Reel Opinions


Saturday, November 30, 2019

Knives Out

If you're a fan of murder mysteries, things have been pretty slim at the box office.  Let's face it, we really haven't had a truly classic-style mystery film since 2017's adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express.  And what was the last one before that?  Well, maybe the genre just needed a jolt of energy, and Rian Johnson's Knives Out is destined to be just that.  This is as entertaining, involving and wickedly funny as a film can be.

Johnson juggles a star-studded cast, a twisty plot, and a massive mansion set that one character in the film comments looks like the board from the game of Clue come to life, and manages to build a compelling "who done it" that not only leaves you guessing until the end, but constantly plays fair.  It's all too easy in this genre to pile on the red herrings and pull the rug out from under the audience, but with his clever script, Johnson proves his expertise with the genre.  He's not out just to fool us (though he certainly does that from time to time), but sets up the pieces so that we can put the pieces along with the film's detective hero, the wonderfully-named Benoit Blanc.  Detective Blanc is played by Daniel Craig in a performance that is filled with so much life, energy and humor, you can tell that Craig is having the time of his life with this character.  While he's best known for portraying James Bond these days, it's wonderful to see Craig cut loose with a Southern drawl and a slightly off-kilter edge.

The film starts out by giving us some of the expected trappings of the genre.  The action is mostly set in and around the sprawling Gothic mansion of Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), an acclaimed mystery writer who recently invited his family over to celebrate his 85th birthday, only to turn up dead the next morning, his throat slit with the knife in his hand.  The police have ruled the death a suicide, but then Detective Blanc shows up.  He has been hired by some mysterious party that even he is not aware of.  But, he suspects foul play, and believes that every one who was at the birthday party the night before is a suspect.  And there's certainly more than enough suspicion to go around as we are introduced to Thrombey's dysfunctional family.

The family is played by a wide-range of talent, and demonstrates Johnson's skill at using a large cast to their best ability.  We first have the feuding couple of Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis) and Richard (Don Johnson).  She's a venom-tongued control freak, and he's been fooling around with another woman behind her back.  Next up is Joni (Toni Collette), who was married to one of Thrombey's sons, until he passed away.  Now she's flat broke, and has a daughter in college.  There's the quiet Walt (Michael Shannon), who was running the publishing company that put out Thrombey's books.  He recently got into an argument about selling the rights to the books to Hollywood, something Thrombey had always refused to do, much to Walt's annoyance.  Finally, and most memorably, there is Linda and Richard's son, Ransom (Chris Evans), who is considered the "black sheep" of the family, and seems to take particular delight in seeing the family at each other's throats.

There was apparently a lot of arguing and anger during the party.  Talk of politics led to a lot of disgruntled guests, and over time, almost everyone had some kind of spat with old man Thrombey.  Now that he's dead, Detective Blanc thinks that everyone might be covering up for something.  However, Blanc thinks that there's someone in the house who might be able to help him greatly.  That would be Thrombey's personal nurse, Marta (the charming Ana de Armas), who was quite close with her patient, and spent a lot of time with him.  However, there is something unique about her that Blanc finds interesting - Namely, she cannot lie without throwing up.  It's a condition she's had ever since she was a child.  She can be of great use to him in sorting through everyone's stories, and learning the truth.

Knives Out gives everyone in its cast a moment to grab our attention, but if the movie belongs to anyone, it is to Craig and de Armas.  They share wonderful chemistry on screen, and it quickly becomes evident that de Armas is the MVP.  She is so sweet, disarming and likable that we are immediately drawn to her, just as Craig's character seems to be.  As the details of her relationship with the victim are uncovered, she manages to create a very heartfelt character who still gets to have moments of humor.  She is a relative unknown (her biggest Hollywood role has been in Blade Runner 2049), but this could lead to big things.  Not only that, she is to be seen with Craig again next year in the upcoming Bond entry, No Time to Die, so hopefully that film will lead to another memorable pairing.  And if there must be a stand out among Thrombey's shady family, that would go to Chris Evans, who seems to be relishing being as far from his Captain America image as possible here.

Not only is this a thriller that has been wonderfully planned out, but it even manages to end on a perfect final shot.  Obviously, I won't reveal it here.  Whatever you may have thought of Johnson's last picture, the highly divisive Star Wars entry, The Last Jedi, you owe it to yourself to sit down and savor this classic mystery.  This is a movie that's just as much fun to play along with as you sort through the clues as it is to watch.  I can see this leading to a resurgence in the mystery genre.  As long as they're as much fun and well thought out as this, I'm in.

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Friday, November 29, 2019

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood finds the perfect tone for which to tell the story of the friendship between children's show host Fred Rogers (perfectly played here by Tom Hanks) and a reporter named Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), who is initially assigned to do a "fluff piece" about the man, but soon finds deeper insights into him.  The film is simultaneously joyful, sad, heartbreaking, full of wonder, and whimsical.  This is a movie that understands the spirit of Mr. Rogers and everything he stood for, and fully embraces it, while also telling a satisfying narrative story.  This is a quiet and seemingly unassuming little film that can bowl you over with its emotional power.

Some people who watch this might be disappointed that this is not really a biofilm about Fred Rogers that goes in depth with the man, or his past.  For that, we have last year's wonderful documentary, Won't You Be My Neighbor?.  Rather than repeat the facts from that earlier film, what director Marielle Heller (Can You Ever Forgive Me?) does is focus on Lloyd, a hardened cynic and jaded reporter who initially balks at the idea on having to do a story about Rogers for an issue of Esquire Magazine that's going to be about heroes.  Lloyd is not interested in writing about a "hokey guy" like Fred, and when he meets the man on the set of the show, he is surprised to see that he is no different in real life than the persona he gives on his program.  When Lloyd describes Mr. Rogers as a character on a show, Fred seems genuinely confused.  What people see on the program is him, not a character.  Lloyd is not sure what to think.  Is it some kind of elaborate act?  To the reporter, Fred seems to live in his own world.  And it's a world that Lloyd slowly feels drawn into the more time he spends with him.

One of the wonderful things the film does is that it recreates Rogers' show, and uses it as an introduction to the story.  The opening moments faithfully recreate the program's iconic opening, with Hanks singing the title tune as he takes off his street shoes, slips on his sneakers and cardigan sweater, and perfectly sets the audience at ease.  It's a big gamble trying to recreate the opening to such an iconic children's program.  Go a step too far, and you veer into parody.  But Hanks is perfectly disarming and earns our trust the second he walks through that door onto the perfectly realized set that recreates the low budget coziness the program had in spades.  Hanks is not just imitating Rogers, but has mastered his soothing soul.  Likewise, the movie itself recreates the mood of the show perfectly, allowing Fred to be a narrator of sorts as he introduces us to his friend Lloyd, and takes us into the movie proper.

Even when we are taken into the film's main narrative, the movie never loses that sense of whimsy, as all exterior shots are created with toys and models, just like the outside shots on the show.  Less you think this will be a hokey film wrapped in nostalgia, your fears will disappear when Lloyd's story begins to unfold.  Inspired by a real-life journalist named Tom Junod, who famously covered Rogers back in 1998 in an article titled "Can You Say...Hero?", we follow the events that led up to his fateful meeting with Rogers.  As depicted in the film, Lloyd is a workaholic with a supportive wife (Susan Kelechi Watson from TV's This is Us) and an infant son who is forced to face the demons of his past when, while attending his sister's wedding, he is forced to come face to face with his alcoholic father (Chris Cooper) that he walked away from years ago.  He never forgave his dad for cheating on his mom and not being there when she was dying of cancer.  A fistfight ensues, and when Lloyd shows up to interview Mr. Rogers, he has a scar on his nose from the fight.

Rogers immediately notices the scar, and Lloyd tries to pass it off as an injury from playing baseball.  Fred sees through this, and is eventually able to get the reporter to open up to him over the time they spend together.  The film follows the various meetings between the two men, and how Lloyd learns to move beyond his past.  A big part of the film's power is not just the healing journey that Lloyd goes through, but the performances of both Hanks and Rhys.  There are a lot of moments of quiet power between them that are never overstated, and always capture the healing and calming effect that the real life Rogers had on children and people.  The movie even uses some of the man's actual teachings, such as when he suggests they have a minute of silence together to think on all the people in their lives, and there is literally a minute of silence in the film. (Even the extras and the background actors cooperate.) The way that Rogers gently questions the reporter about his family and his pain is what makes Hanks' portrayal more than just an imitation.  He is embodying everything the man stood for in life.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is a complex film, because it completely believes in its subject matter.  It's not just a story of healing, but a celebration of everything the man believed in.  The recreation of the TV segments is not just nostalgia, but the movie finds some clever ways to incorporate it into the narrative itself, and make it part of Lloyd's emotional journey.  I won't spoil how, but it really has to be seen to be believed, as it's a moment that captures childhood whimsy and a kind of psychological nightmare.  I know it's hard to picture, but like I said, I don't want to spoil it.  This is a movie that uses the teachings and techniques of a children's show to tell a very adult story, and what makes it work is how brilliantly the film mixes these two elements together.  It's as emotionally shattering as any drama can be, but it also understands Rogers' technique of understatement and caring. 

Rather than an expected biofilm, we have a story that recreates the message that Fred Rogers wanted to impart on both children and adults.  Honestly, this is the smartest move the filmmakers could have done.  In a way, this is a more difficult and challenging approach, rather than just taking the standard "filmed Wikipedia" approach.  This is a movie that is unexpected in many ways, and absolutely wonderful in even more ways.


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Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Frozen II

2019 has seen a number of seemingly-sure fire sequels disappoint and underperform.  Sure, we've had our exceptions like John Wick: Chapter 3 and Toy Story 4.  But, we've had just as many examples of films not living up to their predecessors at the box office like Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, Terminator: Dark Fate, and The Secret Life of Pets 2.  All came into theaters with a wave of hype, and all of them dropped off the public radar rather quickly.

Now here is Frozen II, the sequel to the 2013 animated mega-hit.  Yes, six years is a long time to wait for a sequel, but I don't think people will mind when they see this.  Not only do I think this will be a huge hit with audiences, I think it deserves to be.  This is a much better film in my mind than the first.  It's funnier, more thrilling, a little more emotional, and just more fun to watch.  The only drawback is that the songs, while still good, are nowhere near as memorable as before.  But then, I imagine that the people who were forced to listen to "Let it Go" on a continuous loop will probably see this as a blessing.  The movie itself even takes a small moment to address that particular song's overuse at one point.  Regardless, this is the strongest animated sequel that Disney themselves (not counting Pixar) has put out in a very long time.

Co-director and writer Jennifer Lee (who was the lead mind behind the first) has used this sequel as an opportunity to not only open up her characters and take them in new directions, but also open up the world that they live in.  We are reunited with Queen Elsa and Princess Anna, who are once again voiced by Idina Menzel and Kristen Bell respectively, and at first things seem to be pretty much how we left them.  There is a sense of change in the air, however.  Olaf the Snowman (Josh Gad) is starting to notice this, and wonders if anything will remain the same.  As for Anna's romantic interest Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), he is hoping to finally propose to her, but can't find the right moment to do it.  But the biggest change is yet to come, and it may be tied into the family past of the two young heroines.

As much as the film is focused on change, it's just as much about the past and expanding upon the ideas set up previously, including possibly explaining Elsa's magical ice abilities.  I normally hate when sequels try to go back and give an origin to past events, as it often feels like the film is over-explaining.  However, directors Lee and Chris Buck handle it expertly.  It never feels like the movie is filling in gaps, but rather creating new opportunities for storytelling in future sequels.  Elsa is called forth on this adventure by a mysterious siren-like voice that only she can hear.  The other main characters join her on her quest, and it is eventually revealed that the answers behind the call may be tied into the past of Elsa's kingdom.  There is an enchanted forest far beyond the kingdom that once was open to all people, but is now closed off by a magical mist.  What awaits within are two tribes of people who have been at war, a lot of magical creatures like giant rock monsters and stallions made of water, and a lot of ties to the past of the queen and princess.

Frozen II fulfills all the requirements of a Disney sequel.  There are a lot of new characters introduced who are certain to be heavily merchandised this holiday season, like a cute little lizard who follows Elsa around like it knows its purpose in life is to be dragged around as a plush toy by the kids who see this movie.  There are new outfits for Elsa and Anna to wear, which are sure to be grabbed off the store shelves by young girls.  But, this movie goes far beyond marketing strategy, and actually tells a compelling story.  As much as I enjoyed Frozen, one of my main issues with it is that it seemed to kind of meander during the mid-section of the film.  Once Elsa ran off into isolation, the movie kind of dragged its feet for a good portion, letting the comic relief characters take over.  This sequel is much more focused on the plot and the relationships between the main characters.  There is much more a sense of a quest and a bond between our heroes, which lead to some surprisingly emotional moments.

And this is a very emotional film, which I think sets it apart from the other animated sequels we got this year, like the previously mentioned The Secret Life of Pets 2 or The Angry Birds Movie 2.  Those movies mostly existed to repeat a previously successful financial formula to diminished results.  This movie actually builds upon the characters, strengthens their bonds, and gives them a new purpose.  It also feels like a natural progression from the first.  It never feels like a flat-out cash grab, because it actually wants to expand upon the first.  I actually wanted to see more of some of the ideas this movie introduced, such as the two warring tribes that have been trapped in the enchanted forest for decades.  The movie kind of touches upon what they feel about all this, but it never quite goes deep enough.

So, even if you don't walk out of Frozen 2 humming the songs, I think a lot of families are certain to be satisfied with this.  We get sequels that are as much fun if not more so than before, and we sometimes even get sequels that expand upon and deepen the ideas introduced before.  It's very seldom that we get both in the same film.

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Parasite

Bong Joon-Ho's Parasite is that rare kind of movie.  One that can constantly surprise you from beginning to end.  It's a movie that veers wildly in multiple directions, but for once it feels natural, instead of the result of a convoluted screenplay that doesn't know which way to go.  It's a social satire, a broad dark comedy, and a thriller.  It's also one of the truly great films of the year.

With a movie like this, the obvious question for the critic becomes, how much do they reveal in their review?  After all, the best quality of this film is its ability to surprise.  How do you discuss it in depth without giving away any of its secrets?  Some critics will simply put a "Spoiler Warning" in their review, but I don't like doing that unless it's absolutely necessary.  My hope is that when the reader watches the film after reading my review that they will have the same kind of experience that I did in the theater.  So, I will have to tread carefully here.  All I will say is that if you think you've figured out where the movie is going to go from the synopsis I am about to give, you probably have no idea.  Parasite delights in not only going beyond expectations, but going into areas that would probably derail lesser movies, but this one keeps on a steady ground the entire time.

The film opens by introducing us to a family living in poverty in South Korea.  Their small apartment is so infested with insects, they prefer to open up the windows when someone is fumigating outside, in the hopes that the chemicals being sprayed outside will pour in and take care of their own problem.  They have to steal wi-fi from the local coffee shop, and fold pizza boxes for a fast food company in order to make a small bit of money.  However, an opportunity for the family arises when their teenage son Kim Ki-woo (Choi Woo-sik) is given the chance to be an English tutor for a young girl (Jung Ziso) who lives in a beautiful home with a wealthy and powerful family.  He changes his name to "Kevin", saying that he has extensive experience living abroad and speaking English so that the family will hire him.  He also strikes up a potential romantic relationship with the girl as he begins to tutor her.

However, "Kevin" has much stronger ambitions.  He sets about a series of schemes in which the wealthy family will have to hire the rest of his own family for various positions around the house, so that his entire family can make money off of them.  He starts by convincing the girl's mother (Jo Yeo-jeong) that her youngest son needs an art tutor, and that she should hire his sister "Jessica" (Park So-dam).  Eventually, he is also able to con the family to also hire his father (Song Kang-Ho) as a chauffeur, and his mother (Chang Hyae-jin) as the new housekeeper.  In a conventional movie, we would get the expected plot where lies ultimately unravel.  Parasite goes much deeper, and in vastly different directions than you would expect, so this is all of the plot that I will say.  The rest is for you to discover.

A movie like this that has so many twists and turns, and goes in so many multiple directions, needs an air-tight script, and the one provided by director Bong Joon-ho and Han Jin-wan is one of the best to hit the screen all year.  It's not just how meticulously crafted the plot is and how it keeps its multiple tonal shifts in line, but it's also how natural the dialogue sounds.  Nobody talks in exposition, and nobody says something in order to move the plot along.  In other words, it often sounds like people actually having a conversation more often than not.  But more than that, it's how expertly the script changes tone when needed.  It can be light and funny, it can be intense, and it can also be tremendously brutal.  This is a movie that is constructed of scenes that probably should not fit together, and yet they do, because the screenwriters have thought this thing out, and it shows when it plays out on the screen.

Parasite is also actually about something, and while it's not subtle, it doesn't feel the need to constantly spell out what it's trying to say.  As the poor and wealthy families collide with one another, and the poor family find themselves stuck between two worlds (they work at the beautiful home all day, then come back to their dingy, infested apartment), it's obvious that the movie is making a statement about how the wealthy live off of the poor.  I spent the past weekend staying at a luxury hotel in New York City, and seeing this movie made me wonder about the lives of the people who work there.  They dress in fine suits on their job, smile politely, and go out of their way to make the guest's stay comfortable.  But, what kind of place do they go home to?  It's a question I surprisingly never asked myself before.  I have stayed at the hotel numerous times, and never actually wondered about the lives of the people who checked my bags, or turned down my bed at night leaving the gourmet chocolates on the pillow.

That's the kind of movie this is.  It's not only surprising and supremely entertaining, but it makes you look at certain people who are around you every day differently.  Parasite is chaotic, savage and sort of sad, but it can also be tremendously funny and bright.  It's the kind of movie you really don't expect, but when it's done, you kind of wish there were more like it - The kind of film that pulls you in effortlessly, stays with you long after it's done, and is not forgotten.

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Sunday, November 17, 2019

The Good Liar

Even if The Good Liar was a disappointment (fortunately, it's not), it would still be worth watching for the performances of Helen Mirren and Ian McKellen.  Seeing these two actors get to play off each other is one of the great pleasures I've had at the movies all year.  It's always a gamble when you place two big acting talents in the same scene, but it works here.  The way that they display their emotions in such a subtle way is a joy to watch.  They're enjoying this opportunity to share the screen, and the audience enjoys watching it.

The movie itself works largely on how the stars sell this material.  As the title suggests, it is a movie about secrets and hidden pasts.  We know going in that the movie is going to be about deception, and the movie doesn't try to hide it.  McKellen plays Roy Courtnay, a long-time conman who still delights in bilking people out of their money with phony investments or money making schemes that seem too good to be true.  He's been doing it most if not all of his life, and McKellen rightfully plays the part as an old pro who sees no reason to stop or slow down.  On the side, he likes to con elderly widows out of their life-long earnings.  He passes himself off as a lonely man with a bad knee for sympathy, and an adult son that lives in Australia who no longer speaks to him.  He is frail, but still charming.  He allows his persona just enough life to spark interest and hope in the women that he romances and eventually bilks.

His latest mark is Betty (Mirren).  He finds her on a dating site, and the two quickly connect.  They meet for dinner, and from there, the pieces of Roy's scheme seem to fall into place.  He worms his way into her life, and soon her home.  She has a grandson (Russell Tovey), who thinks that Betty might be trusting this man a bit too quickly, but she always ignores his concerns, saying that Roy is the first person who has made her happy in a long time.  This is just how Roy planned it as well.  Of course, things will eventually begin to turn.  How and why I will not say, but it's fairly easy to figure out that by the end of the film, we will be asking ourselves just who the "Good Liar" of the title truly is.  We know from the start that it's Roy, but by the end, we're not so sure.  It could be almost everyone who walks on the screen by the end.

In all honesty, I would have preferred it if The Good Liar had let its secrets and revelations unravel themselves slowly and during the course of the film.  Instead, they're all kind of lumped together in a few key scenes.  I like it better when movies slowly pass out the information, rather than dropping it in our laps all at once.  Regardless, this is still a delight to watch, with solid direction by Bill Condon (2017's live action Beauty and the Beast remake), and a script that might not be as clever as it thinks it is, but is still filled with some wonderful individual scenes for its two stars to work with.  Again, seeing McKellen and Mirren tackle these roles is a lot of the fun of this movie.  They play just the right angle for all the sides of their characters.  We see them act shy toward each other, and gradually warm up, until perhaps Roy is letting his guard down just a little when he is around Betty.  He never loses sight of why he's with her, but we kind of wish that they would actually get together, as they're so good in their scenes together.

This is the kind of movie where you savor the performances and how the film has been made, rather than the surprises of the plot.  We know that there will be some big revelations to come, but that's not what holds our attention for its running time.  It is the performances, which are fascinating to watch, as well as the dialogue.  The movie creates a kind of calculating tension in how there is always a somewhat sinister undertone to all of the scenes that its two stars share.  We know this, and the movie is kind of masterful in how it handles the air of danger that constantly hangs over its leads.  We know that Roy is capable of horrible things.  We get to witness this in a crucial scene in a subway tunnel.  The next time we see him with Betty after that, we fear for her.  The pressure and tension mounts until the incidents pile up on each other, and must inevitably come crashing down in the film's climactic moments, and everything is revealed.

The Good Liar is not a classic crime thriller, but it is a tremendous amount of fun.  I knew that I was not getting all the answers for most of the movie, but I never felt frustrated, because I was enjoying the performances so much.  This is a film designed to tease, but fortunately, it has more on its mind than just pulling the rug out from under us.  It also gives us some strong characters in the center of it all, and some wonderful individual moments that adds up to a satisfying movie.

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Saturday, November 16, 2019

Ford v. Ferrari

If you've been to the movies lately, and thought to yourself that films seem longer lately, it is not your imagination.  Of the past 10 movies I've reviewed, only three of them have not reached the two hour mark or beyond.  It used to be that only really important movies or your "epics" would stretch past two hours in length.  Now it seems like it won't be long until only kiddie movies will be the only films that flirt with 90 minute lengths. 

I bring this up, because James Mangold's Ford v. Ferrari, an otherwise very good film, could have probably been a great movie if it had another visit to the editing room.  At its current length of just over two and a half hours, the film at times seems obsessed with the finer details.  I'm sure that there are people in the audience who will love how much this movie dives into its subject matter of racing, right down to portraying and explaining the finer details and nuts and bolts of auto racing.  I actually have a very good friend who pretty much only watches documentaries, and will only like a movie if he feels it has been researched meticulously.  I get it.  Sometimes I enjoy it when a movie draws me into its world.  And sometimes a movie's eye for detail seems to grind the film to a halt.  I did enjoy this film, but probably would have liked it even more if the pacing was a bit snappier. 

The film is a loose telling of the story of how Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) entered into a racing rivalry with Enzo Ferrari (Remo Girone) during the 1965 and 1966 Le Mans.  Ferrari has won the title consecutively over the past few years, so in order to beat him, Ford has his executives Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal) and Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas) set out to hire former Le Mans winner Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) to design a race car.  Shelby is given the task to design a car that can beat Ferrari in a short amount of time, but he can choose his team.  One of the key people that he picks is the British race car driver, Ken Miles (Christian Bale).  Ken is famous for being "difficult", and he lives up to that reputation by angering the heads at Ford, who want Shelby to use a different driver to serve as Ford's "face" on the racing circuit.  Ken may be hard to work with, but he is brilliant behind the wheel, and knows what the car needs in order to win.  Shelby stands by him, and the two eventually make history in the racing world.

Ford v. Ferrari is not afraid to give us the ins and outs of the racing world, and what it takes to design a championship car.  I'm sure there will be a lot of people who will love that, but I thought it went on a bit long at times.  What was more interesting to me were the lead performances of Damon and Bale, and the relationship that they built during the course of the film.  Damon's Shelby is smart, cool-headed and calm, while Bale brings a lot of angry intensity to Ken.  The movie does let us see that Ken has a softer side, as he has a strong relationship with his wife and young son, who support him wholeheartedly.  But the best scenes pit both Shelby and Ken's conflicting personalities up against each other.  In one of the film's better scenes, the two come to blows during an argument, and they start walloping one another right there in front of Ken's house.  Rather than try to break up the fight, Ken's wife grabs a lawn chair, picks up a magazine, and waits for the guys to be done with it. 

This scene displays the contrast of the characters that drew me into the film.  It knows how to play upon these strong and differing personalities, and have everyone grab our attention.  Not one character gets to dominate a single scene.  Everyone is strongly developed, and gets to stand out..  And even if I thought some of the detail on the finer points of racing went on a bit long, I have to admit, many of the racing scenes themselves are absolutely thrilling, and have been edited in such a way that they really bring forth the intensity of what auto racing must feel like.  I also like how the film took on an unusual angle where the antagonist is not exactly the rival racers, but rather the corporation that is sponsoring the heroes.  Henry Ford II and especially Beebe are depicted as people who will make promises, go back on them, or sometimes try to change the agreement in order to make the company look even better.  Sometimes this can conflict directly with the project or the people involved.  This is something I haven't seen in a lot of sports movies that I really admired.

There really is a lot to enjoy here.  The only reason I harped about the length is I really do feel that Ford v. Ferrari, a good movie as it is, would have been an even better one if it had been tightened a bit more.  Still, we have some fine performances, some moments of wonderful humor (the scene where Henry Ford II gets to ride in the race car is hilarious), and some very rich characters on display.  Even if it runs longer than needed, its quality can't be denied.

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Friday, November 15, 2019

Charlie's Angels

The new cinematic take on Charlie's Angels tosses away the emphasis on the "jiggle" and "assets" that made the original 1970s TV show such a huge hit back in the day, and instead gives us a heavy dose of "You Go, Girl!" empowerment.  This is evident right from the beginning, as the film's opening credit sequence is comprised of clips of random women doing sports and other kickass things.  Writer-director Elizabeth Banks (who also co-stars in the film) lets us know what she's going for early on with her take on the franchise, and does not let up.  She's here to say that women can do anything, even save the world, just as long as they stick together.

It's an admirable goal, but it never quite leads up to an admirable or even good movie.  That's because in her quest to empower the young ladies who might be watching, she has overlooked what should have been another crucial part of the movie - to make it fun.  As a hopeful kickoff to a new film series, this is a surprisingly generic attempt that never gets off the ground.  Part of the fault lies with Banks' bland script, which never manages to quite raise the stakes high enough for its female heroines, nor does it create any interesting personalities.  The rest of the blame lies at the feet of the three actresses who have taken on the mantle of the Angels (Kristen Stewart, Ella Balinska, and Naomi Scott).  They're not terrible together, but they fail to create a kind of magnetic chemistry on screen that makes us want to see their adventures continue over multiple movies.

The action centers around Scott's character, Elena, who starts the film off as a whistleblower at a big tech company she works for.  She helped develop a device that could revolutionize the clean energy market, but it has a fatal flaw in its design that if put in the wrong hands and weaponized, could be used for the purposes of global terrorism.  Her desire to get the truth out into the open pulls her into the crime-fighting world of the Angels, which in this movie, is less the small detective agency that it was in the original TV series and earlier movies from the 2000s, and more like an international spy agency with branches and members all over the world.  Elena teams up with the fun-loving Sabina (Stewart) and the stoic and largely unemotional Jane (Balinska), who work under the watchful eye of Bosley (Elizabeth Banks), to stop some criminals who are trying to steal the technology and wipe out anyone who might be trying to warn the world of the potential danger.

Each of the three leading female characters fill a required role in the plot.  Scott's Elena is the wide-eyed innocent who gets pulled into the world of the Angels, and serves as the audience's eyes into the film's universe.  Stewart and Balinska basically fill the roles of the fun-loving girl who can throw a punch when needed, and the much-more serious minded one who is calculating and efficient, but needs to learn to trust her other team members, respectively.  Surprisingly, the bond that is supposed to form between the women during the adventure does not hold a lot of weight on the plot, as the movie is too busy careening its heroines to different corners of the world in order to track down who the mastermind behind the scheme is.  The movie is so busy reminding us that women can do anything that it never stops long enough for the three women to create any likable chemistry.

Maybe this wouldn't matter so much if the movie was more fun and thrilling, but it never manages to create any genuine excitement.  The action scenes that do pop up periodically are often shot tightly and with fast editing, so we sometimes don't get a good look at what's going on.  We get a lot of exotic locations for the Angels to visit, but instead of doing anything cool or exciting, they're mostly reciting the script's lame banter, which includes jokes about how women are always hungry.  We do get quite a few scenes of the Angels using disguises to infiltrate various places (a requirement of Charlie's Angels from Day One), but aside from a scene where the women have to sneak around the tech company without getting spotted, they never really amount to much. 

The only angle that Banks hits on with her take that worked with me is the idea of turning the Angels into a kind of global operation that features not only multiple women fighting evil, but also multiple handlers who all go under the code name of "Bosley". (Patrick Stewart turns up in a small role as the original Bosley.) Still, even this idea is not explored as much as it should have been.  I have a hunch that the hope is the film will do well enough to spawn sequels that will expand the film's world.  But, given what's on display here, I would say the hope for sequels is largely wishful thinking.

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Sunday, November 10, 2019

Midway

Perhaps the studio logos should have clued me in on what I was in for.  When we see the Lionsgate logo play out on the screen, it's portrayed in black and white.  This is obviously to try to make it look like it's from 1940s film stock, but it doesn't look right.  It's still full of slick and polished CG animation, so just showing it in black and white does not create the intended illusion.  Maybe they could have tried to make a simpler logo in the style that studios were using back in the day.

The movie Midway is less a history lesson, and more a CG-infused spectacle.  Whenever we see the swooping planes, massive aircraft carriers and subs, we're reminded that we are looking at a special effect.  Everything is digital and has been scrubbed clean, including the violence, which leads to some oddly bloodless battle scenes. (The only moment we witness the true tragedy of war in the film is when we see a charred body.) The film was directed by Roland Emmerich, who is no stranger to films filled with special effects and lots of explosions. (He made 1996's Independence Day.) He fills the screen with so much CG and pyrotechnics that it starts to resemble a demo reel for a special effects studio.  He obviously wants his audience to feel like they're in the heat of battle, but I constantly was being reminded that I was looking at optical effects.

Lost among all the explosions and technical wizardry is the undercooked screenplay by Wes Tooke, which never manages to grab our attention with any compelling characters.  Most of the figures portrayed in the film are taken from real life, and they are portrayed by veteran actors like Dennis Quaid, Woody Harrelson, Patrick Wilson and Aaron Eckhart.  We also get some fairly fresh new faces to play the cocky young pilots like Ed Skrein and Nick Jonas.  However, neither the old or the new faces are able to give us much of anything from their performances, because the script constantly keeps us at a distance, and never develops them beyond some basic character traits. (We have the hotshot, the kid who's scared, the wife who sits at home with a daughter fretting over the fate of her husband, and the stoic command figure.) They're basically all playing military movie cliches here, only without the added personality and life that we expect.

Almost as if it knows this, Midway bombards us with as much noise and spectacle as it possibly can.  There is definitely some artistry to how the battle of Pearl Harbor is recreated, as it's the most tense scene in the film.  But as the movie goes on, all the gunfire, explosions, and diving planes kind of merge into one giant mass of images.  The movie does try to look at the war from both sides, as it will often cut to the Japanese military and their strategic planning.  However, this ends up not working in the film's favor, as the Japanese are just as distant as the Americans.  We never get a true sense of relationship between the men, and they talk in cliches as well.  This is one of those cases where I admire what the filmmakers were trying to do, but they come up short.

Basically, each and every actor who turns up on screen gets dwarfed and drowned out by the spectacle going on around them.  Emmerich doesn't quite get the grasp of mixing the human drama with the effects, and so the movie becomes terribly one-sided.  None of the characters get to develop much of a personality, and while the movie does try to show us some of the behind the scenes strategizing, it never comes across as interesting as it should.  Besides, a lot of the strategy sequences basically boil down to real life strategist Ed Layton (portrayed in the film by Patrick Wilson) being right all the time, and everyone eventually learning to listen to him.  The movie just never conveys the sense of urgency that it should.

Midway does make a noble effort, but it gets lost in a sea of a mediocre screenplay and an out of control budget.  At the very least, it sticks to the story at hand and doesn't try to distract us with an unconvincing love story like Michael Bay did with 2001's Pearl Harbor.  But as the repetitive battles went on, my focus was not on the brave men being represented up on the screen, but on all the technical work.  Somehow, I don't think that was the intention. 

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