Saturday, December 7, 2019

Knives Out, 2019 - ★★★★

Rian Johnson brings back the murder mystery whodunnit genre with this enjoyable yarn about a powerful man and his extended family. Coming off the heels of The Last Jedi, Johnson gives us a clever twist on the "Clue" mystery-thriller staring a long list of celebrities I won't fully mention here. The stars that shine brightest are Christopher Plummer (Harlon Thrombey - patriarch of the family) Daniel Craig (as the Southern twanged detective Blanc), Ana de Armas (Marta Cabrera - Harlon's nurse) and Captain America himself (Chris Evans as Thrombey's grandson Ransom). I won't give any spoilers away to whodunnit, but the mystery goes on throughout the film and the best part of this movie is watching Daniel Craig try to solve the case. This is one of his best performances of his career and his southern mannerisms are spot-on and hilarious at times. Basically everything he says in this movie is worth a chuckle and you can't take your eyes off him when he's on-screen even in background scenes.

It's interesting to contrast this film with the recent success of Succession on HBO. There's a lot of similar dynamics here but Succession manages to fully paint the family members, adding depth that can't be duplicated in a two-hour film. Most all the cast here is excellent while a few key actors are under utilized (Toni Collette and Jaime Lee Curtis in particular).

This isn't a perfect film and there are parts that drag. I wish the mystery was played out a bit differently too, but Craig alone powers this movie to a high rating. de Armas is really clever and engaging here and shows us so much more than she brought to the table in Blade Runner 2049. This is definitely worth seeing and you'll have fun watching this play out. It'll be interesting to see where Johnson goes from here.

The Irishman, 2019 - ★★★

I don't fully get the whole universal praise of this film. I enjoyed watching it and really do appreciate all the technical work done with the de-aging of the main characters. The performances by De Niro, Pesci and Pacino are all top-notch in this "true story" look at the disappearance / murder of Jimmy Hoffa. De Niro in particular carries the film and it's really his best work since Goodfellas. You can tell that this was a passion project for the cast and Martin Scorsese as every scene is beautifully detailed and well crafted. The film looks great in 4K as well as I was able to watch this on Netflix at home, a trend that I am starting to enjoy more and more.

The major problem I had with this film is the run-time. This movie is waaaay too long and over indulgent. I felt we just got every single detail of Frank Sheeran's (De Niro) life and some of it could have been cut out. So many conversations ad nauseum between the main characters that after a while it's overkill and I started zoning out. Goodfellas is the best comparison to this film and that film just was so much more engaging than this one with memorable scenes and characters. The Irishman tells an intriguing story about growing old and coming to grips with what you've done over your lifetime but the way it's conveyed on screen is just a series of brutal killings peppered between forgettable conversations. Maybe part of the problem here is a lack of strong/memorable female performances in this movie. Lorraine Bracco brought so much to Goodfellas and that edge seemed to be missing here.

Marty Scorsese is a brilliant director but this is not in his top tier of films. It's really great to see Joe Pesci working again and I hope this isn't his final film. This is worth seeing for sure, but you may want to break it up in several chunks if you're watching via Netflix.

Marriage Story, 2019 - ★★★★★

Wow, this was a powerful film and very personal for me. As someone going through aftershocks from divorce and custody disputes, this felt very familiar at times. Noah Baumbach delivers a raw and gritty look at a real marriage falling apart before our eyes played out by two brilliant performances in Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver. The two play two aspiring thespians. Nicole (Johansson) is a film actor turned Broadway art-house actor who decided moving to LA to be in a hit TV show was important for her career. Charlie (Driver) is a Broadway director who loves the pulse of New York City and runs a theater company there. Nicole's desire to be in LA pulls herself and her child Henry (Azhy Robertson) to relocate there with Nicole's Mom (Julie Hagerty).

What plays out through the bulk of the film is the back and forth between not only Charlie and Nicole but the dynamics of legal battling between Laura Dern (Nicole's attorney) and Alan Alda / Ray Liotta (Charlie's council). I fell like I've already given away too many plot details, but the draw of this film is the amazing performances by Johansson, Driver and Dern in particular. ScarJo has never been better. There is a scene early on that just focuses on her telling her marriage story to Dern in a raw uncut take where you can't take your eyes off her. She's so believable and makes you sympathetic to her plight even as I tended to side with the father in this situation. Driver is really really good as Charlie and he comes across as a genuine dad who loves his son but also loves his craft. The scene of him singing Stephen Sondheim near the end is a culmination of so much emotion throughout the film.

I don't believe I've ever really seen a Baumback film before and now I feel I should go and watch some of his earlier work. What he does here is lets his actors shine through unfiltered scenes that feel so real and natural. His takes are just long enough to let the emotion come out and bring us in as first-hand witnesses to this dispute. This movie is a masterpiece and only has a fault in the casting/writing of the child in the movie. Henry comes across as such an annoying / limited kids for an 8 year old. There is literally a scene where he's learning to read the word "iron" at age 9. He has a lot of pointless lines and he just isn't as real/genuine as the child in Kramer vs Kramer. Still, all the other performances are so good that they overshadow this small drawback. I haven't seen Judy yet, but I find it hard to believe there will be a better acting performance than what ScarJo delivers in this movie.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, 2019 - ★★★★½

Mr. Rogers is a role that Tom Hanks was born to play. The consummate nice-guy actor fully embodies the role of nice-guy children's TV show host. Hanks' performance oozes empathy and sincerity and never comes across as hacky or corny. The film, directed by Marielle Heller is a beautiful look at the life of magazine writer Lloyd Vogel (portrayed brilliantly by Matthew Rhys) who is struggling to find his way as a writer, new father and son to an estranged father (Chris Cooper). The film plays out like an episode of Mr. Rogers Neighborhood targeted at grown-ups and Heller does a wonderful job of cross-cutting scenes from the show with real-life interactions between Lloyd, Mr. Rogers and his attempt to reconcile with his dad. The scenes toward the end with Cooper and Rhys are powerful and brought out a few tears in me.

I really enjoyed this film and can't recommend it enough. The only problem I had with it was watching This Is Us' Susan Kelechi Watson play Lloyd's wife. Her performance was OK, but I feel she'll always be Randall's wife from the TV show and I couldn't really believe her in this role for some reason. Of course this is a minor nitpick. See this movie which comes across as chicken soup for the soul and a great tandem film to the Won't You Be My Neighbor documentary about Fred Rogers. Tom Hanks is a national treasure and this is another in a long line of classic performances to add to his resume.

Honey Boy, 2019 - ★★★½

A slightly depressing but honest look at Shia LaBeouf's childhood and his relationship with his alcoholic-abusive father. LaBeouf plays a character similar to his real-life Dad named James, alongside Ford v Ferrari's Noah Jupe (as "Otis" aka Shia as a child). Director Alma Har'el paints a whimsical picture of innocense mixed with the pressure of working in show business and what . Otis ends up smoking a lot at a very young age and we see how his abusive relationship with his Dad turns into trouble later in life when a 20-something Otis is played by Lucas Hedges. The movie does a solid job of showing how a tough-love father can impact the life of an impressionable child. Touching on themes of divorce, Har'el delivers and allows Shia to shine in the lead role. His chemistry with Jupe is excellent, but overall I wanted a little more here. The film is short and to-the-point but there's nothing really new with this story. Still, this is a showcase for LaBeouf and we really need to look out for Noah Jupe as an up-and-coming your actor.

Monday, November 25, 2019

Frozen II, 2019 - ★★★½

This movie looks brilliant and you can tell this sequel has been in gestation for a while based on the flawless animation. I "liked" but didn't love the first film and I sort feel the same about this one. Anna and Elsa are front-and-center once again and this time they embark on a quest to find out more about their past and relationship with their parents.

This movie deals with serious issues of purpose, finding your place in the world and touches on colonialism. Everything is wrapped up in a nice Disney bow with a slew of new songs throughout. The comedic high-point is a nice Peter Cetera - meets Queen ballad video by Jonathan Groff (who I much prefer in Mindhunter) as Christoph (Anna's love interest).

The story didn't blow me away and the songs are mostly forgettable (besides the terrific Into the Unknown) but I still enjoyed the return to this world. I would say that Josh Gad's voice acting as Olaf the bumbling snowman is the best part of this movie. He was slaying the kids left-and-right in my theater. If you have a kid, you're probably going to see this. If-not, you should probably wait for video or Disney Plus.

Monday, November 18, 2019

Doctor Sleep, 2019 - ★★½

I may be in the minority with this one, but I just didn't really like this movie all that much. As a follow-up to Stanley Kubrick's The Shining, it just wasn't all that scary and I didn't really get into the whole steam-eating eternal-life subplot. Rebecca Ferguson (someone who I really like in most everything she's been in) plays Rose the Hat (yes that's her name in the credits). Rose indeed wears an annoying hat throughout and her and her rag-tag band of shinning vagabonds prey on other "special" shiners and end up prolonging their lives by feasting on the steam ("essence") that is excreted upon their death. That's really the premise of the whole film and whether this is a Stephen King brainchild or not, I just didn't like that whole supernatural element.

Ewan McGregor is great in the lead role of an older Danny Torrence with an alcohol addiction and the powers to be able to communicate with others like him through mental telepathy. The rest of the "True Knot" characters that are hunting child-shiners are forgettable and look like they're rejects from Twilight with the way they feast on the essence of others. Newcomer Kyliegh Curran was actually very good and believable as Abra (a new "shiner" that befriends Danny). Her solid chemistry with McGregor helps move the film along.

Now I really did like the Shining and all the creepy shit that went on in that film. Maybe I just was more moved by Nicholson's crazy metamorphosis and Kubrik's weird-ness but I didn't get that same feeling watching this film. My wife really liked and I know others did as well, but I feel like I missed the boat with Mike Flanagan's film here. Flanagan does do a few cool tricks including a trippy astral-projection sequence in which Rose "flies" over to Abra's house and all the musical and visual tie-ins to The Shining are well done, but overall I was just underwhelmed by the film as a whole. I think I wanted it to be more of an isolated horror story rather than the broader supernatural tale I was presented with. By all means, go and see it for yourself and make your own judgment. This isn't a bad movie, but it also just isn't for me.

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.