THAT GOOD NIGHT (2020)

November 4, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Art imitating life is something we’ve not only grown accustomed to, but also something we expect. In this case it’s the bittersweet final performance of the great John Hurt. A terminally ill man taking on the role of a terminally ill man. Director Eric Styles is working from a script by Charles Savage that was adapted from N.J. Crisp’s stage production. It’s easy to see how this could be a powerful live show, but the stunning home in Portugal where most of the film is set, makes for a pleasant transition to the screen.

John Hurt stars as Ralph Maitland, a self-centered, highly successful screenwriter, who may be an even more proficient curmudgeon. He lives in a beautiful home with his younger wife Anna (Sofia Helin, “The Bridge”), who was once his nurse. Ralph receives the dreaded prognosis at his doctor appointment. Rather than tell his wife, he proceeds with ‘getting his affairs in order’ and summoning home his estranged son Michael (Max Brown, “The Royals”). Michael was born to Ralph’s first wife, and he is also a writer.

Ralph’s true colors shine when Michael shows up with his girlfriend Cassie (Erin Richards, “Gotham”). Although Cassie is pretty tough, Ralph devolves from curmudgeon to downright churlish. His rudeness exceeds the bounds of palatable during dinner at a local restaurant, sending Michael and Cassie scampering off before appetizers. Anna is embarrassed by her husband’s actions, but he just continues on with his process – a process that includes contacting “The Society”, which facilitates Euthanasia.

A man in an impeccable white linen suit appears in the doorway of Ralph’s office. He’s only referred to as “The Visitor”, and his played by Charles Dance, Mr. Hurt’s co-star in the underrated 1987 film WHITE MISCHIEF. The conversations between Ralph and The Visitor deliver the best dialogue in the film, and likely the deepest since it forces Ralph to face his mortality and the impact and finality of his decision. It’s here where Ralph’s “low boredom threshold” is mentioned, and quickly minimized by The Visitor.

The film is a relatively simple look at a complex topic, and it also highlights the importance of reconciling with family members, and discovering a reason to keep living. The weakness here is that we only scratch the surface of Anna and Michael, and even what turned Ralph into the man he is. We get a quick glimpse of Ralph interacting with Ronaldo (Noah Jupe, HONEY BOY, A QUIET PLACE), the housekeeper’s son, in a manner that makes us believe he has regrets on his poor parenting during Michael’s childhood. Cinematographer Richard Stoddard takes full advantage of the beautiful scenery, as well as the uncomfortable interactions amongst the family.

John Hurt died in 2017, just 3 weeks after filming was complete. He had a remarkable 55 year acting career, including Oscar nominations for his work in MIDNIGHT EXPRESS (1978) and THE ELEPHANT MAN (1980). Of course he will always be remembered for his iconic chestburster moment in ALIEN (1979). He compiled more than 200 acting credits, and some of my other favorite John Hurt characters are found in: 1984 (1984), OWNING MAHONEY (2003), TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY (2011), and the voice of rabbit Hazel in WATERSHIP DOWN (1978). Dylan Thomas’ 1947 poem plays a key role in this film (and title), and the sentiment also captures the spirit of John Hurt: “Do not go gentle into that good night. Old age should burn and rave at close of day. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

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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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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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WONDER (2017)

November 15, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. What a pleasant surprise and crowd-pleasing treat from director Stephen Chbosky! Ordinarily, if you tell me a Julia RobertsOwen Wilson movie is opening, I would experience nightmares of Malcolm McDowell in A CLOCKWORK ORANGE with his eyelids forced open by metal prongs attached to a head immobilizer (Don’t expect any other reviews of this film to reference the Kubrick classic). It’s based on the New York Times bestseller and it’s a throwback to the days of sweet message films that don’t require explanations before recommending.

I can’t wait for Halloween!” exclaims Auggie. While it’s not difficult to imagine any kid looking forward to this big day, very few would share Auggie’s reason. Through narration, he informs us that he’s “not an ordinary kid”. After a startling birth, he’s been through 27 surgeries. Auggie has genetic facial deformities, and it’s not the Halloween candy he anticipates; it’s the one day with a level-playing field for him, as other kids wear their costume masks and he can simply blend in. Feel the tug on the heartstrings yet? You will.

Jacob Tremblay (ROOM) plays Auggie, and Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson play his loving parents. Until now, he’s been home-schooled by Mom, but it’s 5th grade and time for “real” school. Auggie’s older sister Via is played beautifully by Izabela Vidovic. This is very much her story as well. She carries a burden that few understand, and even briefly finds peace in her fabricated time as an “only child”. Previously, she had described Auggie as the sun, and the rest of the family as orbiting planets. Not only is it a wonderful performance from Miss Vidovic, but kudos to the filmmakers for casting a 16 year old actress as a high schooler. Typically these roles go to actors in their mid-20’s (a pet peeve of mine).

The film kicks into gear, and we really begin to get to know Auggie, once school starts. Mandy Patinkin plays the principal Mr. Tushman (a name he embraces), and we get the expected nice kid Jack Will (Noah Jupe), the rich bully Julian (Bryce Gheisar), and the popular girl Charlotte (Elle McKinnon). Some of the characters have various segments of the film named after them, and though these are quite loosely told, they do provide some semblance of structure to the film and keep viewers focused on the diverse personalities. A Science Fair, field trip and school play (Our Town) each provide critical turning points, and of course, most of the film is based on Auggie’s impact on those whose path he crosses.

Although we are subjected to one of Julia Roberts’ patented cackles, it doesn’t ruin the sentiment or message that Auggie delivers. Daveed Diggs has a nice turn as a teacher, and the always wonderful Sonia Braga makes a much-too-brief appearance. Director Chbosky previously gave us the gem THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER, and this time out he allows us to explore the fragility of friendship and family, and the importance of toughness in an individual. The ending is pure Hollywood, but we should accept the crowd-pleasing cheesiness and be thankful for a pleasant, entertaining family movie.

“We need a renaissance of wonder. We need to renew, in our hearts and in our souls, the deathless dream, the eternal poetry, the perennial sense that life is miracle and magic.”

– E. Merrill Root (1895 – 1973)

American Writer

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