Monday, November 18, 2019

Ford v Ferrari, 2019 - ★★★★★

James Mangold is on a nice streak of films coming off Logan (the best X Men movie) a couple years ago. With Ford v Ferrari he gives us an inside seat within the Ford racing team in their efforts to surpass Ferrari and become the top racing team at the 24 Hours of Le Mans race in France in 1966. The chief players in this film are Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), the legendary race car designer, Ken Miles (Christian Bale, absolutely killing another performance), an English endurance auto racer, Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts), the head of Ford Motors, Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal), VP of Ford Motors and Leo Beebe (a dick-ish Josh Lucas) Senior Executive VP of Ford Motors. The cast all plays off one another beautifully in re-telling the true story of Ford's rise to respectability in the auto-racing world and Mangold drives the truck full-bore by delivering some of the best and most immersive auto racing footage in film history.

Thankfully I was able to see this movie at my local Dolby Cinema AMC theater. These theaters have seats that vibrate along with the sound of the film you're watching so I really did feel that I was along for the ride during all of the race sequences. The final 50-minute sequence at Le Mans is really worth the price of admission alone. I'm somewhat of a life-long auto racing fan (NASCAR and Indy) but I've never watched Le Mans before and now I feel like I actually lived the race. Mangold brings us details and intricacies of each race that aren't glossed over in showy highlights like we would see in other racing films. We get to see real team strategy and decision-making both on and off the track.

The real glue of this film lies in the chemistry between Damon's Shelby and Bale's Miles, two hard headed determined individuals who compliment each other perfectly in forming a powerful racing team. Bale is amazing as Miles, you really share his joy for speed as he talks to himself during his races. There's a little bit of his "The Fighter" character in Ken Miles but he makes it his own creation by showing his devotion to his wife and son and making him a figure you root strongly for throughout the movie. Damon gives another every-man performance that is highlighted by an emotional scene with Miles' son towards the end of the film.

I walked out of this theater feeling like I just raced 24 hours at Le Mans and I enjoyed every single minute of the ride. I can't recommend it enough to see this movie on the largest, loudest screen possible. Mangold (admittedly not a car-racing fan) took 60's endurance racing and made a cinematic showcase of a film that stands out in a year of constant sequels and reboots.

Jay and Silent Bob Reboot, 2019 - ★★★½

This is the first J&SB movie where I've officially felt that Jason Mewes is OLD. He looks weathered but still has that same youthful exuberance that make him so much fun to watch. Once again, Jay and Silent Bob race around the country running into the same cast of characters who all look older (especially Joey Lauren Adams). There's not much in the way of plot here but there is a bit more depth to Jay's character now that he has a daughter along for the ride (Kevin Smith's real-life daughter Harley Quinn Smith.... yes. that's her real name). The younger Smith seems like she might have a bright career ahead of her in acting. This was a fun escapist movie to watch and I can't help but think we'll keep getting J&SB films every 5-10 years until Kevin Smith or Jason Mewes die.

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

The King, 2019 - ★★★

Timothee Chalamet is excellent as always as a war-seasoned prince turned king in this retelling of Henry V's rise to power in the 15th century. With a supporting cast of capable veteran actors including Joel Edgerton, Ben Mendelsohn and Sean Harris, the film moves along and showcases the significant events in the life of the young king.

Robert Pattinson's cheeky turn as "The Dauphin" is the performance that steals the movie. Overall I was entertained somewhat but The King really brings nothing new to the table. It's a rehash of Braveheart-style fight scenes and some throne politics that we've seen before in other shows like Game of Thrones. The excellent brooding score by Nicholas Britell helps build the tension throughout.

Not very memorable, but not a bid film either.

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Jojo Rabbit, 2019 - ★★★★

Thor Ragnarok's Taika Waititi directs this off-kilter satirical look at the end of World War II through the eyes of an impressionable 10-year-old who had an imaginary friend that just so happens to be Adolph Hitler. Newcomer Roman Griffin Davis plays Jojo, a young boy who enlists in a bootcamp for aspiring Nazis. After scarring his face during an accident in the camp, he is re-assigned to a Nazi office and helps with day-to-day activities while his Mother (Scarlett Johannson) helps raise him on her own thanks to her war-enlisted husband.

The cast in this film is fantastic highlighted by Davis' pure and real performance. Thomasin McKenzie (Leave No Trace) shows up mid-film as a Jewish teenager in hiding. Waititi himself portrays the imaginary Hitler character who starts out as a hysterical addition to the narrative but ends up growing a little thin at times towards the end of the movie. Thankfully the core of the film is the great chemistry between Davis and McKenzie. Just wait... within the next 10 years, McKenzie is going to win an Oscar. You heard it here first! She just has that special ingredient in her effortless acting ability that's going to vault her to A-list status at some point. Sam Rockwell (hilarious as always), Alfie Allen and Rebel Wilson round out the excellent ensemble cast as instructors at the Nazi youth camp.

We've heard a lot of the Nazi "Jew jokes" before in other films like Borat. They're over the top ridiculous characterizations that remind of us of just how narrow-minded Hitler and his followers were. Despite those re-used jabs, the humor in this movie is really well done and I can't wait to see what Taika does next (will he direct a new film before he helms the 4th Thor movie for the MCU?). This is a worthwhile comical take on Nazi propaganda and a brilliant showcase for two stellar young actors. I had a great time watching this film.

Harriet, 2019 - ★★★½

A deep dive into the accomplishments of the legendary navigator of the underground railroad, this film is a solid reenactment of the slave-freeing movement. The acting across the board is servicable but the spotlight shines brightly on Cynthia Erivo playing the title role of Harriet Tubman. I first noticed Erivo in Bad Times at the El Royale in which she stood out as a future star. She's one Oscar short of an EGOT and may come close to grabbing it this year. I expect her to be nominated for Best Actress for this bold turn as Tubman. She does a great job of conveying fear and confidence at the same time. You really can't take your eyes off her when she's on-screen.

Director Kasi Lemmons paints a vivid picture of the pre-civil war East Coast with desolated and isolated farm houses and small villages that set the stage for the Underground Railroad. The plight of Tubman's repeated treks across this landscape is heightened by the tense relationship between her and her former slave owner (Joe Alwyn).

Overall I liked but didn't love this film. I feel it didn't have the soul or passion of previous slavery films like Glory or 12 Years a Slave. That being said, this is still worth a watch if only for Erivo's excellent performance.

The Laundromat, 2019 - ★★½

Soderbergh means well here with an educational/entertaining look at American insurance fraud that crosses the line becoming a preachy twisted mess of a film. Streep, Bandaras and Oldman are all having a blast in the lead roles but unfortunately we don't get enough of their characters. There are too many splintered off sub-plots surrounded by an explain-it-by-numbers approach ripped from The Big Short. I applaud the effort here but this film just isn't for me.

Sunday, November 3, 2019

Zombieland: Double Tap, 2019 - ★★★

This was a fun follow-up to the original although there's nothing really original about it. More of the same really and some good laughs throughout. It's interesting to see the ever-engaging Emma Stone back in this role after so much career success over the past decade. She impresses as usual as does Woody Harrelson as Tallahassee.

Zoey Deutch (Lea Thompson's talented daughter) is kinda funny as the over-the-top stranded valley girl who gets worked into the mix of the main four. But her character's shtick goes on forever and becomes really grating after a while. This is without a doubt a streaming or rental movie. No reason to shell out any money to see this in the theater.

Terminator: Dark Fate, 2019 - ★★½

Nothing really new here... Another middling Terminator sequel where the future is decided and we get to see two new terminators battle. Is all been done before and I found myself not caring about any of the new characters. Thankfully Arnold is brought in mid-movie for some much needed comic relief.

There were a few nice touches like the bonus scene at the start featuring a young (de-aged?) Edward Furlong and some good lines by the forever bad ass Linda Hamilton. Arnold is the big draw though. He's not on screen much but when he is it's impossible to take your eyes off him.

I don't think we need any more Terminator films unless the narrative gets changed up significantly. Don't waste your money seeing this in a theater to witness a drab story and cartoony cut-rate special effects.

Saturday, October 19, 2019

El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie, 2019 - ★★★½

This movie didn't need to be made. We didn't need to see the follow-on moments as Jesse Pinkman fled from the authorities after Walter White died on the last episode of Breaking Bad (spoiler alert). Vince Gilligan didn't care if we wanted this film or not but now we have it. It's methodical and slow at times like an episode of Better Call Saul, but it's still a Gilligan film through and through and it's well worth watching. The scenes in the apartment where Jesse tries to find Todd's (Jesse Plemons) stowed money are gripping and classic Breaking Bad drama.

The constant guest appearances from memorable BB characters from Cranston's White to Krysten Ritter's Jane are fun to see but seem like forced call backs to the Breaking Bad series. Still, this movie is interesting and paced properly with a perfect platform to show off Aaron Paul's acting as Jesse. He runs the gamut of emotions in this performance through present day scenes and flashbacks. He really loves playing this character and you can tell he takes portraying Jesse on-screen very seriously.

I'll watch anything that Vince Gilligan does and hopefully he isn't done exploring this type of film experiment.

Between Two Ferns: The Movie, 2019 - ★★★½

Hilarious at times, this is nothing more than extended series of Ferns sketches that give us a ton of celebrity cameos and a few very good laughs.

Gemini Man, 2019 - ★★½

This is little more than a technical experiment. Ang Lee delivers a bland by-the-book spy "thriller" that stalls at times and really doesn't add much character development. The action sequences are well engineered and watching this in 120FPS was pretty cool, but really this is just a showcase for a particular kind of technical innovation. De-aging.

We've seen de-aging in other Marvel movies recently and while done well, nothing has approached the heights seen in Gemini Man. Will Smith's younger clone looks nearly identical to his Fresh Prince self. Some of the combat sequences where young Will is running and jumping make it seem like "yes this is a CGI person". But there are other scenes like the one where young Will confronts the individual that cloned him (his "father" Clive Owen), where we see tears and real emotions on the de-aged Smith that it really does seem like a physical younger version on-screen.

The problem with this movie is that the technical wizardry is really all that's redeeming about the experience of watching Gemini Man. Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Dr. Strange's Benedict Wong are just under developed side characters that help service the story. The government conspiracy that surround the plot is laughable and forgettable. I found myself not really caring about the "DIA" (I mean they really couldn't use CIA in this film?).

Is this worth a ticket spend to see this on the big screen? Maybe not. But this film might be remembered most for blurring the lines between real and CGI even further. Who knows, in 10 years we may no longer need physical actors in our big-budget films.

Monday, October 7, 2019

Joker, 2019 - ★★★★★

Todd Phillips' Joker brings us yet another incarnation of Batman's top adversary following some good performances (Jack Nicholson, Cesar Romero) and one AMAZING performance (Heath Ledger). I was pretty sure I would never see someone reach the heights of Ledger's work in The Dark Knight but 11 years later, the uber-talented Joaquin Phoenix has quickly put himself in the running for best Joker ever.

In a similar vain to what Chris Nolan did with Dark Knight, Todd Phillips crafts his Joker film as a 70's-set dark crime saga that doesn't seem to fit in with the recent superhero genre. The movie seems dirty throughout as we see Arthur Fleck slowly descend into a maniacal killer. Fleck's relationship with his Mom is both caring and flawed at the same time, muddled by a questionable adoption scenario in Fleck's past. While nearly a stand-alone film in DC universe, Joker does touch on elements of a young Batman and there is a clear setup for a follow on film. I just can't believe Phoenix would play this role again, although I'd love to see it happen.

The choices that Phoneix's Joker makes are certainly questionable but Phillips does a great job of letting us inside Fleck's head and understand some of his motivations. The actual killing scenes are brutal and blunt with gunshots ripping through the theater speakers. The scene near the end of the film with Fleck in full Joker dress and makeup as a guest on Murray Franklin's (a game Robert De Niro) talk show is the culmination of pent-up rage. I couldn't take my eyes off of Phoenix in that entire scene from him dancing backstage to his matter-of-fact behavior in the guest chair. It's a riveting performance that totally overshadows the work of legendary De Niro sitting next to him. Speaking of dancing, Phoenix does a weird swaying dance several times in the film and I thought it was a perfect strange addition to an already strange character/actor. His over-the-top cackling laugh that he delivers (along with a card explaining his mental condition to strangers) is powerful and horrible at the same time. Joaquin is just a weird kind of dude and that's what makes him perfect to play this role.

In fairness to Ledger, The Dark Knight earned him the Oscar in a supporting role. Joker is all Joaquin, all the time so it may not be a fair comparison. That being said, I really do feel Phoenix's performance is a notch above Ledger's. He simply does deranged differently and a little better than Heath did. This film is a tour de force showcase of one of the best actors of my generation. I'm not sure if he'll win Best Actor but he should definitely be nominated. Joker is a fantastically entertaining and depressing look at a monster brought to life. This is easily Phillips' best film and I'm curious to see what he does next.

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Ad Astra, 2019 - ★★★★½

I don't believe I have seen any of James Grey's prior films, but his first venture into outer space is a very beautiful and emotional one that is powered by a movie star having the best year of his long career. Ad Astra is the story of Major Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) an American astronaut following in the footsteps of his legendary father Clifford McBride (the grizzled Tommy Lee Jones) on a mission across the solar system. A power disturbance has been detected from the Neptune area which just so happens to be the same area Clifford McBride disappeared from 16 years earlier.

Grey and his cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema (probably the third-best cinematographer working today who shot Interstellar and Dunkirk) manage to build a gorgeous and realistic look at how space and planet/moon inhabiting would look in the near future. We get to see an Applebee's on the moon and take a glimpse at what Virgin Intergalactic space travel would look like when commercial flights in space become a real thing. There are a few scenes with action sequences (including Moon pirates which is apparently a thing in the future that I have so many questions about), but most of Grey's film is a slow emotional introspective that is peppered with self-evaluation exercises that the astronauts need to complete regularly to remain employed and engaged in their missions.

Liv Tyler plays McBride's lonely wife in a throwaway role (hardly any real screen time) while Donald Sutherland, Ruth Negga and Natasha Lyonne show up in brief but serviceable roles. Jones is solid as the elder McBride as we see his steely non-compassionate way of communicating with his son that adds to the emotional toll of the film.

The real heart and soul of this movie is Pitt's performance. As he did with his portrayal of Cliff Booth in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Pitt is cool calm and collected. However, in Ad Astra he emotes so much with his face and eyes, shedding a lot of meaningful solemn tears along the way. Whenever he's on screen (which is quite a lot) you can't take your eyes off him. He simply gives a magnetic, raw and real performance that takes this movie to the next level. You really do feel how isolated he feels in his life and how he wishes he had more of an emotional relationship with his father.

While this film is not really in the same breath as Gravity or Interstellar it is certainly better than some recent sci-fi space efforts (The Martian, Life). This is despite a few completely unbelievable sequences in the last third of the film that help with Pitt's attempt to return from the far reaches of our solar system. The music of Max Richter helps enhance the calm of the movie and heightens the atmosphere of space. This is worthwhile viewing on as big a screen as possible. Go see Ad Astra and witness a movie star at the top of his game. Brad Pitt provides big time acting fuel for two of the 10 best films I've seen this year so-far.