Movie Reviews Archives for 2019-11

Movie Review Knives Out

In a season when movies are doing their best to reach your emotions and move you in order to earn awards consideration, it is bold to release a movie that has little or no meaning. Knives Out is simply an entertainment. There is no deeper meaning, no revelation about the core of humanity and no deeper message about existence. Knives Out is simply an entertaining, at times highly convoluted, mystery for entertainment purposes only. 


Knives Out tells the story of an elderly mystery writer named Harlan Thromby (Christopher Plummer). It has rather recently dawned on Harlan that his family is a miserable and selfish clan who’ve been thriving off of his success while never making anything of their own. At 85 and seeing his life coming to a close, Harlan decides that he’s going to cut off his family and everyone else except for his nurse, Marta (Ana De Armas), a genuinely kind woman who’s become his one true friend. 


On the morning following Harlan’s birthday, his maid finds Harlan dead in his study. Harlan has cut his own throat and bled to death. Though not the type many would peg for a suicide, it appears to be an open and shut case until a private investigator arrives. Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) has been hired by someone in the family to find out whether or not Harlan did kill himself and whether or not an expert level murder and cover up has taken place. 


The suspects in Harlan’s death include his daughter, Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis), her cheating husband, Richard (Don Johnson), Linda and Richard’s spoiled son, Ransom (Chris Evans), Harlan’s son Walt (Michael Shannon) and Harlan’s daughter in-law from a son who passed away, Joni (Toni Collette). Investigating the case for the cops is Detective Lt Elliott (Lakeith Stansfield) and Trooper Wagner (Noah Segan). 


Each of the family members attended Harlan’s 85th birthday and each informs the police and detective Blanc about their interactions with Harlan and what their motive might be to kill him. Holding the key to everything is Marta who is so innately good-hearted that she physically cannot tell a lie. You will have to see the movie to understand what that means but it is a wonderfully clever device in a movie filled with clever devices. 


Knives Out was written and directed by Rian Johnson who became famous for directing Star Wars: The Last Jedi but has always been a mystery director at heart. Johnson’s debut feature, Brick, was a noir mystery that transposed a Phillip Marlowe-esque story into the hallways of a suburban high school and did so with ingenious technique. WIth Knives Out, Johnson is aping the style of Agatha Christie to equally strong effect. 


Johnson’s hallmark is playfulness, a genuine delight with the mechanics of mystery. You can sense in the way he structures and paces his mysteries that he deeply enjoys leading audiences one way while taking his story the other way and bringing us around only when he’s ready. All the while, his wonderful characters keep us on edge with their colorful recriminations, shifting motivations and alliances. 


Knives Out also finds time to be genuinely funny with Daniel Craig delighting in not being under the yoke of his James Bond performance. Taking on a theatrical southern affectation, Craig’s foghorn leghorn act is wildly entertaining in ways Craig has rarely shown in his career. I grew tired of his stoic yet emo Bond after his first adventure and I’ve mostly tolerated him since then Here however, Craig is effortlessly charming. 


Ana De Armas is also a stand out as a young woman desperately in over her head. There isn’t much I can tell you about her arc in the movie, everything she does could be considered a minor spoiler. What I can tell you is that De Armas is brilliant in her wide-eyed, increasingly frenzied manner. Marta drives the plot more than any other character in Knives Out and it takes a strong actress to hold that center against a wide array of bigger name, more colorful performers. 


Knives Out may be empty calories as a movie but who doesn’t love a few tasty empty calories. When something is this delicious it’s okay to indulge a little. It’s not a four course meal of Oscar worthy direction or performance but it is a wonderfully, singularly entertaining mystery populated by colorful characters and helmed by a director of impeccable taste and talent. If there is room on your Thanksgiving table for leafy greens, there is also room for pie. Consider Knives Out a delicious custard at the movie theater table. 


Movie Review A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

The new Mr Rogers movie, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, is a revelation. The story of an Esquire reporter, Lloyd, played by Matthew Rhys, who is assigned to profile Mr Rogers for the magazine defies conventions in ways that are entirely unexpected and delightful. Director Marielle Heller has truly come into her own with this remarkable artful yet accessible movie that is not merely about the legendary PBS kids show host Mr Rogers, but about all that he stood for and embodied. 


A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood opens with that oh so familiar theme song of the same name. Here, however, it is sung by Tom Hanks, who portrays Mr Rogers in a role that artfully incorporates elements of fantasy and reality. The opening Mr Rogers Neighborhood segment is a fantasy that has Mr Rogers introducing us to his new friend, Lloyd, a deeply troubled soul who writes for Esquire Magazine and struggles with being a new father while being estranged from his own father, Jerry, played by Chris Cooper. 


Lloyd has alienated so many people in his career that, according to his editor, played with gravitas by Christine Lahti, no one wants to be interviewed by him anymore. Only one person of note has agreed to an interview with Lloyd and that person is Mr Rogers. The nice guy kids show host puff piece is not Lloyd’s style but with no other option on the table, he agrees and travels to Mr Rogers’ neighborhood in Pittsburgh for the interview. 


Things are somewhat off-kilter from the start in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood and it is a risky proposition. Director Marielle Heller, fresh off of the Oscar nominated success of Can You Ever Forgive Me starring Melissa McCarthy, risks alienating the audience by immediately having Hanks’ Mr Roger break the fourth wall and act as narrator of the movie, introducing the more straightforward, dramatic and familiar scenes. 


Heller then chooses to transition from scene to scene using the models right out of the Mr Rogers Neighborhood set. It’s a style that evokes the esoteric direction of a Charlie Kaufman or Michel Gondry but in a decidedly more accessible fashion. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is stylistically bold yet lacking in pretension. That’s likely owed to the subject, Mr Rogers himself was notably unpretentious, a quality that Tom Hanks captures in his performance. 


Another bold choice that Heller makes is casting Hanks and Mr Rogers in what is essentially a supporting role. The heavy dramatic lifting here is done by Matthew Rhys as Lloyd. The Emmy Award winning co-star of the hit drama The Americans, Rhys has the burden of being both a character in and of himself and the audience avatar, the one who must bring us closer to Mr Rogers and help us to understand what made him special. 


Rhys’ performance is brimming with life and complex emotions. His backstory is brilliantly layered into the storytelling and Rhys evokes his past trauma effortlessly with his expressive, sad eyes. The scenes of Lloyd interviewing Mr Rogers are challenging and fascinating. There is a threat that Mr Rogers might come off as too all-knowing and benevolent as he gently yet inquisitively probes Lloyd’s obvious emotional wounds. Rhys and Hanks are remarkable for how well they ground these charged conversations in a way that feels authentic to the movie and to the memory of Mr Rogers. 


Lloyd is exactly the kind of person who needs the kinds of lessons that Mr Rogers taught on his show. These are lessons of compassion, forgiveness and understanding that Lloyd missed out on as a child due to his myriad traumas. Having to learn these lessons as an adult via becoming a parent with his wife Andrea, played by Susan Kelechi Watson, and by the re-emergence of his estranged father, Jerry,  finds Lloyd emotionally ill-equipped and Mr Rogers offers unexpected guidance. 


What an absolutely lovely way to tell this story. Director Heller and screenwriters Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster, could have taken the easy way out, cast Tom Hanks as Mr Rogers and call it a day. Instead, they chose daring and artful devices to reveal the way Mr Rogers affected so many lives in so many ways and do it in a fashion that takes his lessons from the simplicity of childhood to the complexity of adulthood. 


Now that I have seen it, I can’t imagine it being dramatized any other way. I had feared that 2018’s Mr Rogers Neighborhood documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor, would render A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood redundant. Instead, what we have is an even greater tribute to the legacy of Mr Rogers, a film that masterfully evokes Mr Rogers’ best qualities while not making Rogers out to be a saint or a metaphorical martyr for some notion of family values. 


Beautifully captured, boldly emotionally and deeply affecting, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood ranks as one of the most moving film going experiences of my life and one of my favorite films of 2019, a year that is truly coming alive with incredible movies. 


Movie Review Ford vs Ferrari

Ford vs Ferrari is a triumph. This film about racing cars has the feel of a Hollywood, mainstream epic. The racing feels like a massive event and is filmed with urgency, suspense and excitement while also being based on actual events. I imagine even those who know about Carroll Shelby, Ken Miles and Ford will nevertheless find themselves at the end of their seat while watching this incredible action unfold. 

Ford vs Ferrari stars Matt Damon as legendary car engineer Carroll Shelby. While history views Shelby as a legendary success story, prior to his triumph with Ford and LeMans, Shelby was struggling, selling the same Shelby Cobra to three different buyers just to keep the lights while he schemed to make more money to race with. Shelby was rescued by Ford and a young, up and coming executive named Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal). 

Iacocca tapped Carroll Shelby to create the Ford racing team after Ford’s failed attempt at purchasing the legendary Ferrari company. The Ford racing team was born out of spite and Henry Ford Jr’s (Tracy Letts) desire to stick it to Enzo Ferrari (Remo Girone). So, Ford hired Shelby to build him a car that can win at the legendary Grand Prix of LeMans, a 24 hour endurance race that Ferrari has dominated for years. 


For his part, Shelby sought out his old friend and go-to race driver, Ken Miles (Christian Bale). A mechanic and former soldier, Ken Miles has a unique, almost surreal ability to tune into what is missing from a race car. When Shelby approached Ken Miles, Ken was flat broke and retired from racing. Shelby entices him back behind the wheel despite Ken’s very reasonable mistrust of Ford executives he knows won’t be able to resist butting in. 


The lead butt is Ford Executive Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas), a composite character who stands in for the myopic Ford executives who were more concerned with image than with winning or building the best car. Beebe makes a big deal about how Ken Miles isn’t a ‘Ford Man,’ whatever that means and his pigheadedness costs Ford their first chance to win at LeMans by forcing Shelby not to put Ken on the racing team, though that isn't the narrative that goes back to Henry Ford Jr. 


Once Ken Miles is actually allowed behind the wheel, Ford vs Ferrari kicks into another sensational gear. Christian Bale is an electrifying presence in Ford vs Ferrari. Bale delivers a full-bodied performance as Miles, he lives this man’s life and makes you believe it through the sheer force of charisma and grit. Bale’s Ken Miles is relentless, hard headed, intuitive and funny. He’s wiry with a bad haircut but ingenious in so many other ways. This is one of Bale’s finest performances. 

Matt Damon’s performance has fewer fireworks than Bale’s but he’s just as effective in his way.


Much as Carroll Shelby facilitated Ken Miles in getting him behind the wheel and a shot at winning LeMans, Damon’s performance is perfectly calibrated to give Bale the spotlight, to tee up his performance so Bale could knock it out of the park. Shelby appears to fade into the background slightly in the middle of the second act but it’s fully calculated, the intention is specifically to give us more time to invest in Miles and his status as an underdog against the massive Ford machine. 


One of my misgivings going into Ford vs Ferrari was whether or not the movie intended to play the Ford Motor Company as cheerful underdog, upstarts. I could not have accepted that Ford played the good guys who overcame the odds against those dastardly Italians from Ferrari. The title might lead you in that direction as well but the reality of Ford vs Ferrari is that is actually Shelby and Miles vs Ford vs Ferrari. 


Director James Mangold, working from a script by Jez Butterworth, John Henry Buttetworth and Jason Keller, brings a singular vision to Ford vs Ferrari that helps the movie transcend its mainstream, Hollywood roots. Don’t misunderstand, this is still the mainstream, Hollywood, blockbuster, sports movie you think it is, but Mangold is unquestionably the captain of this ship and he demonstrates masterly control over the pace and tone of Ford vs Ferrari.


Mangold directs with the confidence of a filmmaker who knows he has an epic story to tell even if everyone else might be skeptical of a racing movie. Racing movies haven’t exactly blown up the box office in recent years. Only Pixar has really ever managed to strike gold with a racing movie but even Cars has its detractors.Regardless, Mangold knows there is more here than just a racing story and his superb confidence radiates off the screen. 


Mangold is aided greatly by a sharp tongued script, brilliantly crisp cinematography by Academy Award nominee Phedon Papamichael, and to die for production design and costumes. The period detail is outstanding, especially in the costumes which are both of the time of the movie, the mid to late 1960’s, but also still look cool. The jackets alone in Ford vs Ferrari are worth the price of admission. 


Ford vs Ferrari is some of the most fun and excitement that I have experienced at the movies this year. Not only is it an entertaining blockbuster, Ford vs Ferrari has the gravitas, artistry and storytelling that earns Academy Awards. Ford vs Ferrari belongs in the Best Picture conversation and Christian Bale should be standing shoulder to shoulder with Adam Driver (Marriage Story) and Joaquin Phoenix (Joker) in the Best Actor race. 


Movie Review Doctor Sleep

Dan Torrance (Ewan McGregor) took years to recover from his father’s rampage at the Overlook Hotel. His mother died not long after his father attempted to murder them both and her death led to a spiral of self-destruction for her son. Dan fell hard into alcoholism in his attempt to quiet the voices in his head, the voices that he could hear any time via his ‘Shine,’ the psychic abilities that he discovered as a child at the Overlook and has run from ever since. 


Now, several years sober, Dan has found friend, Billy Freeman (Cliff Curtis), and a steady job as an orderly at a hospice in New Hampshire. Here, Dan’s Shine has a way of providing comfort to people when they need it the most, as they transition toward death. Dan becomes known at the hospice as Doctor Sleep as he shows up when it is time for the dying to enter their final sleep under his watchful and caring eye. 


Meanwhile, Dan is also allowing his Shine to reach out to a young girl named Abra (Kyliegh Curran), a fellow psychic, younger and more powerful than Dan. Their friendship is kind and Dan offers the kind of comfort, support and understanding that Abra’s parents cannot as they do not have her special ability. Abra fears her parents will not understand or worse, may fear her remarkable gifts. 


Abra’s powerful shine unfortunately catches the attention of Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson). Rose leads a cabal of supernaturally powered villains who’ve discovered their own version of the fountain of youth, one that centers on people like Abra. The group is genuinely scary and the movie underlines how fearsome they are with visual flair. The ways in which we witness their evil are a little hard to watch as the terror of their victims has a visceral quality. 


Abra proves to be Rose The Hat’s white whale, a shine more powerful than even her own. The hunt for Abra, and Dan’s attempts to protect her and guide her,  make for a surface level take on the plot of Doctor Sleep. Thankfully, Doctor Sleep has a few surprises in store for those who give it a chance. This sequel to both Stephen King’s The Shining (novel) and Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (Movie) looks like a debacle at first glance but turns out to be a brilliant gamble. 


Directed by Michael Flanagan, best known for such mainstream efforts as Oculus, Ouija: Origin of Evil and the Stephen King-Netflix adaptation, Gerald’s Game, Flanagan takes a big, bold step forward as a filmmaker in Doctor Sleep. Until now, Flanagan has been a rather mediocre horror director. Here, however, with Doctor Sleep, Flanagan arrives as a bold, risk taking filmmaker who is willing to bet big on a project that could have been his complete undoing. 


There is no margin of error in making Doctor Sleep. Flanagan was always going to be under intense scrutiny by intending to sequelize both the Stephen King and the Kubrick movie that King was not a fan of. That Flanagan brilliantly bridges the gap between King’s novel and Kubrick’s movie is one of the great strengths of Doctor Sleep. Even the author himself has acknowledged that Flanagan did the near impossible of pleasing the two masters of this sequel. 


Kyliegh Curran is a revelation as young Abra. A wonderful character, Curran infuses her with life, curiosity, humor and bravery. I loved how the movie allows Abra to be both youthful and naive and yet resourceful and more than capable of holding her own against Ferguson’s incredible villain performance. As a member of the Critics Choice Award voting mass, I can say for certain that I will be voting for Ms Curran in our Best Young Actor category. She’s just outstanding. 


Just about everything about Doctor Sleep is outstanding. Seeing the Overlook Hotel again, the remarkable recreation of the period detail of the overlook. Even the logic that help us arrive at the Overlook is solid and compelling. The script by director Mike Flanagan, quite smartly establishes Abra as every bit the equal in power and bravery as her adult co-stars. I especially enjoyed the earliest scenes between Curran and Rebecca Ferguson whose Rose the Hat is a terrific villain, especially when she underestimates our young heroine. 


Holding the whole movie together is Ewan McGregor as Danny. Though the when of the setting of Doctor Sleep is badly fudged so we don’t know how old McGregor is supposed to be, it turns out not to be an issue as McGregor melts into this performance. McGregor is a steady hand with strong instincts, the perfect leader for this movie. He has movie star good looks and charisma to draw in the mainstream and just the right amount of haunted conflict and a touch of madness needed for a great horror movie. 


I had low expectations for Doctor Sleep based on the fact of it being a sequel to a Stanley Kubrick movie without, obviously, Stanley Kubrick, as well as an underwhelming trailer. But, after seeing it, I am now a huge fan. The tone, the pace, the characters, the scares, they are all working in Doctor Sleep and I was excited and entertained throughout. This truly is the sequel to The Shining that I did not think was possible, an absolutely brilliant movie that lives up to the original book and movie in a big, big way.


Movie Review Terminator Dark Fate

Terminator is the Frankenstein's Monster of movie franchises. Every few years, a new Dr Frankenstein emerges to attempt to reanimate the rotting corpse of this franchise and ends up creating yet another diminished, desperate copy of something that was once great. Terminator Dark Fate is the latest attempt to resurrect this moribund, hard luck franchise, and like the sequels and failures that came before it, it is yet another fading, rotten, copy of what was once great. 


Terminator Dark Fate stars Natalie Reyes as Dani Ramos, the new version of John Connor, a woman who will grow up to play a major role in the fate of humanity and who must be protected by someone from the future sent to the past. In this case, our time traveling hero is Grace (Mackenzie Davis, a major step down from her brilliant role in Tully just last year), a human who has been enhanced by technology in a way that makes her nearly the equal of the new style of Terminator. 


That new style of Terminator, sent back in time to kill Dani, is Terminator Rev 9, silently and quite flatly portrayed by Gabriel Luna. Where previous Terminator models were either just robots with human skin, ala the T-800, or moldable metallic goo, ala Robert Patrick's T-1000, the Rev-9 is both Robot and Goo. The Rev-9 can split itself into robot form and goo form for 2 on 1 attacks against their target. The filmmakers have now created a version of the Terminator that has any power it needs to have in order to move the plot along. Rather than call him Rev-9, we should just call him plot convenience. 


With the Rev-9 being anything it needs to be at any given moment, the filmmakers attempt to even the odds by bringing back the legendary Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton). Sarah had once prevented the robot led armageddon but history corrected itself and a new, future, robot armageddon has taken its place as if the Terminator franchise actually existed within the Final Destination franchise universe. Sarah now spends her time trying to anticipate where she can intervene again to prevent the new armageddon. 


Sarah has been helped by a mysterious person who sends her text messages just before new Terminator's arrive from the future so that she can be there to stop them. Though she is dubious about the source of her help, it comes in handy when the Rev-9 attacks and nearly kills Grace and Dani. Sarah appears out of the smoking ruins with a rocket launcher that slows the Rev-9 down long enough for the three to escape. 


I will stop  my plot description there. You know that Arnold Schwarzenegger returns as a T-800 but how that happens and his other relevance to the story as it plays, I will leave you to discover if you decide to spend your hard earned dollars on this once great, now desperately listless franchise. The going through the motions quality of Dark Fate stinks the most here. Schwarzenegger, Hamilton and even Executive Producer James Cameron are marketing based window dressing intended to tap those nostalgia dollars that drive far too much of Hollywood filmmaking. 


The stinking, rotting, corpse of the Terminator franchise keeps coming back to life solely to poke us all in the side and say 'hey, remember this thing you used to enjoy, it's still sort of here and it needs your money.' No, they aren't going to give you anything for that money other than rehashing your nostalgia, but that's often enough for most audiences who prefer having their memories microwaved and served to them as musty leftovers. 


The microwave chef cooking up this latest Terminator stew is director Tim Miller who made the first Deadpool movie. Miller became a hot property after Deadpool briefly became the highest grossing R-Rated movie of all time but since then it's become clear how much Ryan Reynolds meant to that franchise far more than Mr Miller. Since leaving Deadpool before the hit sequel, Miller has acted as Producer of the widely reviled Sonic the Hedgehog movie that's since been shelved for desperately needed reshoots and he's directed the lifeless marketing corpse of a Terminator movie, Dark Fate. 


In fairness, the direction of Terminator Dark Fate isn't all that bad. The movie looks fine and the action is solid and well-produced. The CGI creations in Terminator Dark Fate live up to the technology and have a seamless quality to them that many modern, mass appeal, monster action movies might envy. There are plenty of good things about Terminator Dark Fate except the fact that it exists at all. 


The story of Terminator Dark Fate stinks, it's rotten. The story of Dark Fate exists only as a cynical marketing ploy to extract money from the public that still holds fond memories of the past Terminator movies. The Terminator franchise is akin to the arena rock tours of bands like REO Speedwagon and Styx, familiar songs from once loved bands played at an extensive volume. Some of the band members are different but we still have the lead singers. Terminator is an aging nostalgia act just interminably playing the hits. 


Terminator Dark Fate recycles the tropes of Terminator 2 but this time, John Connor is a girl. That's the level of innovation we get here. Mix in a female version of Kyle Reese in Mackenzie Davis's Grace and we have what the owners of the Terminator intellectual property consider innovative storytelling. The reality is that the screenplay simply performs a not so sly mashup of the first two Terminator movies and calls it Dark Fate. 


I'm perhaps being to hard on the Terminator franchise. It's far from the only zombied franchise in Hollywood, one that gets rolled out to capitalize on our nostalgia with no futher artistic ambition. It's just that Terminator 2: Judgment Day means more to me than most other cannibalized I.P. Terminator 2: Judgment was the first time I ever had a favorite movie. T2 taught me what was possible in the world of movies. It showed me a vision of the technological future that my 16 year old mind could never have imagined. 


People forget what a massive leap forward T2 was in terms of being a technological marvel and a monster blockbuster. T2 was game changing, it was for a moment, a flashpoint for the technological future of film. T2 told a strong story that transcended the original to expand on beloved characters and turn them into mainstream icons. It was a wonder of marketing but it was also genuinely innovative and entertaining. 


All of the Terminator nonsense that has come since T2 has been a cynical cash grab. Any time Terminator has been revived since T2 it has been like a poor photocopy sold to us as something new and different. Terminator is now merely a marketing catchphrase and not a movie. The lack of effort that goes into innovating within this franchise is staggering with different filmmakers imposing ever more ludicrous twists on the original that are united only in bad ideas and that familiar title.


Terminator Dark Fate is perhaps the best movie that could have been made from the cynical attempts to continue to profit from the nostalgia of the Terminator Intellectual Property, but that's not saying much. It's not enough for me to recommend it. Terminator Dark Fate is simply too much of a warmed over leftover of a Terminator movie for me to say go see it. It's very existence is an indictment of the Hollywood machine that keeps composting our nostalgia and serving it back to us.