hasn't been done before, and often better.

Apparently this has been a passion project of Norton's ever since the Jonathan Lethem novel it was based on was released in 1999. That's odd to learn since Norton has changed much of the book's plot, moving it from its then contemporary setting to the 1950's, and changing the central mystery to an investigation into the racist and corrupt development of modern New York City.

The movie is pure film noir. It opens with the murder of Norton's boss and friend (Bruce Willis), leads to a case with a mysterious woman at its center (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), and ends with the hero facing a villain (Alec Baldwin) and uncovering more than he ever planned to.

For the most part, Norton captures the era well. That the detective agency he works for also doubles as a car service means plenty of gorgeous 1950's automobiles are utilized throughout. It being set during the winter means lots of women in era-appropriate heavy coats, hats, and gloves. (He's a little anachronistic when it comes to background storefronts, and his use of the word "weed" when talking about marijuana, which, while certainly used at time, just doesn't sound right.)

At two-and-half hours long, Motherless Brooklyn drags terribly in the middle, which is frustrating, because with a little editing it could have been a tight throwback to both the classic noir of the 1950's, and the neo-noir of the 1970's and 80's. Noir fans willing to have their patience tried will likely find it worth their time. For the rest, it will be a case of so close, yet so far. Just like Norton and the Oscars.

Friday, October 25, 2019

Oscar Bait: Jojo Rabbit

Komm, gib mir deine hand grenade

The final three months of the year are always a mad rush to awards season. It's when studios release their "prestige" films, AKA Oscar Bait, but it's also the time of year when those same studios do their best to remind critics and academy members of other movies and performances they may have forgotten, via what seems like an endless stream of screeners and screenings.

If you're a full time critic, there's not quite as much catching up you have to do at the end of the year, as it's likely you've already seen most of the movies that are vying for those accolades. But if, like me, this is a part time gig you have to balance with a full time job, it can be overwhelming, and time for actually reviewing all those movies can be scarce.

Last year, I basically gave up writing about anything I was watching at the end of the year. But this time I'm going to do something different, and try my best to offer up some capsule reviews of those Oscar Bait films that are flooding my eyeballs.

And first up is the "anti-hate satire" Jojo Rabbit.

Now, if anyone could pull of a Nazi comedy, it's writer, director, and actor Taika Waititi. What We Do In the Shadows is one of the funniest movies I've ever scene, and Thor: Ragnarok is easily the most enjoyable movie in the Marvel universe.

And indeed, he does pull it off. Jojo Rabbit is both very, very funny and truly heartbreaking. I just don't know if it's as profound as its marketing might lead you to believe because its heart it's just another story of a bigot who learns to see past his own prejudices when he befriends someone he's been told he should hate. What makes Jojo different is that bigot is a ten-year-old boy, and Hitler is his buffoonish imaginary friend.

Set in the final years of the Second World War, Jojo Rabbit follows young Jojo Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis, a delight), as he ventures to a Hitler Youth camp, befriends the Nazi Captain (Sam Rockwell) who runs the camp, and devotes his life to the Fuerer, who also makes frequent appearances as Jojo's imaginary friend. (Hitler is played by Waititi, and who knew Waititi-as-Hitler would look so much like Fred Armisen?)

Jojo lives alone with his mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson, both angelic and tough as nails). His sister has died, and his father is somewhere in Africa fighting for Germany. Or so he's been told. And while Rosie loves Jojo, she doesn't exactly agree with his zealotry, ascribing it to his youth, or, as another character puts it, "You're not a Nazi, Jojo. You're a 10-year-old kid who likes dressing up in a funny uniform and wants to be part of a club."

Indeed, the film equates the zealotry bequeathed to Hitler with the youthful exuberance of Beatles fans, setting the opening credits to the Beatles' German version of I Want To Hold Your Hand, Komm, gib mir deine Hand; other anachronistic music flourishes pepper the film, giving it a Wes Anderson vibe. But the anachronisms also drive home the point that the past is present, and those who cannot laugh at the absurdity inherent in our world's history of hate are perhaps doomed to repeat it.

Friday, September 20, 2019

Things Will Be Great When You're 'Downton Abbey'

“At my age, one must ration one’s excitement."

I'm no Anglophile, so Downton Abbey the series wasn't something I felt an immediate need to view. I believe it was well after the second season had premiered in the U.S. that I, on a rainy day, decided I needed something suitable to watch while cozying up with some tea and knitting, and binged the first season on Netflix.

It was easy to get sucked in. It certainly looked like a stodgy PBS Masterpiece Theater series, but it was a pure soap opera at its heart, complete with tropes like treachery, sibling rivalry, and illicit sex. By the third episode, when Lady Mary's (Michelle Dockery) super vagina killed a Turkish diplomat, I knew I'd follow this show wherever it went.

And it went to some pretty stupid places! Miraculous paralysis recovery! Imposter cousins! Pointless murder trials! The introduction of Lady "Scrappy Doo" Rose (Lily James)! Downton Abbey may have presented as posh, but it was actually the best kind of trash, at its heart merely a fantasy predicated on the fairy tale notion that the English aristocracy were benevolent and loving, and their devoted servants wanted nothing more than to please them. Forever.

And it may very well go on forever, if the hints laid out by Downton Abbey the movie are any indication. I'm sure existing fans will have no problem with that, but I find it hard to believe anyone who hasn't seen the show will have any burning desire to see this movie. Which isn't to say it's inaccessible--the royal visit plotline is simple enough--but I can't imagine a newcomer giving a flying fig about the developing romances of characters who only get about 15 minutes of screentime.

And that's a general problem when you spin off a movie from a TV show. Somehow you've got to convey years of character development into two hours for those who are just coming aboard. This shorthand can thus reduce a character to their most identifiable trait--which is often their most annoying. (Looking at you, sour Mary.)

Taking place mere years after the series finale, the story finds things at Downton pretty much where we left them, though some characters have inexplicably returned after making a big show of leaving. (Daisy (Sophie McShera) is back in the kitchen, and Tom Branson (Allen Leech) has apparently given up on that new start in America.) A letter informs the Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) the King and Queen will be touring Yorkshire, and they plan to stay overnight at Downton. I guess that's how the royals make a reservation.

(I had no idea who the King of England was in 1927, and it's never explicitly stated in the film--and why should it? I am sure the majority of Downton fans know this stuff. Still, I had to look it up. It was King George V and Queen Mary, grandparents of the current Queen Elizabeth.)

This news of course sends both upstairs and downstairs into a tizzy. Will the staff actually be able to serve the King and Queen? Or will they be cook-blocked by the royal entourage? Will Irish Tom be able to control himself in front of the royals? Will Edith's (Laura Carmichael) dress arrive in time for the ball? This is the kind of drama all Downtown Abbey fans have come to expect.

Also expected and delivered: lots of period costume porn; plenty of fancy food porn; and of course the ever present interior design porn that is Downton Abbey itself. The transfer from television to the cinema has its advantages. There are some nice aerial shots, and the big screen can better convey the sheer size and grandeur of Downton Abbey. And yet, the movie still feels like a television episode, albeit perhaps more like one of the series's standalone "Christmas specials." Scenes rarely last more than a few minutes, with a constant need to pop between the many character's and personal dramas.

This means that, as always, there's never enough time spent with Maggie Smith's Dowager Countess, the comedic heart of the series, and really the only thing that has remained consistently entertaining throughout its whole run. She and Isobel Crawley (Penelope Whilton) continue to toss the kinds of pointed barbs that can only be shared by people who actually love and respect each other. (Comparisons to both Machiavelli and Caligula are made of each other, over after dinner port in the drawing room. Downton Abbey in a nutshell.) If turning the show into a movie garners Smith an Oscar for the same role she won an Emmy for--twice!--then it will have been worth it.