Uncut Gems(12/24/2019)

You know, as a critic I’m pretty sure I’m supposed to have a deep-seeded hatred at the sight of Adam Sandler’s face but I really don’t.  I mean, if I were a “real” film critic who had to see every single movie Hollywood puts out I probably would hate the guy, but his terrible comedies are generally pretty easy to avoid, especially now that they’re going direct to Netflix and aren’t getting major advertising campaigns.  In fact I don’t think I’ve seen any Adam Sandler produced movie in theaters at all since… I think 2002’s Mr. Deeds.  The Adam Sander movies I have actually kept seeing are the occasional non-comedic ones that he isn’t producing and which are using his on-screen persona in interesting ways.  Paul Thomas Anderson was the first serious director to use him for artistic ends in his 2004 film Punch Drunk Love and he’s also done good work in films like Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) and Judd Apatow’s Funny People.  Still these moments of Sandler clarity have untimely been pretty few and far between.  Hopefully that changes though because he’s gotten his best role yet in the new film from the Safdie Brothers called Uncut Gems.

In the film Sandler plays a sort of jeweler for the stars named Howard Ratner who I suspect he was inspired by Jacob Arabo.  Ratner owns a small storefront in the diamond district whose clientele appears to be invite only as his door is locked unless a potential buyer is buzzed in.  Howard also seems to have a lot of side hustles going on and appears to gable frequently.  One day in 2012 Kevin Garnett (played by himself) walks into Howard’s store on the eve of his conference semi-finals against the Philadelphia 76ers.  Ratner shows Garnett an uncut opal that he’d just acquired through nefarious means.  Garnett is immediately transfixed by it and wants to buy it on the spot but Howard has it set for auction and can’t sell.  Determined, Garnett asks that he simply be allowed to hold onto it as a good luck charm for that night’s game.  Ratner agrees, but only if Garnett leaves his championship ring as collateral.  Garnett agrees and Ratner immediately hatches a scheme: he’ll pawn Garnett’s ring while he’s gone and use that money to bet on Garnett that night and then use those potential winnings to pay off his gambling debts and then get the ring back before Garnett knows it was ever gone, but murphy’s law being what it is this isn’t going to be as easy as Ratner things and he’ll also need to deal with issues with his wife (Idina Menzel) and mistress (Julia Fox) while also being chased by angry loan shark enforcers.

Uncut Gems is the most high profile film yet to be directed by Josh and Benny Safdie, a directorial pair who made a bit of a splash with their films Heaven Knows What and Good Time, which were movies that never quite clicked with me but showed clear potential.  Uncut Gems to me shows that potential being realized.  The Safdies tell streetwise crime films set in the seedy parts of New York City that are supposedly disappearing.  Their previous movies looked at a drug addict and a bank robber and this one looks at someone who could be described as a hustler.  Howard Ratner is quite the creation; the very look of him with his goatee, leather jacket, and designer glasses frames communicates the kind of world he operates in and Sandler modulates his voice in a way to just make him sound like a bit of a weasel.  But unlike the protagonist of Good Time, who genuinely seemed like a menace to society, you don’t really hate Ratner.  Ratner doesn’t pose much of a threat to the average person, his compulsive gambling and wheeling and dealing mostly only poses a threat to himself and to the people who are foolish enough to go into not so legitimate business with him.

Much of the movie consists of Ratner running around the city trying to keep his various plates spinning, it’s kind of like a slowed down and movie length version of that section of Goodfellas where Henry Hill running a bunch of errands for the mafia while taking care of personal issues all while the FBI helicopters are swarming overhead.  But the Safdies aren’t Scorsese and they bring their own style to the proceedings.  Rather than fill their film with rock and roll cues they have this wild synth score in place and they have pretty modern cultural sensibilities.  The film is set in 2012, presumably to put it in a time when Kevin Garnett is still playing basketball, and they manage to make some appropriate soundtrack selections and make some cool casting choices like including a prominent cameo by The Weeknd.  You generally get the impression that these guys are plugged into what’s going on in the cooler sections of Manhattan and they bring it to the screen with exuberance.  You also get the sense that they understand a thing or two about gambling culture, which is what the film is ultimately about.  Ratner is plainly a gambling addict but this addiction is broader than just the risky bets he makes on sports, it extends to broadly to the various hustles we’re seeing him do through the whole movie.  He’s a character who frustrates the audience because he makes risky mistakes, but you can tell he isn’t frustrating himself with this behavior, in fact he seems to be thrilled by the rush of it all at least when he’s winning.  And to some extent so are we but we don’t need to worry about what happens when he loses.

****1/2 out of Five

Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker(12/19/2019)

You know who I’m jealous of?  The 95% of the population who are going to go see Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker without having spent the last two years arguing about the merits of the last movie, Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi, on the internet.  This endless debate has been just a real bummer and has mostly consisted of people talking right past each other while making strawmen out of one another.  It’s been especially painful for me since I was among the people who didn’t like that movie which kind of put me at odds with both the critical consensus and in the rather awkward position of arguing against a movie for what I considered the right reasons while knowing there were a handful of people who were also arguing against it for the not so right reasons.  But I wasn’t going to just shut up and pretend there wasn’t a whole lot about that movie which bugged me and I ended up writing a three thousand three hundred word review of the damn thing which I think is to date the longest review I’ve ever written.  And now this whole debate is being rekindled all over again by the final film in this new Star Wars trilogy, which was directed by J.J. Abrams rather than Rian Johnson and which critics seem to be coming at it with knives out (pun intended) for perceived offenses against their preferred installment.  I’m going to do my best to discuss this thing without rehashing the old TLJ arguments all over again and I certainly don’t plan to set new length records.

We learn right from the film’s opening crawl that Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) has somehow resurrected and soon learn that he had created Snoke and was behind the resurgence of the Empire during this trilogy.  Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) has already found him and has begun to plot with him, but no one else knows where he is.  Meanwhile Rey (Daisy Ridley) has continued her Jedi training under Leia (Carrie Fisher) but then Poe (Oscar Isaac), Finn (John Boyega), and Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) arrive at the base with a lead suggesting that Palpatine is on an unknown planet called Exegol, a name that Rey recognizes from one of Luke Skywalker’s journals.  Knowing that The First Order is about to go on the offensive using a fleet of super star destroyers that will destroy the rebellion if they can’t find Palpatine and put an end to all of this.  As such Rey, Poe, Finn, Chewbacca, BB8, and C-3PO set out to recapture the trail that Luke was on to find this planet years ago.

If I had to sum up my objections to The Last Jedi it would be that it not only ignored mysteries that were deliberately set up in the first film but it dismissed them in the most disrespectful way possible.  It essentially told the fans they were stupid for having invested in ideas that J.J. Abrams had told them to invest in in the first place.  For instance, critics seemed to think there was a whole lot of interest to be mined from the fact that Rey’s parents weren’t prominent figures from earlier films, but to me that was just the most anti-climactic possible solution to a mystery from the first film.  There’s nothing new about force users coming from “nobodies,” hell, Anakin Skywaker himself came from “nowhere.”  So that wasn’t a radical reinvention so much as it was a lame “surprise” that didn’t fit within the original puzzle.  And now that he’s back in the director’s chair people are accusing J.J. Abrams of “capitulating” to the “bad fans” who dared not to like their precious Rian Johnson movie when the truth of the matter is that he was clearly just reverting back to the original vision he had when he made the widely popular The Force Awakens.  He also clears up a few other things that Johnson recklessly muddled like the origins of Snoke, Luke Skywalker’s reasons for having a bad attitude about training Rey, and the bad out of place comedy is kept to a minimum.

Of course there are still issues with this trilogy that this isn’t able to fix.  There’s still no explanation for why Rey was able to become a lightsaber savant without training and the basic logistics of how the First Order managed to take over the galaxy so quickly generally don’t make a lot of sense.  I would also say that the general trend of these movies mirroring installments of the original trilogy continues.  The Force Awakens was almost scene for scene similar to A New Hope, The Last Jedi very closely mirrored The Empire Strikes Back (despite critics’ insistence that it’s some sort of avant-garde reinvention), and the new film certainly has a lot in common with The Return of the Jedi though I’d argue not it’s not a ripoff to anywhere near the degree that The Force Awakens was.  Yes, the film has the Emperor and Lando but there isn’t really an equivalent to Jabba’s palace here and while the film does end in a big battle that’s intercut with a more personal conflict between Jedi something like that was probably inevitable regardless of who made this movie.  I would also say that the film is a little too drunk on slightly pandering cameos toward the end and I would also say that the movie isn’t entirely successful in building a performance out of Carrie Fisher stock footage to give Leia a meaningful role in the film.  That last issue was probably unavoidable to some extent but still the fact of the matter is that it’s pretty obvious what’s happening there and it’s not seamless.

But as easy as it is to pick holes in certain elements of the movie, but pros outweigh the cons in a pretty big way for me.  This is the first time we’ve really seen the cast of the new trilogy working together on a mission and the adventure elements here really delivered for me.  I’ve heard people say that the movie is “overstuffed” and moves too fast but to some extent that fast pace seems like an asset to me.  The characters find themselves on some visually interesting planets and there are some fairly solid action scenes along the way.  I also thought the film did a better job than I expected resolving the tensions between Rey and Kylo Ren, which I thought was kind of a mess by the end of The Last Jedi.  Beyond that I actually liked how hopeful and crowd pleasing the film’s finale was.  There’s nothing revolutionary about the way the last battle plays out but it certainly milks your desire to see win triumph over evil and as much as I might say they went a little overboard on some of the fan service I would be lying if I didn’t say I was struck when some of it happened.  It’s a kind of catharsis we from franchises like this in troubling times like these.

Honestly I’m not sure I’ve done a wonderful job of defending this movie, but I’m also kind of surprised that this is a movie that needs defending.  I can see why some people would be disappointed that this didn’t go off in whatever wild direction they thought The Last Jedi was pointing towards but isn’t that the same argument that was dismissed when people made it about The Last Jedi itself and its decision to ignore what The Force Awakens set up?  I heard one prominent Film Twitter personality accuse it of being “rude” to Rian Johnson as if Rian Johnson hadn’t been incredible rude to J.J. Abrams first.  And what’s really strange about the reception is that just about everything it’s been accused of things that are pretty in keeping with what The Force Awakens was doing, and last time I checked people liked The Force Awakens a lot.  I have the receipts; that movie is at 93% on Rotten Tomatoes and a solid 81 on Metacritic, if you liked that movie you should like this one or at least not be overly surprised that it is the way it is and the people claiming it’s “worse than the prequels” really strike me as being wildy un-objective… of course I’m doubt I can be too objective about it either.  It’s Star Wars dammit, it’s a series that’s ingrained in the back of my psyche and has been since I was a small child so what can I say, it’s a movie that delivered some quality Star Wars and even in this world where Disney is wildly monetizing that IP you don’t really get that too often.

***1/2 out of Five

1917(12/2/2019)

It’s rare but not unheard of for a director to win the Best Picture Oscar with their first movie.  The last time it happened was in 1999 when Sam Mendes won Best Director for his first feature film American Beauty.  This had happened five times before but the previous directors who won on their first time all got to where they were in idiosyncratic ways whether they were actors turned directors like Robert Redford and Kevin Costner, or choreographers who managed to get co-director credit like Jerome Robbins, or people with long television careers like James L. Brooks or Delbert Mann.  But Sam Mendes really did seem like an overnight success story.  Of course he wasn’t, he had actually had a decade of stage direction experience under his belt before that movie came along but in many ways that only complicates the narrative.  A stage background would seem to suggest a career of making talky actor-driven cinema but his movies are usually at their best when they seem like visual extravaganzas, if there’s any common linkage in his career it’s the presence of major cinematographers like Conrad Hall and Roger Deakins.  This perhaps culminated in his work on the James Bond film Skyfall and it would seem that he’s going to be something of an action movie director going forward and now he’s put that to the test with the highly visual World War I film 1917.

As the title would imply this movie is set in 1917 and during the height of the First World War.  It starts with a pair of common soldiers named Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay) resting by a tree when they’re unexpectedly called to a meeting with General Erinmore (Colin Firth) who gives them an urgent mission.  Erinmore tells them that the Germans have recently made a tactical retreat that the a colonel has misinterpreted as a regular retreat and is planning an all-out attack.  Erinmore knows this is a trap because he has access to some aerial reconnaissance but the Germans have cut phone lines and he has no way of communicating this.  As such they’re tasking Blake and Schofield to run across No Man’s Land and through a few towns to reach the area this is happening and deliver a letter calling off the offensive, if they fail the whole division of 1600 men could be lost, including Blake’s older brother, who is a lieutenant in that division.

In the last couple of months the film world has been mired in debate over what seemed to me to be a fairly innocuous thing that Martin Scorsese said in an interview about the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  I’m mostly on Scorsese’s side in this but one thing about his statement that does stand out to me as a little odd comes when he compares them to “theme parks” rather than cinema.  I sort of get what he’s trying to say there, but when you look at those MCU films are much more traditional in their construction than that suggests.  In-between the CGI filled action scenes they have plenty of traditional exposition and draw some pretty tried and true filmmaking techniques.  A movie that might arguably be closer to a rollercoaster from this decade might be George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road.  That was a movie where the characters are basically going from point A to point B, and then back to point A, while encountering all sorts of strange sights and taking part in all sorts of action sequences along the way.  But a movie that takes that “film as roller-coaster” dynamic to even more of an extreme might be Alfonso Cuarón Gravity, which kept character interaction to a minimum and almost took place in real-time as it followed Sandra Bullock as she bounced around space and experienced all sorts of exciting adventures in her quest for survival.

I don’t make these comparisons to be insulting, those two movies are pretty great, and their rollercoaster-like formats mostly just make them feel like something bigger and more experimental than most action movies.  Of course I bring this up because I think 1917 would be another film that fits in with this format and in some ways it takes it to the next level by being filmed in a way that gives the illusion that the film consists entirely of a single elongated shot in the mold of other “single-shot” films like Victoria or Russian Ark.  Obviously this was accomplished with special effects and invisible cuts like Birdman was, especially given that it isn’t in real time and given the sheer volume of wild things that happen over the course of this “shot,” but that doesn’t diminish the vision per se.  Once you know about that technique, know the premise, and understand that this is meant to be an “experience” as much as a film you probably have a pretty good idea how the film plays out.  You don’t really know much about these guys outside of their general personalities and levels of determination, by and large the movie is about what they do rather than who they are and over the course of their travel they experience all sorts of WWI dangers.  That said the film isn’t all action and the movie does take its foot off the accelerator a few more times than I expected it to, maybe too many times.  Some moments that are meant to feel like oases of tranquility in the midst of all the action end up feeling less like escapes simply because of how many of them there are.

The real question is whether turning World War I into an “experience” was an idea that was in good taste to begin with.  The experience being depicted here is not very representative of most soldiers’ experience during that war, which is a conflict that generally precluded acts of individual daring.  For most soldiers that war was entirely about being stuck in awful muddy trenches as artillery exploded around them at all hours before they choked to death on mustard gas or got picked off from dozens of yards away by unseen enemies, that is if they didn’t get stricken with dysentery or trench-foot first and most fiction about the war has generally reflected this, it’s probably the least glamorized war ever fought.  I wouldn’t say that 1917 glamorizes the war, it certainly has its fair share of nasty imagery to make it clear that war is supposed to be hell, but there is a focus on individual heroism here that kind of clashes with the usual narrative in a way that leaves me a little wary.  Then again, there’s a pretty good argument to be made that setting a semi-adventure movie in the midst of one of the “good” wars like World War 2 is every bit as questionable and I don’t bat an eye at those, but there was something to said for leaving “the great war” as a symbol for human folly and waste rather than bravery.  But it you look past that this is most definitely a cinematic accomplishment even if the film is a bit hollow beneath the surface.  It’s a movie that is exactly what it is, and if you get on board with that it’s a pretty thrilling experience that shouldn’t be missed.

**** out of Five

The Irishman(11/23/2019)

11-23-2019TheIrishman

Warning: Review Contains Spoilers

Though it has seemingly everything going for it, The Irishman oddly hasn’t really been one of the movies I’ve really been anticipating this year.  The mere fact that it’s a Martin Scorsese film should have been enough to make me excited for it, the guy is as good as he’s ever been these days and is probably the world’s best living filmmaker.  The fact that this film has him re-uniting with Robert De Niro for the first time since 1995 alone should have made it the film event of the year.  Add to that the fact that Scorsese is also working with Al Pacino for the first time ever and that Joe Pesci basically came out of retirement for the movie should have moved it into the stratosphere of excitement.  So why haven’t I been outlandishly excited for this thing?  Well, part of it is that on paper it just seemed too good to be true.  All too often when the pedigree of something sounds that great on paper the final film doesn’t quite pan out and it’s best to keep your expectations in check.  Also something about Scorsese going back to the gangster movie well had me worried this could be a very commercial play intended to make up for the failure of Silence at the box office.  Then of course there’s the Netflix of it all.  But the film is finally here now and it’s a pretty heavy piece of work to wade into.

The film is an adaptation of a confessional memoir called “I Heard You Paint Houses” that was published shortly after the death of Frank Sheeran, a former Teamster official with likely ties to organized crime.  In the book Sheeran takes credit for having perpetrated a number of high profile murders for the mafia including having played a role in the death of Jimmy Hoffa.  The veracity of this book has been widely questioned and it’s likely because of this that the film doesn’t have much in the way of “based on a true story” title cards and much of the film is framed by shots of Sheeran (Robert De Niro) late in life recounting his story to some unnamed person off screen.  From there there’s a sort of “frame story within a frame story” of he and his associate Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) are going on a road trip in 1975 with their wives to Detroit ostensibly to attend a wedding but actually to use that wedding as cover to take care of some illegal business.  We come back to that road trip from time to time in the film and it seems oddly somber and ominous.  From there we flash back even further to the 50s and follow the chronology of what brought Sheeran to that point, namely his exploits as a hitman for the mob and the Teamster ties that would make him a close confidant of Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino).

As I mentioned before, it’s not overly clear whether there’s any truth to Sheeran’s account of things.  From what I’ve read he was indeed a teamster official and friend of Jimmy Hoffa with mob ties, but there almost no evidence outside of his own accounts that he was ever the triggerman for any murders and his accounts contradict the conventional wisdom about a number of the murders he was involved with.  There’s also a bit of a conspiracy theory aspect to his recollection of 20th century history which puts the mafia at the center of certain events including the Bay of Pigs Invasion and possibly even the Kennedy assassination and that makes me increasingly suspicious that all of this is just the rambling of an old man, but parsing the reality of it all is probably besides the point.  Martin Scorsese isn’t Oliver Stone and I’m pretty sure that he was primarily attracted to this material for its dramatic potential rather than as a history text and it’s probably best just to look at it as a work of fiction.

If you’ve heard anything about this film in the press you’ve probably heard that it has become a rather expensive production because it employs some high tech de-aging technology to allow the film’s senior citizen cast to portray their characters at various different ages in this film that’s set over the course of this decades spanning tale.  I was skeptical about this but I think the technology works pretty damn well.  Granted the film never really needs to make them look much younger than middle age, which really would have been a challenge given that De Niro kind of gained some weight in the 80s and it probably wouldn’t have worked to try to make him look like he did when he was really young, but for what’s needed here the technology mostly delivers to the point where you don’t really think about it much.  Of course this would seem to be a rather extravagant expense but I mostly think it’s necessary.  This movie is all about following characters over the course of years and years and seeing their decisions build on them over the course of time.  To simply cast various actors of various ages would have made for a painful disconnect between the various time periods being covered.

Additionally, I think the film gains a lot by having this dream team of mob actors in its cast even if they aren’t 100% age appropriate for their roles for much of the film’s running time.  Much the way Unforgiven stands as a sort of requiem for the film western this seems to be a sort of definitive end to the gangster picture, or at least the generation of gangster picture that Scorsese and Coppola ushered in back in the 70s.  Comparisons will of course be made to Goodfellas and Casino and not without reason.  This is obvious yet another movie where a 20th Century mobster recounts his life of crime through voiceover, but there are some pretty key differences as well.  For one thing, those movies are a lot more interested in what their characters find seductive about “the life” before their eventual downfall.  There isn’t a lot of that here; Sheeran is obviously being paid for his work but he isn’t living a life of immense wealth like Ace Rothstein and he isn’t getting into the Copacabana through the back like Henry Hill.  Sheeran also doesn’t seem terribly interested in his family as a reason to be living like this.  There’s maybe a little bit of that early on but mostly he just ends up pushing them away though his general cold bloodedness.

Instead Sheeran seems to be doing what he’s doing out of sheer blind loyalty for the most part.  There’s a flashback early on (technically a flashback, within a flashback, within a flashback) to Sheeran executing German soldiers during the war when given vague orders to do so and that kind of mirrors what he ends up doing in organized crime as well: blindly following orders without second-guessing whether what he’s doing is a war crime/mortal sin.  When he does get hired to “paint houses” he carries out his assignments with a sort of military efficiency and lacks any sort of remorse or hesitation.  The dude is a psycho.  I suppose the characters in Scorsese’s other mob movies are also psychos in their own ways but they at least weren’t hitmen so much as people who occasionally needed to have people wacked in order to keep their own hustles going and you get the impression that they’d generally rather not have to do that.  But this guy?  You get the impression that if Russell Bufalino told him to kill his own mother he’d do it.  In this sense the movie is almost less like Goodfellas or Casino and more like Raging Bull in that it’s a portrait of a really complicated and hard to relate to character who ends up really losing everything that ostensibly mattered to him out of his life but for opposite reasons: La Motta was too impulsive and wild while Sheeran was too cold and methodical.

There are other key differences between this and Scorsese’s earlier work.  For one thing, Joe Pesci is a lot different here than he has been in the past.  In Goodfellas and Casino he was practically playing the same character: a violent wildcard who kind of screws everything up.  Here he’s playing a much more rational and in control figure and he isn’t leaning on his usual persona in the film.  Al Pacino on the other hand kind of is leaning on the kind of acting we’re pretty used to from him, and that does fit the character to some extent but I would say that if there’s a weakness to be found in the film it might be Hoffa.  The infamous Teamster leader is a guy who they easily could been the center of his own film, and has, and the challenges of doing his story justice after he enters the film an hour in are probably a big part of why the film has such a long running time.  Hoffa’s eventual death is clearly viewed by the film as a sort of Greek tragedy in which a hero is brought down by his own hubris but if we’re supposed to have any particular sympathy for Hoffa I wasn’t really feeling it.  If anything the film lays out a pretty good case that Hoffa kind of had it coming both within the morality of the underworld (dude was not respectful) and within the morality of society (he was legitimately corrupt and needed a “house painter” on the payroll) and the guy seemed to have been given every warning and chance to make things right which he flushed out of sheer pigheadedness.

The larger role of Hoffa’s demise within the film is to act as a sort of wakeup call for Sheeran, the moment that finally breaks through this hitman’s sociopathic resolve and leaves him riddled with regrets later in life, and it’s effective at doing that but there is something rather odd about a movie whose protagonist’s great revelation is simply the achievement of having gained some fraction of the empathy that normal people have without trying.  But then maybe that’s the point, that these gangsters that we’ve been glamourizing for decades are pathetic and cold hearted people who are doomed to either early deaths, long prison sentences, or to die alone and friendless.  It’s almost like a return to the message from the message from the 1930s gangster movies that started the whole genre, but obviously a bit more artfully conveyed than it was in those movies (which were code-mandated to end with the gangster protagonists being gunned down or executed at the end), and it was obviously on some level the message of The Godfather films on some level.  I do wonder if Scorsese feels that this movie contradicts the tone of his own earlier gangster movies, which also certainly didn’t support the gangster lifestyle but were a bit more subtle in their messaging and were more interested in showing the push and pull of this lifestyle being intoxicating and being horrifying.  I think I might prefer that approach more overall, but I can also understand the instinct of an artist late in life to stop and make one hundred percent sure people knows what he really thinks.

****1/2 out of Five

Ford V. Ferrari(11/14/2019)

This is going to seem really off topic but bear with me.  There’s this video game called Mass Effect set in a science fiction universe and in that universe there’s this war-like alien species called the Krogan who were genetically altered after a war of make much of their population infertile.  Again, bear with me.  So there’s a conversation with one of these aliens in the game where he says that, in addition to the obvious reasons he thinks this is awful, he also worries that this genetic warfare is additionally making the species soft because every child that is born is treated as a miracle and gets more pampered than it normally would in their culture and this keeps them from gaining the toughness the species was known for.  I mention this because, in many ways, I think a similar thing happens whenever Hollywood puts some money behind a non-franchise film intended for adults.  We’re so accustomed to bitching about Hollywood only making franchise movies for teenagers that anytime they do give us what we supposedly want we get so damn grateful that we treat the movie with kid gloves even if it maybe doesn’t actually stack up.  Case in point, the new film Ford V. Ferrari has been welcomed with open arms seemingly less for its own qualities than for simply what it is: a $97 million dollar 20th Century Fox film with no sequel potential and with subject matter that no one under 25 will naturally gravitate toward.

Ford V. Ferrari focuses primarily on a man named Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), who won the 24 Hours of Le Mans race (driving for Aston Martin) before being forced into retiring from professional racecar driving because of a heart issue and transitioning into behind the scenes roles in the automotive world.  As he’s getting his footing in that role things are shifting the industry.  At Ford they’re trying to break into the world of international motorsport out of a desire to give their cars a sexier sporty image and Shelby is the first person they go to for assistance.  Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal) promises Shelby that he’ll be given unlimited resources and that Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) is going to give him full autonomy.  Shelby hesitantly agrees and seeks out Ken Miles (Christian Bale), a skilled but down on his luck British racer who lives in American and often has trouble getting sponsors because of his “difficult” personality.  Together they begin work on the car that would become the Ford GT40 but whether or not it will be able to beat perennial winner Ferrari at this storied race remains unclear.

In various foreign markets this film is being released under the title Le Mans ’66, a title that implies that this is mostly just about racing, but its domestic title is telling.  Firstly it joins Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice in an odd trend of having movies follow the naming conventions of Supreme Court cases, but primarily it signals this as a movie about an American motor company going head to head with an elitist European rival.  And yet you won’t really see a whole lot of Ferrari in the movie, they largely exist as a specter on the periphery of the film and it’s not entirely clear how invested they really are in this little rivalry.  The film also doesn’t really do much to make a case for why Ford winning this fight would actually be a good thing outside of blind patriotism.  Really, the film seems to have a rather unusual understanding about who the Goliath is in this situation and who the David is.  It would seem to me that Enzo Ferrari is the one who put his blood sweat and tears into sport of auto racing and the craft of making quality vehicles while Ford is a giant corporation who get the notion to buy its way into victory against him on a marketing whim so that they could then sell exploding Pintos to unsuspecting consumers for the next decade.  Shouldn’t Ford be the bad guy here?

So this isn’t much of an underdog sports movie but is it a good sports movie generally?  Well, the racing certainly looks good.  There isn’t a ton of it really but the crash scenes certainly look impactful when they occur and the movie does a reasonably good job of showing the strategy involved in endurance racing.  I was not, however, all that enamored with the film’s characters, who seemed to skew a bit too close to cliché for my taste.  Matt Damon is essentially playing a long suffering coach, an even tempered guy who nonetheless quarrels with higher-ups and also needs to tame the wild passions of his star athlete, or driver in this case.  As for that driver, well, he’s a character who would make more sense if he were about twenty years younger.  As a college football player his aimless rebellion would makes sense but this is supposed to be a forty six year old man and my patience with his “difficult” behavior only went so far.  I also didn’t care about his family like one bit.

But the character who really drove me crazy here was a Ford executive Leo Beebe played by Josh Lucas.  This character is meant to sort of be a stand-in for all the dumbest ideas the team got from Ford executives who don’t know what they’re talking about.  He reminded me of something from Roger Ebert’s review of the movie Die Hard where he says that the police chief from that movie was “in the movie for only one purpose: to be consistently wrong at every step of the way and to provide a phony counterpoint to Willis’ progress.”  I do think Ebert slightly over-emphasized how much of a problem that side character was for that movie, but Josh Lucas is about as much of a lame screenplay contrivance.  Granted, some of my research suggests that a few of Beebe’s dumb decisions had some historical backing, but when you have an element like that in the story you’re adapting you really need to address it with some finesse and be careful not to exaggerate it and here they most certainly punch up the character’s idiocy rather than putting them in context and making them seem likely and plausible.

So I don’t exactly think this is anything special as a sports movie but I will say that if there’s anything that does make it potentially interesting it’s the fact that it could potentially be read as a metaphor for the process of Hollywood filmmaking.  In this reading Ford is a stand-in for major studios of the 20th Century Fox variety who ultimately care more about the bottom line than craftsmanship but will occasionally indulge the creation of something a bit finer as a goodwill gesture.  This would then make Shelby a stand-in for a high profile director that needs to wrangle everything together and stay in the good graces of the studio while pushing back on the meddling of all their executives.  And then that would make Ken Miles a stand-in for a “difficult” actor that a director needs to find, fight to get cast, and then direct into using their talent correctly for the project at hand.  It’s an interesting meta-level, and I do think this is an intentional element rather than something I’m generously reading into the film, but it’s also perhaps a bit of a double edged sword because there’s a certain ego involved in making your main character that much of a self-insert.  James Mangold clearly views himself as the Carroll Shelby in all this, but from where I sit the movie he’s made is less of a Ford GT40 and more of a Ford Fusion: a perfectly functional product but not something you should be bragging about as if it were some exemplar of what automaking can be at the highest levels.

*** out of Five

Doctor Sleep(11/7/2019)

Of all the movies to come out this year Doctor Sleep isn’t necessarily the movie I was most excited to see but it was the film I was one of the films I was the most curious about.  The film is a delayed sequel to The Shining, an all-masterpiece from Stanley Kubrick, or perhaps more accurately an adaptation of Stephen King’s sequel novel to the original novel of “The Shining” upon which Kubrick’s film is based.  Stephen King famously isn’t a fan of Kubrick’s The Shining but I certainly think that movie is a masterpiece and making a sequel to it certainly takes balls.  I would normally be kind of offended at the very thought of doing something like that and would dismiss such a project as I would with that 2010: The Year We Made Contact movie from back in the 80s, but I can’t deny that Stephen King does still have some ownership over this story and that he has the rights to write his own sequel and that it would be foolish to ignore Kubrick’s film when making an adaptation of that sequel, so I was mostly willing to give this a chance.

Ironically I think the aspect of the movie that play around with Kubrick’s imagery are probably its most successful.  There was something oddly refreshing about the way Mike Flanagan is able to recreating Kubrick’s sets and imagery in a rather low-fi way.  I imagine that there was some temptation to dump a bunch of money into an elaborate CGI set like the one in Ready Player One with the original actors somehow recreated in a computer but Flanagan instead just cast a bunch of people who look a lot like the original actors and put them into physical sets that have been carefully fussed over and it mostly works.  The problem is that there really isn’t all that much of this in the grand scheme of things. I’ve heard people complain that the movie has too much Kubrick fan service in it, but from where I sit that stuff is a clear minority of the film’s runtime and it pretty much the only part that really delivers on what the film is being sold as.  The rest of the film is largely beholden to Stephen King’s own new story which in some ways seems to have been constructed in such a way as to be the opposite of what people would want out of a sequel to Kubrick’s film.

A lot of ink has been spilled about why Stephen King hates the movie version of The Shining but one of this quotes about it that has always baffled me is his contention that the film is supposedly a failure because Kubrick looked down on horror genre, which never really made sense because most of the things Kubrick added to the story were freaky supernatural elements and most of what he took out were endless bits of back story that over explained everything.  Granted, I haven’t actually read King’s book so I might not be in the best position to diagnose that but I’ve looked into the differences pretty extensively and that seems to be the case.  That complaint is all the more strange given that this King approved sequel doesn’t even seem to be trying to be anywhere near as horror inflected as Kubrick’s movie.  Kubrick’s movie is essentially a haunted house story mixed with a psychological thriller that boils over in violent ways.  In that movie The Overlook Hotel and the various ghosts inside of it are the real stars while Danny Torrence’s psychic powers are heavily de-emphasized.  This sequel instead focuses mainly on Danny’s psychic powers and does a lot of world building on top of them and turns things into a sort of YA fantasy story about other people who “shine” fighting against another group of psychics who hunt and kill people who “shine” to feed off their power like vampires.  That’s not the worst idea in the world but it’s not what people want out of a sequel to The Shining and I don’t think it’s overly well executed in and of itself.

A big part of the problem, I would argue the problem that kind of sinks the movie is that these evil psychics are kind of lousy as horror villains.  The film spends an unusual amount of time hanging out with them while they’re on the road searching for victims and almost seems to want to establish them as a personable band of misfits.  That is the exact opposite of what you want to do if you want to make your villain intimidating and scary, if I were making this I would have cut that stuff to a minimum and made these psychic vampires as simple and mysterious as possible.  Additionally, the film doesn’t do a whole lot to make them seem all that powerful either.  Their leader, Rose the Hat, is certainly well played by Rebecca Ferguson but our heroes seem to get the best of her at every turn and it’s eventually established that all you really need to do to take these bad guys down is shoot them so it seems a bit odd that by the end of the film we’re still supposed to view her as a threat that’s so intimidating that desperate measures and dangerous methods need to be taken to have a fighting chance against her.

So, what we have here is a movie that doesn’t really work, but the ways that it doesn’t work are kind of fascinating.  I almost want to give it a “thumbs up” just because there’s a certain entertainment value in watching Mike Flanagan desperately try to square the circle of making these competing visions work within a single movie.  However, I do empathize with anyone who walks into this movie unfamiliar with all this baggage expecting a sequel to The Shining or any kind of Stephen King horror movie for that matter and instead get this weird mishmash of visions.  In some ways I wonder if this kind of mess is exactly what King wanted when he wrote this book that doesn’t operate at all like Kubrick’s movie and then gave it a pretty terrible title on top of that.  So ultimately I think that hiring consummate Stephen King fanboy Mike Flanagan was a mistake as, at the end of the day, he was more interested in pleasing King than the film’s natural audience.  Part of me thinks they should have hired a guy who would have tossed out even more of King’s ideas and made a true sequel to Kubrick’s movie but as I outlined previously King’s partial ownership over the story is kind of the one thing that justifies making a sequel to a Kubrick film in the first place so you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t.  I’ll give it this though, it’s better for a movie to have too many visions coursing through it than to have no vision at all.

**1/2 out of Five