FORD V FERRARI (2019)

November 19, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. 7000 RPM. Racing legend Carroll Shelby describes that as the moment of racing bliss in the opening of the film. We are reminded of early test pilots breaking the sound barrier, or explorers reaching the peak of Mt. Everest. What follows is two-and-a-half hours of history, rivalries, egos, and sport. The racing scenes are exhilarating, and the men are driven by testosterone and compelled to be the best. They are throwbacks to a different era. An era that wasn’t about fairness and feelings, but of determination and focus that produced results – either success or failure. There were winners and losers, and the ceremonies awarded no participation ribbons.

Who are these men? They are Carroll Shelby, Ken Miles, Henry Ford II, and Enzo Ferrari. Director James Mangold (LOGAN, WALK THE LINE) takes the 1966 24 Hours of Le Mans and turns it into a rivalry between car makers, a friendship between racing icons, a look at corporate buffoonery that still exists today, and an old-fashioned movie that is fun to watch … regardless of whether you know the first thing about racing or cars.

Matt Damon plays Carroll Shelby, the war veteran race driver-turned-designer hired to push Ford racing into world class status. Shelby is an industry icon who won the 1959 Le Mans before retiring due to a heart condition. He then founded and ran Shelby-American for designing and improving cars. He wore cowboy hats that were only eclipsed in size by his bravura in most situations. Christian Bale plays legendary driver Ken Miles, another war veteran and bombastic friend of Shelby, who can best be described as a race car savant. Contrary to the film’s title, the story belongs to these two men, and the film belongs to these two actors.

Co-writers Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth, and Jason Keller take some liberties with the script and bend a few historical details to make the parts fit a Hollywood production … but for the most part, the story is pretty accurate. Just a few years after the Edsel fiasco, Henry Ford II is agitated at the state of Ford Motor Company, and after a bitter and personally insulting failed buyout of Ferrari, Mr. Ford (played with proper arrogance by Tracy Letts) decides to engage in motor-measuring with the Italian company run by Enzo Ferrari (Remo Girone). He hires Shelby to elevate Ford racing to elite status with one main goal – beating Ferrari at Le Mans. Shelby’s cocksure approach manages to keep Miles onboard despite the internal battles with Ford executives, especially Leo Beebe (a smarmy Josh Lucas). Beebe doesn’t see Miles as “a Ford man”, and in what is all too common in corporate life, prefers style over substance.

The film could have easily been titled Corporate vs Cars. Although the Henry Ford vs Enzo Ferrari segment is quite entertaining, most of the time is spent with Shelby and Miles trying to reach their dream while negotiating corporate obstacles. These two men have a love for racing and each other – in an old school, manly-respect kind of way. They are simpatico in their quest for the perfect car, and as Miles explains to his son (Noah Jupe) in a terrific scene, the perfect lap.

Additional supporting roles include Jon Bernthal as young visionary Lee Iacocca (who died earlier this year), Caitriona Balfe as Miles’ supportive wife, and Ray McKinnon as Phil Remington, the lead engineer on Shelby’s team. Of course, Iacocca went on to become Chairman of Chrysler, where he brought in Shelby to consult on the Dodge Viper, among other models. Supposedly Le Mans racing legend and 6-time winner Jackie Ickx appears in a crowd shot, but I missed it.

There is a stark contrast between the Ferrari factory and the Ford assembly line, but the egos at the top are remarkably similar. A bruised ego lit the fuse for the rivalry, but it was the car guys who made it happen. The racing scenes are adrenaline-packed and the sound in the theatre, combined with Cinematographer Phedon Papamichael (SIDEWAYS, NEBRASKA) close-ups inside the car, allow us to feel the rumble and vibration and speed sensation inside the Ford GT40. Damon and Bale are terrific. Damon struts with Shelby’s confidence, and Bale (after a huge weight loss from his role as Dick Cheney in VICE) captures the cantankerous genius of Miles – plus seeing his yell at other drivers during races is hilarious. There is a comical rumble between Miles and Shelby that will remind no one of Batman and Jason Bourne, but as difficult as it is to make popping a clutch exciting on the big screen, Mangold’s team comes through.

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THE REPORT (2019)

November 18, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Does the end justify the means? Do two wrongs make a right? These are questions of ethics and morality, and when it comes to the government, they can also be questions of legal and illegal, or even life and death. Scott Z Burns offers up his feature film directorial debut, and he has been best known as a screenwriter for Steven Soderbergh films such as THE LAUNDROMAT, SIDE EFFECTS, and THE INFORMANT! Mr. Burns certainly didn’t choose an easy route for his first time in the director chair, as this is a heavy, thought-provoking, stomach-churner.

Adam Driver plays Daniel Jones, a Senate staffer under Senator Dianne Feinstein. She charges him with leading the Senate investigation into the CIA’s Enhanced Interrogation Technique (EIT) program after the 9/11 attack. It’s easy to see why so many viewed this as a bad gig, but Jones became obsessed with uncovering the truth about what happened, who did what, and who knew what and when they knew it. This government procedural offers us an education on red tape, political boundaries, and the expertise in protecting fiefdoms in D.C. In other words, everything that we fear and despise about our own government officials is on display here.

That said, it is refreshing to see someone so focused on getting to the truth as Jones is/was … despite the systematic obstacles (destruction of tapes, party divisions). Annette Bening shines as Senator Feinstein and is quite effective in portraying just how difficult it can be for politicians to juggle all sides and pressures when a topic is so “hot”. The film covers a period between 2003 and 2012, and most of the run time is spent on Jones’ research for the report.

The supporting cast is deep and talented, and includes Jon Hamm as Obama Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, Michael C Hall, Maura Tierney, Victor Slezak, Tim Blake Nelson, Ben McKenzie, Matthew Rhys, Corey Stoll, and Ted Levine (as CIA Director John Brennan). One of the more interesting aspects of the film involves the contractors behind the EIT program. Basically, they are academics with no real world case studies or experience – just two guys looking to cash in on a lucrative government deal at a time when a country was desperate for answers.

Watching the battle over the final release (or not) of “The Torture Report” (the word torture was redacted here for the title) injects quite a bit of tension, and the inclusion of archival footage from the period is very effective. What’s less effective is the overuse of shaky-cam in the first portion of the film, and the score is downright annoying at times as it attempts to ensure we are frustrated with the political wranglings. On the other hand, the dialogue is crisp and there are some well-written and well-acted quietly-tense exchanges between folks. Adam Driver carries the bulk of the film and he is perfectly cast.

The obvious comparisons are to ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN and SPOTLIGHT, though this one never quite reaches that level. Still, it’s thought-provoking to watch as Jones considers a New York Times reporter to be the most ethical character he can turn to in his efforts to get the truth out. The film doesn’t really choose sides … everyone who participated in a cover-up or illegal activities takes a shot, as does Kathryn Bigelow’s ZERO DARK THIRTY. This was a dark time in U.S. history, and it reminds us how difficult it seems to be to do the right thing while in government. Perhaps that’s the biggest takeaway.

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HONEY BOY (2019)

November 18, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Most 12 year olds don’t have a job. Perhaps their parents have assigned a few chores around the house to help them learn responsibility, but for the most part, they go to school and play … the things that kids do. Shia LaBeouf had 2 jobs as a kid. He was a rising actor and he was employer/quasi-guardian of his father. Now in his 30’s, LaBeouf has written a screenplay about his childhood and he stars as his father in an attempt to exorcise some personal demons. It also happens to make for compelling cinema.

The film opens with a montage of cuts between a 20-something LeBeouf (played by Oscar nominee Lucas Hedges) performing stunts on an action movie set (clearly meant to represent TRANSFORMERS) and a serious automobile wreck and subsequent DUI. The wreck caused major damage to his hand and resulted in court-mandated rehabilitation. While in rehab, his therapist (played by Laura San Giacomo) diagnoses him with PTSD … not military war related, but rather broken family related.

In this film, LeBeouf has named the character based on himself Otis, and the character based on his own father James Lort. In addition to Hedges playing the early-20’s version, another rising actor, Noah Jupe, plays Otis as a 12 year old. As rehabbing Otis puts his childhood memories to paper, we see flashbacks featuring the younger Otis and his father. They live in a dump of a motel, and ride to the TV show set (meant to be “Even Stevens”) on dad’s motorcycle. James Lort/dad is a former performing clown, recovering addict, and ex-con. He’s the kind of guy who talks a big game and blames everyone else for keeping him from succeeding. To put it mildly … he’s a jerk. That’s not to say he doesn’t have his moments as a caring parent, but those moments are nullified by the bullying and threats of violence towards his young son. That son is desperate to please his dad, yet wise enough to know that he’s not to be trusted.

Shia LeBeouf dives in head first to play the man who had such an impact on his early years. This, mind you, is the kind of man who offers cigarettes to his young son, makes fun of his pre-pubescent body, and is quite jealous of his budding career. LeBeouf is at his best in a difficult role that surely cuts very deep for him. Supporting roles are played by singer FKA Twigs as the shy neighbor girl who befriends Otis, plus Natasha Lyonne, Maika Monroe, Clifton Collins Jr, and Byron Bowers.

Director Alma Har’el structures her first narrative feature film (she has previously worked on videos and documentaries) with timelines showing Otis at the two ages. There are no fancy camera tricks. Instead she trusts these talented actors to bring it home … and that they do very well. Lucas Hedges was Oscar nominated for MANCHESTER BY THE SEA, and he is in the beautiful upcoming film WAVES. Noah Jupe is a star in the making, having previously appeared in A QUIET PLACE, and new release FORD VS FERRARI. These are some top notch actors at their very best.

As viewers, we have to remove ourselves from feeling anger and disgust towards the James Lort character. That’s easier said than done when he says things like “The only thing my father gave me of any value was pain.” It’s meant to sum up his reasoning for his own parenting approach. There is a truly brilliant, and well-coordinated scene that acts as a three-way phone conversation between father, son, and estranged wife/mother. The kid is put smack in the middle of the two people who are supposed to love and nurture and protect him. Instead, Otis comes across as the adult. We do get some comic relief with the ‘world’s first daredevil chicken’, but this is just not a warm, cuddly father-son fairy tale. This was real life for Shia LeBeouf and he’s brave to bring it out in the open, even if it’s less confession and more therapeutic session. He deserves it after hearing, “I’m your cheerleader, Honey Boy”, and “Trust me, I’m your father.

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MIDWAY (2019)

November 7, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Japan’s World War II goal was to devastate the United States Navy fleet in the South Pacific, thereby securing the area as their own and crippling the U.S. military beyond hope. The December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor was the first step and the most infamous. Over the next few months, what followed were the Raid on Tokyo (April 1942), Battle of Coral Sea (May 1942) and the Battle of Midway (June 1942). Stating that these battles changed the war is not an understatement, as the Imperial Japanese Navy had previously been viewed as superior (especially after the destruction at Pearl Harbor). Director Roland Emmerich (THE PATRIOT, INDEPENDENCE DAY) has never met a war or explosion or special effect he didn’t like, so we know going in that, given the subject matter and the filmmaker, the screen will be filled with action.

Emmerich co-wrote the script with Wes Tooke (his first feature script), and as with many WWII movies, it acts as a history lesson on a war that changed the world. This one focuses on naval strategy and particularly on the individuals who defined courage and heroism … many names we recognize from history books. The contrast between Japanese military leaders and United States military leaders is on full display, and it’s no surprise that the Japanese leaders are mostly portrayed as cold and calculating, while the U.S. leaders come across as more humanistic and resourceful. Pride is evident on both sides – it’s just displayed differently.

The players are crucial to the story. Woody Harrelson plays Admiral Chester Nimitz, Dennis Quaid is Vice Admiral “Bull” Halsey (commander of aircraft carrier USS Enterprise), Patrick Wilson is Intelligence Officer Lieutenant Commander Edwin Layton, Jake Weber is Rear Admiral Raymond Spruance, Luke Evans is Lieutenant Commander Wade McClusky, Brennan Brown plays Joseph Rochefort (leader of the code breaker team), and Aaron Eckhart is Lieutenant Colonel Jimmy Doolittle, the extraordinary pilot who led the Raid on Tokyo in April 1942. On the Japanese side, Tadanabu Asano plays Rear Admiral Yamaguchi (commander of the aircraft carrier Hiryu), Jun Kunimura is Admiral Nagumo (he of questionable battle decisions), and Enushi Toyokawa plays Admiral Yamamoto, the most dignified and influential of the Japanese leaders.

Much of the story is told from the perspective of naval pilot Lieutenant Dick Best (Ed Skrein, DEADPOOL). While personal stories and challenges faced by individuals makes for a relatable story for viewers, there is something about this particular actor that comes across as awkward and difficult to bond with. There is no doubting the character and courage of Dick Best as a pilot; however, Skrein’s performance is flat out annoying and distracting. The dive bombing missions are breathtaking and thrilling, but overall the liberal use of green screen for effects detracts from the realistic looks we’ve come to expect for war movies.

Mandy Moore as Anne Best, and Nick Jonas as a mechanic, are cast for relatability by viewers, but the value in the film comes from an easy-to-follow description of the contrasting strategies of the two militaries. It’s also a reminder that the “big” story of WWII is comprised of many individual stories of people … people who were brave and heroic in a time of need. So ignore the cheesy affects, unrealistic dialogue, and irritating performances, and instead take in the work and actions of those who saved the world.

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FRANKIE (2019)

November 7, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Sintra is a resort town in Portugal, not far from Lisbon. It is breathtakingly beautiful with mountains, beaches, cliffs, colorful gardens and a picturesque town filled with charming churches and majestic castles. Writer-director Ira Sachs’ film probably should have been bank-rolled by Sintra’s tourism committee, because the town is surely to be on the must-see travel list of every person who sees this movie. Unfortunately, what works as a travel tease, offers little else as a cinematic or entertainment vehicle.

Beloved French actress Isabelle Huppert stars as beloved French actress Francois, better known as Frankie. She has organized a vacation gathering for her modern day family consisting of her second and current husband, Scotsman Jimmy (Brendan Gleeson), her first husband, gay man Michel (Pascal Gregory), teenage granddaughter Maya (Sennia Nanua) and Maya’s two quarrelling parents Ian (Ariyon Bakare) and Sylvia (Vinette Robinson), and Frankie’s self-centered and problematic son Paul (Jeremie Renier). Also invited is Ilene (Marisa Tomei), Frankie’s long-time friend and hair stylist, who without telling Frankie, brought along a date, cinematographer Gary (Greg Kinnear). When someone complains about her inviting Ilene, Frankie replies, think of it as “Family Plus One.”

Frankie has arranged this trip under the guise of ‘a final goodbye’. Her cancer has returned, and it’s likely to take her life very soon. Despite that, it really appears Frankie is acting as a matchmaker for her jerky son Paul, by thinking he and the delightful Ilene might be a good fit … you know, since she lives in New York and he’s moving there. This speaks to the blindness of parents towards their own kids, but also the never-ending hope for their happiness. During this trip, we witness one of the most awkward proposals ever, plus a re-telling of a family secret at a most inopportune time. The latter is likely the most interesting segment of the movie.

Ira Sachs and his writing partner Mauricio Zacharias are known for NYC-based stories like LITTLE MEN (2016) and LOVE IS STRANGE (2014), so this idyllic setting is a bit outside their wheelhouse. We listen in on many awkward conversations, and the film involves mostly walking and talking … with a high percentage of it being Frankie hiking on trails while wearing heels. There is an effective cloud of sadness over most every moment, and the overload of melancholy represents the struggles of this group getting through a single day. Somehow even the beautiful final shot doesn’t deliver any more emotional impact than the rest of the film. There just isn’t much here other than what most of us regularly experience in life … well, other than Sintra as a setting.

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PARASITE (2019, Korea)

November 7, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. At least once per year, a movie really hits a sweet spot … something that is fun to watch and not really like anything we’ve previously seen. Korean filmmaker Bong Joon Ho’s latest film is this year’s cinematic surprise. It’s filled with interesting characters, social commentary, a unique setting, a creative and twisty story, and enough tension that we are left stunned as the end credits roll. There have already been a few excellent movies this year, and this is surely to be a memorable addition to the best of 2019.

We first meet the Kims, a family in poverty living in near-squalor in a basement level apartment with one small window. That window is at street level and allows a bit of natural light to leak in, and also provides a too-clear view of drunks targeting the window as they relieve themselves. The family keeps the window open for free fumigation as the city sprayers drive past, in hopes that it will get rid of the pesky stink bug infestation (yes, there is symmetry to this later in the story). The Kim family consists of Dad (a terrific Kang-ho Song), Mother (Hye-jin Jang), teenage son Kevin/Ki-woo (Woo-sik Choi) and 20-something daughter Jessica/Ki-jung (So-dam Park), and they react strongly when they lose “free hi-fi” access from a neighbor’s system. The family seems to make just enough money for their next meal despite somehow underperforming at their family job of folding pizza boxes for a local vendor.

Fortunes begin to change for the Kims when one of Kevin’s friends ask him to take over tutoring a teenage girl for a wealthy family in town. This sets off an ingenious and sometimes quite funny chain of events that result in all four Kim family members working in some capacity for the Parks, the aforementioned wealthy family. The Park’s home was designed by a famous architect and it is a stunning modern hillside home with lush garden and a window that stands in stark contrast to that little window in the Kim’s city apartment. Mr. Park (Sun-kyun Lee) is a 1% tech titan married to a high-strung woman who is an eternally anxious and over-matched mom (a fantastic Yeo-jeong Jo). Their two kids are lustful teenage daughter Da-hye (Ji-so Jung) and hyperactive young son Da-song (Hyun-jun Jung).

It’s fascinating to watch how this family of schemers infiltrates this gullible and vulnerable upper class home, and how they so are easily trusted thanks to photoshop skills, Google, and a street-wise understanding of how to read people. The script, co-written by the director and Han Jin Won, explores the co-dependency as the rich depend on the poor for service work, and the poor depend on the rich for jobs and a living wage. Given the film’s title, we soon realize that a “host” may have more than one parasite at any time … something that plays out in what has to be the wildest film twist of the year, thanks to an all-out performance from Jeong-eun Lee as the Park’s long-time housekeeper.

The social and class commentaries are spread throughout, and in addition to the window comparisons, you’ll also notice that the walk is uphill to the Parks’ home and downhill (and flood-risky) to the Kim’s apartment. There are multiple layers within the stories and within the individual characters. What begins as a devastating social satire morphs into a wild and crazy time of violence … without losing its general theme. A comedy of familial con artists bursts into a violent class thriller – the price to pay for unearned comfort. The film is not just unpredictable, it smacks us with a jarring twist.

Bong Joon Ho has become a well-respected filmmaker for his previous work: THE HOST 2006, MOTHER 2009, SNOWPIERCER 2013, and OKJA 2017. This latest elevates him to a whole new level. The film is darkly humorous and unpredictable, with excellent performances throughout. It’s also quite something to look at. Cinematographer Kyung-pyo Hong works his magic, and it should be noted that the Park’s home is a complete set built solely for the film. I challenge you to notice this – I sure couldn’t tell. The film won the 2019 Palme d’Or at Cannes Film Festival, and it is likely headed for many more accolades.

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JOJO RABBIT (2019)

October 31, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Welcome to the most divisive movie of the year. Some will scoff at the idea and deride the filmmaker without ever even seeing the movie. Some will relay disgust after seeing the movie. A few won’t appreciate the style or structure, and will fail to find the humor. Ah yes, but some of us will embrace Taika Waititi’s wacky adaptation of Christine Leunens’ 2018 novel “Caging Skies” as one of the funniest and most heart-warming films of the year … fully acknowledging that many won’t see it our way.

One wouldn’t be off base in asking why a successful filmmaker would tackle such a risky project: a coming-of-age comedy-drama-fantasy about a 10 year old Nazi fanatic who has as his imaginary friend, not a 6 foot rabbit, but the Fuhrer himself, Adolph Hitler. After all, writer-director Waititi is coming off a couple of brilliant indies (2014’s WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS, and 2016’s HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE) and a major score with Marvel money on THOR: RAGNAROK (2017), arguably the most entertaining superhero movie of the past few years. He certainly could have continued to cash in with ‘safer’ choices; however, Mr. Waititi sees the world differently than most of us. He finds humor in the drudgery, and humanity in malevolence. He’s also a bit goofy.

Playing over the opening credits is the German version of “I Want to Hold Your Hand”, as we see old clips of German citizens cheering for Adolph Hitler in a similar manner to how fans used to scream for The Beatles. World War II is nearing the end as we meet 10 year old Jojo Betzler (newcomer Roman Griffin Davis). Jojo is fervent in his fanaticism towards the Nazi way, and buys into the belief that Jews are monsters with horns on their head. He’s such a believer that his imaginary friend is actually Hitler, well at least a bumbling boisterous version played by the filmmaker himself – enacted to extreme comedy effect (recalling a bit of Chaplin in THE GREAT DICTATOR). Mel Brooks managed to play Hitler to a laughable extreme in “Springtime for Hitler” in THE PRODUCERS, but the only thing missing her from Waititi’s costume is an old timey dunce cap.

Jojo lives at home with his mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson), while dad is off fighting on the front line. Ms. Johansson’s performance is terrific (despite limited screen time) as she creates a believably warm bond with her son during horrific times. Soon, Jojo is off to a Nazi camp designed to teach the boys how to fight (and burn books), as the girls learn the virtues of having babies. The camp leaders are Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell), who is a bit of a joke on the surface, but more interesting the deeper we dig; Fraulein Rahm (Rebel Wilson) who boasts of having 18 Aryan babies; and Finkel (Alfie Allen) a violent psychopath. At camp with Jojo is his best friend Yorki (newcomer and scene-stealer Archie Yates), and the two show what a genuine friendship can be as the movie progresses.

Things change quickly for Jojo when, by happenstance, he discovers a Jewish girl living in the walls of his home. Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie, LEAVE NO TRACE) shows none of the characteristics that Jojo has been brainwashed into believing all Jews possess. She has no horns, flashes a good sense of humor, and is actually very nice and knowledgeable. In other words, she’s no monster. As they get to know each other, Jojo realizes this “nice” Jewish girl contrasts starkly with his lunatic hero Adolph.

Waititi’s film is ingenious satire, and it likely won’t sit well with those who think not enough time has passed to justify making fun of Nazi atrocities. It’s funny and heavy, and deals with some thought-provoking matter in an unusual way. The “Heil Hitler” count approaches the ‘F-word’ frequency of most Tarantino movies, and there is a German Shepherd gag that caught the audience off-guard. Stephen Merchant’s Gestapo search of Jojo’s house is comedy at its weirdest. The movie messes with your head as it’s some odd blend of SCHINDLER’S LIST, “The Diary of Anne Frank”, and an extended Monty Python skit.

It’s rare for a film that borders on slapstick at times to have so many touching and emotional moments. The actors are really strong here, especially Ms. Johansson and Ms. McKenzie, who as gutsy Elsa, proves again she is quickly becoming a powerhouse young actor. Roman Griffin Davis carries a significant weight in the story despite being a first time actor, and I can’t emphasize enough how young Archie Yates will steal your heart while he’s stealing his scenes. Michael Giacchino’s score and Mihai Malaimaire Jr’s terrific cinematography work well with Waititi’s vision … a satirical vision that would never work outside of his unique filmmaking talent. The story is basically proof of the adage, ‘Kill ‘em with kindness’, when what we are really killing is hatred. At its core, this is a story of humanity and human nature, and how we grab hold of the wrong thing until the truth becomes evident. Now, please pass the unicorn.

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