Friday, December 6, 2019

Oscar Bait Lightning Round: Knives Out, Dark Waters, Marriage Story, The Irishman

As I'd feared, the amount of time I have had to spend watching movies--over 40 in the past month!--has meant I have had precious little time to actually review any. That doesn't mean I don't have opinions about them, because of course I do! So allow me to spew some thoughts about these currently playing Oscar contenders.

I'm not sure a movie as fun as Knives Out will get the Oscar attenton it deserves, but with the Academy nominating up to ten films each year, there's no reason it shouldn't. Every member of the knockout cast has their moments to shine, but standouts are Jamie Lee Curtis as the de facto family matriarch, Toni Collette as the flighty but savvy daughter-in-law, and Ana de Armas as the nurse at center of the mystery.

Like many a classic Whodunnit, the death takes place in a mansion filled with the usual suspects, with almost everyone but a butler represented. Rian Johnson's clever screenplay goes back and forth from a Did Someone Do It? to a They Said They Did It! to a Wait, Did They Do It?, and for the majority of the movie you may be wondering if you're watching a Whodunnit at all.

If the film has any flaws, I'd say it's Daniel Craig's Foghorn Leghorn-accented Detective Benoit Blanch, but I just chose to pretend his awful accent was a long con and the detective's real identity will be revealed in a coming sequel. Fingers crossed.

Had Dark Waters come from any other director than Todd Haynes, it would be your standard "based on a true story" drama about the little guy fighting the powers that be. And in all honesty, it is that, with the added puzzlement that comes from knowing this came from Haynes, and yet contains none of his trademarked attention to setting or style.

It could be argued that this story of a corporate lawyer (Mark Ruffalo) who decides to go after DuPont, the type of business he usually represents, makes a good companion piece with Haynes's 1995 drama Safe. Both deal with the impact of environmental pollutants. But the subject matter is basically where the similarities end. Where Safe felt weird and unpredictable, Dark Waters isn't innovative in any way. Which isn't to say the story isn't important. I just think you'd get just as much entertainment value reading the New York Times Magazine piece it was based on, and without the obligatory "wife yelling at her husband for doing his job" scene from Anne Hathaway.

When I was a kid I saw Kramer vs Kramer and loved it, mainly because it was an adult story with a child at the center, and being an only child myself, I often felt like a child living in an adult's story. But that's pretty much where the identification ended, since my parents weren't in the middle of divorce (and are still married; congrats!).

Marriage Story, like Kramer vs Kramer, is actually the story of a divorce, with a young child at the center, but in this case, a little less focus is put on the kid. It's his parents' story, and at times, it broke my heart. It's certainly one of the best acted movies of the year (though Adam Driver's performance is a little stronger than Scarlett Johansson's) with one tour de force argument so intense and cathartic it brought me to tears.

I've often felt a little distanced from Noah Baumbach's films. They can be as stiff as Wes Anderson movies, but without the beautiful production design that can warrant the "these aren't actors, they're dolls" feeling. Marriage Story is the first Baumbach movie where the characters feel completely real and fully alive.

Through this awards season my main complaint has been that movies are too damn long, and then Martin Scorsese, one of my favorite directors, has to come along and release a three-and-a-half hour epic.

But here's the thing. It's on Netflix, and I'm not going to begrudge the length when its available via a medium I've spent six hours or more in front of when binging a series. Which actually leads to a common complaint lodged against The Irishman: that it should have been even longer, and a Netflix series.

Ah, but then it wouldn't be Oscar Bait, would it?

I was never bored through it's three plus hours, and in fact watched it in one sitting. I feared the CGI de-aging might be distracting, and perhaps on a big screen, it is. But I got used to it pretty quickly (less so Robert De Niro's freaky blue eyes). One thing they couldn't de-age is the fact that these guys are all in their 70s, and try as they might to look like spry 40-somethings through half of it, they don't always succeed, still beating up guys like the 70-somethings they are.

Scorsese doesn't have to make another gangster movie ever again as The Irishman is the perfect coda to his wise guy oeuvre. It's both a greatest hits album and a melancholy meditation on mortality, guilt, and regret.

Friday, November 22, 2019

Oscar Bait: A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood

No, seriously, PLEASE won't you be my neighbor?

Based on Tom Junod's 1998 profile of Fred Rogers, or more accurately, based on the writing of that profile, A Beautiful Day In the Neighborhood is more about the emotional journey of a journalist than it is about Mr. Rogers.

And I suppose that's fine, if the movie wasn't being marketed like it's some kind of biopic, which it definitely is not (not of Rogers nor of Junod, since his story is highly fictionalized). If you want to learn about Mr. Rogers and really understand what he was all about, just watch Morgan Neville's brilliant 2018 documentary Won't You Be My Neighbor?. If you want to see Tom Hanks doing a serviceable impersonation of Fred Rogers, albeit one with limited screen time, see A Beautiful Day In the Neighborhood.

Matthew Rhys plays the fictionalized journalist, now named Lloyd Vogel. He and wife Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson) are new parents. After bringing the baby on its first family outing to Lloyd's sister's (third) wedding, Lloyd has a run-in with his estranged and alcoholic father, Jerry (Chris Cooper). Jerry wants to reconcile; Lloyd wants to hold on to his resentment; things turn violent.

Naturally, Lloyd's editor (Christine Lahti) decides this is the perfect time to send Lloyd on an assignment: write a profile about Mr. Rogers for Esquire's issue about heroes. (A bitter cynic meeting Mr. Rogers? Why, that should be the plot a movie!)

As cliched as that set-up is, director Marielle Heller at least frames it in a unique way, echoing the tone of the original magazine piece by setting up the film like it's a long episode of Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood, complete with that familiar living room and closet, a miniature version of New York City, and appearances from Mr. McFeely and Lady Aberlin.

Tom Hanks, who could perhaps be seen as the most "Mr. Rogers" of actors because of his reputation for decency and niceness, is probably the perfect choice to ably portray Fred Rogers' guilelessness, even if sometimes he comes off more eccentric than simply earnest. (Though I suppose in a world filled with cynics like Lloyd Vogel, earnestness can be seen as the ultimate eccentricity). A Beautiful Day In the Neighborhood isn't a bad movie, it's just a predictable and common one that doesn't do justice to a person who turned out to be one of world's most uncommon heroes.

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.