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3 ½ (out of 4)
Rian Johnson’s career is the real mystery. Arriving after a competently thorny neo-noir debut (Brick), a half-baked comedy caper (The Brothers Bloom), some solid sci-fi (Looper) and what can only be described as the most detestable Star Wars sequel you could possibly dream up (Episode VIII, The Last Jedi, in case you forgot), Knives Out is what you could call his mischievous masterpiece. It's the movie he’s clearly been itching to get to, deserving of all the hype since this past TIFF and one of the most emphatically, heartily entertaining films in years.
Whereas his snide teasing and frivolous misdirection left a spurious space where The Last Jedi’s supposed soul and sophistication is, Knives Out merrily frolics through your expectations in a way that invigorates Johnson’s self-branded whodunit genre-disassembly. The writer-director finds plenty of room within the Thrombey Mansion to administer his shrewd formal finesse – by the end of Act 1 Knives Out has already become its own enterprising creative item despite copious influences. With the likes of Agatha Christie and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle too obvious to mention, more relevantly this film is something like the crass Americanized companion to Robert Altman’s Gosford Park. However Knives Out is also comprised of timeless dramatic irony and substantial suspense, reaching back to the voluptuous anxiety of seminal noir classics such as Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity or Fritz Lang’s The Woman in the Window.
Daniel Craig’s magnificent lead performance as Detective Benoit Blanc crowns an imposing cast. In a role reminiscent of the empirical investigative work of, say, Dial M for Murder, Knives Out demonstrates the same anticipatory unease of many a Hitchcock flick. Johnson’s idea of the spellbinding, unshakably suave private snoop is a fine riff on the Philip Marlowe’s and Hercule Poirot’s of the past. “This machine, unerringly, arrives at the truth,” and so go many of Craig's southern-baked soliloquies, each as smooth and sharp as Tennessee Whiskey. Ana de Armas is the film’s emotional ballast and her affect makes for a sympathetic protagonist and ensures some refinement in the conspicuous politics.
The remainder of the sterling ensemble includes Michael Shannon, Chris Evans, Toni Collette, Jamie Lee Curtis, Lakeith Stanfield, Christopher Plummer and Don Johnson, all who conform to Johnson’s cognizant premise without gleefully slipping into mugging stereotypes. As a reflection of our culture’s dread of holiday discord, the underpinnings of national divide are appropriate but will get the Right riled up for spitting in the face of anti-immigration rhetoric. But the fiscal journey of the Thrombey children is about the hypocrisy of entitlement and how little self-sufficiency can be expected of privileged, opportunistic leeches. Essentially Knives Out supposes karma rewards nature’s kinder characters; the upper class comeuppance and ultimate meritocratic sentiment is a fine notion.
From the dexterous dolly shots to the mansion's sublime mise-en-scène, Johnson’s airtight picture is able to serve all audiences equally with admirable auteur craftwork as well as timely cheek. The vivid characters sell the design of the ethical debates and borderline asinine revelations of the final admissions – Johnson’s script dances down the tightrope of cleverness, wobbling only slightly in the last steps over the vacuum of convolution. If the dialogue weren’t so savory, or the editing so poetic or the performances so refreshing, one slip-up could have spoiled the whole stew – is a minor plot hole of much consequence in the scope of such cunning storytelling?
In revisits I’m sure the gratification of the film’s composition – in addition to Johnson’s intention for audiences to find themselves debating, dissenting or otherwise disagreeing – will be its own reward. In the face of box office prosperity a sequel has been ordered for Detective Blanc’s further cases – Craig is so delectably compelling to observe in action, so I'm on board no matter what.
3 (out of 4)
Last year Won’t You Be My Neighbor? was touted less as an exceptionally enlightening documentary and more simply because anything venerating Fred Rogers is by extension worth celebrating. Such is the case with the third film by Marielle Heller – A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is securely anchored and basically blessed by the graceful hand of Tom Hanks but more actually safeguarded by the very spirit of Rogers alone.
But Heller's flair is for knotty personality profiles and with A Beautiful Day she sustains a spotless, steady career. The director has become a biopic specialist since her first, fussiest and most uncomfortably realistic film – and the only one she’s also written the screenplay for – the adaptation of quasi-graphic novel The Diary of a Teenage Girl. Last year’s Can You Ever Forgive Me? could convert anyone into a believer in Melissa McCarthy whilst illustrating a psyche I’m sure no other filmmaker could've drawn clearer. The messy verisimilitude of those two dark-comic films distinguishes just how few rough edges outline A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.
The unsympathetic elements are there in a logical attempt at emotional revelation, an obvious contrast to draw next to Roger's unwavering earnestness for the necessary melodramatic backdrop. The Esquire article from which the movie is inspired tries to place you in the writer/cynic (same thing) Tom Junod's disposition – Matthew Rhys stars as the "Can You Say ... Hero?" article scribe, reasonably detailing the mindset of the curmudgeon. As Rogers, Hanks plays a supporting figure who is less a foil than a headshrink (yes I realize Rogers was an ordained minister) so that Heller's propensity to depict discomfort can be applied to the genuine yet exasperating process of watching Rogers transform journalism into therapy.
But nearly everyone who walks into the Mr. Rogers movie doesn’t need an intervention. Only a few scenes deserve the easy tears they so smoothly extract, often at the assistance of Hanks’ portrayal which takes a mere 90 seconds to get used to. The grains of wisdom and inquiries into solemn truths take a collectively heavy toll as Heller cranks the waterworks nearly as high as the documentary did. But, as I said in that review, with no dirt to dig up Rogers' life's work exists as it always has, making me question whether this Oscar-attractor circa 2019 is worth more than a bit of binging Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood cannot get around the fact that the tenderhearted television icon’s mentality has only so much to offer other than a moral, civic ideal to aim for admire – and of course the film takes time to assert that Rogers needs no deification and we shouldn't place his piousness on a pedestal apart from the status quo.
Hanks has his first Supporting Actor nomination in the bag after two famous consecutive Best Actor wins for Philadelphia and Forrest Gump plus three more nominations in the same category. This latest biographical portrait amounts to the sixth real life figure modeled in six years – Fred Rogers follows the titular Captain Phillips, Walt Disney in Saving Mr. Banks, two Spielberg projects including James B. Donovan in Bridge of Spies and Ben Bradlee in The Post as well as Sully in the only decent recent Clint Eastwood movie of the same name. Great acting is about being as good at playing yourself as you are at emulating a chameleon and Hanks is suited for this role like he's been for so many before. This performance is just below some of his deepest, most distinguished turns like Saving Private Ryan, Cast Away, Big and Phillips.
Heller’s film has a compelling ethical compass but it is just not as gutsy or provoking as her earlier explorations. This is no slump since she’s willing to touch on an unregistered maturity at the heart of even the most innocent of circumstances just like the cardigan-toting shepherd himself. Just because Heller’s playing it safer doesn’t mean she isn’t doing it well.
3 ½ (out of 4)
Martin Scorsese is a great director whose magnitude is under ceaseless reappraisal and so his superior touch must reestablish itself as new ventures rectify the compounded weight of a filmography stretching over half a century. It’s been a decade of providence for Scorsese with vigorous, extravagant epics and purposeful passion projects (Hugo, The Wolf of Wall Street and Silence, you decide which is which) leading to The Irishman. Despite its shortcomings as a late, indulgent excerpt alongside a seismic oeuvre and within the tradition of the gangster film, the film is nonetheless another autumnal masterstroke fashioned out of each and every one of Scorsese’s convictions and practicalities.
The Irishman is flimsiest when the story must adhere to the unavoidable if oftentimes impressively accomplished digital de-aging, but the extreme expense behind the Netflix-backed undertaking is otherwise exhausted on the integral things – substantial period reproduction in the sets and costumes, thoroughly convincing make-up design and premiere acting talent. The informal narration, discreet editing and cold humor are as blistering as the subjective historical commentary and vicious violence – all the elements adding up to Scorsese the auteur are fully functional, though whether or not we have an indispensable cinematic exploit on our hands will be long in dispute.
Will this endure as immaculately as the fundamental gangster benchmarks of Francis Ford Coppola, Sergio Leone or Quentin Tarantino? The Irishman has its own exposé and its own history, and Scorsese never appears to tire of forming new questions of conscience and hefty, mythically complex portraits. His dedication to the apathetic reality of Philadelphia hitman Frank Sheeran’s story is as effectual as his dissections of other nefarious personages in crime history or the seedier exploits of his own experiences that snuck into his early efforts like Mean Streets.
Robert De Niro, in his ninth collaboration with Scorsese, is somewhat worse for wear despite his devotion and while Joe Pesci outshines him in general, both actors posit the greater empathy the closer they play to their real age – de-aging technology is aways from perfection and even when the CGI is passable the actors are more organic when they're not pretending to live in anything other than their own skin (and a wee bit of makeup). Al Pacino is the film's strongest asset as Jimmy Hoffa and, even with a legendary career founded on heralded, iconic performances (Dog Day Afternoon, The Godfather films, Scarface, etc.), he’s still an actor to be reckoned with as he ruggedly operates a classically tragic arc.
No matter if you think 3 ½ hours of mobster ethos is too much, The Irishman is so assured, authoritative and abundantly entertaining it’s enough to have you reassessing and reacquainting yourself with the mighty scope of Scorsese’s body of work. Personal favorites like The Last Temptation of Christ and After Hours inch up on the rewatch list, his most cherished films (Taxi Driver, Goodfellas) demand another bout of evaluation – how superfluous was Casino after all? – and I’ve never felt more compelled to fill in the blanks with The Age of Innocence, New York, New York or Who’s That Knocking At My Door? In short, if you really are only as good as your last movie, Scorsese is doing pretty well for himself. And after fifty years of supremacy why should he quit now?
2 (out of 4)
The funny thing about feminist cinema is its prime examples are never self-declared but self-evident. At the very least if a woman's picture (as a man in the '40s might refer to it) was a financial failure the director didn’t blame it on absent misogynists – sorry but if this Charlie’s Angels flops isn’t it the missing ladies in the audience who are the real problem? And when novice filmmaker Elizabeth Banks, whose only directorial credit is shooting Kay Cannon’s script of Pitch Perfect 2, is hardly some kind of Kelly Reichardt or Greta Gerwig in waiting and the film is so instantaneously forgettable, there's really nothing to defend or get worked up about.
K-Stew is trying but frankly I’ve never found her notion of charisma more excruciating to behold. If there isn’t lame, trifling humor – which doesn’t jar at all with the blockbuster big boy pants the film yanks on when the action drops – then the super woke dialogue is literally reciting gender statistics. Gee, I bet women feel so empowered! Jasmine from the new Aladdin (Naomi Scott) is an idle audience insert while the utterly winsome Ella Balinska is misspent when she’s good enough to be bolstering Bond or Mission: Impossible.
I never thought I’d look back at the McG Angel’s flicks with nostalgia and admiration, but besides Drew Barrymore, Cameron Diaz and Lucy Liu playing more compellingly capable heroines, those two dumb wire-fu parodies at least had a semblance of stylization and adequate proportions of fetishism and feminism. All 2019’s reboot has is Patrick Stewart.
Ford v Ferrari
3 (out of 4)
This is what they call a good old-fashioned time at the movies – nothin’ fancy at all. Technical prowess, sprawling historical illumination, thrilling tests of human endurance and seasoned actors bringing legends to life – if not for those things Ford v Ferrari somehow doesn’t abandon the common yokel's grasp of the joint business / engineering competition or insult your intelligence with too much superfluous open-road navel-gazing. Basically everyone in the audience has a hook, especially with such phenomenally edited action, but FvF is foremost steeped in emotional earthiness.
James Mangold ventured down the biopic path with Walk the Line to similarly well-rounded success (healthy awards recognition and decent treatment at the box office) while more current detours to comic books with The Wolverine and Logan did not erase but fortified his craft. The friendship between Carroll Shelby and Ken Miles naturally clicks the film’s disparate dramatics into place. Christian Bale is as good as some of his defining performances (American Psycho, The Machinist, The Prestige, Rescue Dawn) and Matt Damon reminds you why he was ever such a big deal to begin with. It's no surprise the most interesting part of the racing movie is the human friction – regardless Ford v Ferrari still has true momentum no matter how fast things are moving.
The Good Liar
1 ½ (out of 4)
The employment of standard narrative discipline usually conjures the expectancy of forthcoming scenes, but there are some movies so transparent, predictable and pointless it's actually befuddling to picture people enjoying such stuffy schlock. No matter how many movies I’ve seen I’m usually the one playing the fool when it comes to twist-laden attractions like The Good Liar, but damn – I could call every listless shot of this overstated bore.
So I'm admittedly not so clever but there was only so much to be done with the arrangement of dueling elderly deceivers. Let me give you a hint – whoever you think has the upper hand (wait for it) doesn’t. The Good Liar has a pinch of merit as opposing legends of stage and screen Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren make the viewing compulsory and… that’s about it. It’s a pity the tacky novel wasn't restricted to the rotating rack at the airport kiosk as culture intended. Something tells me the hidden #metoo / Nazi-revenge double threat helped keep this snooze in the creative conversation.
2 (out of 4)
Stephen King's spot on the big screen is more illustrious than ever and just as inconsistent. Even in an already big year for the heavyweight author – a Pet Sematary reboot, It Chapter Two, even In the Tall Grass for Netflix – the creative feebleness of Doctor Sleep would feel more like King's fault if the movie didn't principally function as an inevitable consequence of the 1980 interpretation of The Shining.
Since no one's ever clamored for a King screenplay save for Creepshow, the story usually goes the more detached he is from the visual rendition of his novels the purer the results. Historically this is most evidently felt in the lingering predominance of Stanley Kubrick's hallmark of the horror horizon some 40 years out. That said, I wasn’t automatically pessimistic to hear King’s latent continuation of his famous 1977 novel was being fit for the screen courtesy of the runaway success of 2017’s It. Considering Doctor Sleep invariably must exist as a curiously inconsequential follow-up to maybe Kubrick’s most inscrutable creation, as both a fresh King adaptation and a dormant sequel it soon becomes apparent that this film's artistic task was impossible.
But what matters by the time you sit your ass in the theater is the story find some way justify its stupendously ill-advised undertaking and ridiculously indulgent two and a half hours. At the outset Mike Flanagan's feature looks like it's navigating a divergent nightmare, but, because of the fatal choice to perpetually hammer home Kubrick’s influence, Doctor Sleep is ultimately so dysfunctional as entertainment and can be so promptly discredited as cinema. Flanagan is certainly no force of filmmaking nature akin to Stanley but honestly who is? As a sharp marksman of B-movie diligence – Oculus is a treat, better than his triptych of Netflix joints (the shrewd slasher Hush, the dim-witted dreams of Before I Wake, and an antithetically pocket-sized King adaptation Gerald’s Game) – Flanagan is a man of quiet consistency. At the very least his gloomy voice as a lesser, yet practiced digital auteur is intact, the only factor shaking off a few of Doctor Sleep's inescapable cinematic shadows. Even as the film’s writer, editor and director, who’s to say how much of his voice was left untouched since there’s King’s capital K Krazy source material to consider and Warner Brothers' itch for a movie proportionate to Kubrick’s deliberate, initially alienating calculations.
By egregiously citing Kubrick’s premeditated dexterity, Flanagan's Hollywood break is incapable of emerging as its own thing. Despite a radical shift in the internal mythology, Doctor Sleep never fails to act as a stylistic simulacrum of The Shining’s meticulously mind-dissolving psychological trip. The exact score (harsh horns, nebulous, spectral ambiance and those heartbeat jungle drums) and visual references (imposing symmetry, glacially superimposed transitions, haunting tracking shots) are feel more like plagiarism than homage, serving to always remind you of its predecessor's perfection while King's imagination solemnly unravels the most boring, witless X-Men tale of all time.
Yet even so much paling in comparison can't discount the fact that Ewan McGregor will forever play a creditable protagonist and Rebecca Ferguson continues to exercise villainesses as her exquisite forte. A friend told me if this movie reminded him of the dreadful related sequence from Ready Player One it'd be the kiss of death, and with pointless reproductions of memorable Shining moments by lookalike actors (um, WB you do own the original footage correct?) the worst has been realized. As with Spielberg's conundrum, reverence alone does not suffice to give you a pass no matter how intrinsically great the point of origin or praise – and whether the inspiration of Doctor Sleep is more Kubrick's film or King's book, the movie just kind of sucks either way.
3 (out of 4)
Taika Waititi is going places and he’s not pausing along his abnormal directorial path to catch a breath or sniff some roses. Alongside the Russo brothers and Joss Whedon, Waititi was one of the few indie-Hollywood transitions – ya know, the routine of converting small time filmmakers into overnight blockbuster neophytes – to pay off successfully with Thor: Ragnarok, a Marvel film with an uncommonly discernable identity. Before Waititi returns to the superhero game with Thor: Love and Thunder and possibly attempts an inescapably expensive adaptation of Akira later on, with Jojo Rabbit he protects his place as an oddball on the outskirts while also netting some invaluable license to Oscar prestige.
Something like Wes Anderson's mind meshed with Life is Beautiful or perhaps Come and See, Jojo Rabbit is constructed on an inflexible tone of indifference. The movie's somewhat inflammatory existence makes me all the curiouser about Germany’s take on a thoroughly Americanized (or Kiwied, however you look at it), flagrantly parodic impression of Adolf Hitler’s ideology on youngsters, particularly when certain stateside spectators are so irked. Waititi’s satire does not exactly succeed as brazen folly, although a well-placed pun or turn of phrase lets Waititi show that his truest talents lie in swift, sage dialogue.
It's never too soon to comment on the nature of distorting history – especially the extra sensitive, 20th century sort – to your own will. When Tarantino warps WWII to his pleasing, it's a saucy continuation of a foolhardy brand but somehow Waititi's impish twists on Nazis, Jews and the subjects in between have been enough for grumbling critics to dismiss the film altogether. To be frank I don't care one smidgen how writers and directors erroneously tweak the past for the sake of a cinematic present, nor about the frail sensitivity of audiences readily conditioned to be rattled at a second's notice. Jojo Rabbit got under my skin emotionally and no amount of personal provocation could agitate shoo-in sympathetic wit once the uneasy first act subsided. This isn't Au Revoir, Les Enfants after all, it's a quirky, sappy comedy by the guy who made that vampire mockumentary starring himself and Hunt for the Wilderpeople, which is twice the eccentric feel-good flick Jojo is and sadly no one's seen it. Even when someone both respected and Jewish steps behind the camera as in Steven Spielberg with Schindler's List, still the most petulant of bellyachers are unable to be quelled. I guess religion and nationalism can always be counted on to bring out the worst in the worst of us.
Even if this affair has some overly cute or farcical flashes, the succession of goofiness and heartache is rather strategic, even mathematical. At first, especially with Rebel Wilson onscreen, you should be daring Waititi to hit an emotive peak high enough to win TIFF's People's Choice Award (over Marriage Story and Parasite) but it doesn’t take long for the agreeable juggling act of silliness and substance to strike a sincere rhythm. Waititi himself executes this both on and offscreen, inhabiting young Jojo's idea of Hitler like a wisecracking devil on the shoulder throughout the entire film. Waititi purposely did no research on the infamous dictator, which while an adorable way to posthumously stick it to the Naziest Nazi is a little lazy no matter how appropriately ignorance suits the performance. His supporting cast – Scarlett Johansson, Sam Rockwell and Stephen Merchant – hand in some of the better performances of their careers as they have terrible fun with pronounced stereotypes. Johansson is specifically moving as the mother raising Jojo (the unassumingly extraordinary Roman Griffin Davis) and sheltering a Jewish girl Elsa (the wonderful Thomasin McKenzie) while her husband fights the war.
Building an organic bridge of empathy as any wholesome film should, Jojo’s steadily sentimental relationship with Elsa elicits an innocent earnestness to reconcile the film’s touchy tonal oddities. It’s honestly the recognizable devotion of McKenzie – who maybe is only so good at acting when it comes to playing scruffy homeless girls as in Leave No Trace – preventing Jojo Rabbit from tripping over its own excess of twee by taking every leap of pathos in stride.
To keep it brief...
Soon to Come:
The Invisible Man
and overdue takes on
"So what've you been up to?"
"Escaping mostly... and I escape real good."
- Inherent Vice