Monthly Archives: November 2019
Motherless Brooklyn (2019)
I remember reading this novel back in college, so it’s been a long road for Jonathan Lethem’s crime story to find its way to the big screen. Motherless Brooklyn is a decade-plus passion project for star/adapter/director Edward Norton, and it’s easy to see why an actor would want to latch onto the lead role. Lionel Essrog (Norton) suffers from Tourette’s syndrome and is given to verbal and physical tics he needs to indulge or else his brain feels like it will explode. He’s our eyes and ears into a criminal world that views him as a freak. It’s an intriguing vulnerability given sympathy, forethought, and it’s an intriguing way to make something old new again through a disadvantaged lens. Norton is great in the lead and Lionel feels like a companion portrait to Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker, another struggling man given to unconformable physical outbursts that make him feel isolated from society. The book was fascinating from being inside this unique headspace and understanding how Lionel’s brain operated with obsessions and various pressure valves. The movie, which Norton rewrote completely and set in the 1950s, is an acceptable film noir, but without that specific perspective it would get lost. It’s handsomely made and has plenty of enjoyable actors in supporting roles. There’s an intelligence to the storytelling and power dynamics, but the movie is also a bit too smart for its own good, losing its way in a convoluted mystery where the pieces don’t so much add up as they’re just given to you after a long enough wait. And the wait is long. This is 144 minutes and takes its sweet time, applying more and more layers of intrigue and period settings like Norton is checking a list of Noir Elements to include in his first directing work in 19 years (Keeping the Faith, anyone?). The world itself is surface-level interesting but the main character is the real hook, so getting more of the world without going deeper on the character, or expressly placing him in different predicaments where he can utilize his unheralded abilities, feels like wheel spinning. Motherless Brooklyn is strictly for genre fans or those who don’t need much more from their movies than a high-concept quirk.
Nate’s Grade: B
Charlie’s Angels (2019)
Where exactly did this go so wrong? The rebooted Charlie’s Angels is based on a property that the general public has little investment in 2019 and it seems like nobody was aching for another movie. The early 2000s Angels movies were fun and had some big names attached and it was the debut for music video director McG, a guy who knew his way around visual decadence. I think the first wrong step was hiring Elizabeth Banks to both write and direct. Banks has been a highly successful actress and recently directed Pitch Perfect 2, but a fizzy spy thriller is another matter entirely, and the end results of the new Angels doesn’t help. Scene to scene, timing and shot selections just feel off, and there’s one sequence I’ll use as an example of the whole. Sabina (Kristen Stewart) is chasing after a bad guy. He’s in a car and she’s on a horse. You would naturally think, given that dynamic, you’d want to showcase the speed and fluidity of the horse with wider shots, the horse getting closer, and yet the camera jumbles between awkward close-ups, clumsily edited together, sapping all energy from the action and making me wonder if there were logistics challenges to cut around. The action is so lackluster but the story is also needlessly convoluted and unclear, with things meant to be revelations that I thought were obvious, and things that the movie thought were explained that were very much inexplicable. Sabina and Jane (Ella Balsinka) just assume Elana (Naomi Scott), a tech engineer roped into an adventure, will just pick up on things without explanation. They leave her a package of mints that aren’t really mints but she, and we, don’t know what they’re for. The rules are unclear and there are so few setups and payoffs. At no point does the movie give me anything to grab onto, whether it’s a interesting set piece, a villain with a colorful personality, or some surprise turn. This is a very thoroughly bland movie that seems to serve its empowerment message above all else, sacrificing action, comedy, and good plotting along the way to beat the drum. I’m on Banks’ side here, but there were moments that just made me roll my eyes with how heavy-handed the “girls can do it too” message was, like a montage of women across the world doing things like science and sports and friendship; it felt like I was watching a hacky campaign commercial. I will say there is a refreshing lack of male gaze even as the Angels are dressing up in sexy outfits to entrance weak men. The cast is the real highlight and they have a charming chemistry together, enough that given a stronger script or a more adept director I could envision this trio really succeeding. The end credits present Elana going through a series of Kingsman-style trials to enter Angel Academy, and that’s when I yelled, “This is the movie I should have been seeing! Angel Academy!” The 2019 Charlie’s Angels reboot is a wash. The humor is strained, the high-tech gadgets and spy set pieces are so haphazard, the plot is convoluted without being intriguing, and there just isn’t a feel for the genre material from Banks as its leading creative vision. It doesn’t fail because it’s too woke, or whatever the self-pittying Men Rights Activists of Twitter claim, but because it didn’t know how to be the movie it wanted to be. Turns out everyone can do mediocrity.
Nate’s Grade: C-
Knives Out (2019)
Rian Johnson is a filmmaker who likes to dabble across genres and put his high-concept stamp on them. His debut film, 2006’s Brick, was a moody noir-flavored mystery set in a modern high school. His next film, 2009’s The Brothers Bloom, was a whimsical con artist movie with cons-within-cons, and then Looper took time travel and twisted it into knots. From there the man was tapped to not only direct a new Star Wars movie but write one, and 2017’s The Last Jedi proved so divisive that Russia literally created robotic accounts to exploit raw feelings to better sow discord among Americans and undermine democracy. Johnson must have needed a detox from that galaxy far far away, and Knives Out is his version of an Agatha Christie-styled parlor mystery. Once again Johnson has taken an older genre, subverted its form, and made it his own in a way that feels reverent while also fresh, fun, and thoroughly entertaining.
Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is a world-renowned mystery writer with a publishing empire in the millions. Then on the night of his birthday party, Harlan is found dead and every family member is a suspect. Could it be Marta Cabreara (Ana de Armas), the nurse who was last seen taking care of the old man? Could it be the daughter, Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis), eager to get out of her marriage to a cheating husband (Don Johnson, having a moment this fall)? Could it be the son Walt (Michael Shannon) who was going to lose his position of power in control of the family publishing empire? Could it be grandson Ransom (Chris Evans) who didn’t show up on time for the party but showed up early for the will reading? The local police detective (Lakeith Stanfield) is doing his best to navigate the many suspects. And then there’s the famed private eye, Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), hired by an unknown benefactor to discover foul play, who interrogates each family member, investigates the corners of the estate, and uncovers the truth.
Knives Out is an incredibly fun movie to watch fly by for its extended 130-minute running time. The guessing game is enjoyable and there is a plethora of suspects and red herrings. Johnson is clearly a fan of the genre and doing his best to send it up in his own way while still staying true to its roots. Just look at the silly, Dickensian names and you can tell Johnson is enjoying himself (there’s a character named “Ransom”). The mystery is clever but it becomes something more than a whodunnit (more on that below) and that’s when Knives Out becomes special. Johnson has been repeatedly accused of being too clever by half, looking to produce some meta gymnastics to subvert audience expectations but to what end? This was an issue with the very end of Brothers Bloom and many had this same complaint with The Last Jedi. It’s not enough to subvert expectations if the alternative isn’t as compelling. Still, the choices that Johnson makes with Knives Out best serve to improve the emotional involvement in the story. That quality seems like a rarity when it comes to murder mysteries, because it’s all about solving the crime and not necessarily how it affects the people on a more human level. It’s a problem to be solved, an equation on the board, and the process eliminates the variables systematically. Except with Knives Out, Johnson opens up the central figure of Marta in such a way that she becomes a symbolic figure for the immigrant experience in this country, fighting for dignity and recognition. The political commentary isn’t deep, and some of the shots feel a little cheap, but where Johnson succeeds is treating Marta as an empathetic stand-in for an often-invisible class.
A half-hour or so into the proceedings, Johnson makes a very conscious choice that changes how we understand the mystery and especially how we’re involved. I’ll be careful about spoilers but suffice to say we get some very crucial information that makes us look at the murder differently. For the first act it feels like it’s heading into a whodunnit with our clan of suspicious relatives, but it does something else, and I would argue something better. The problem with an Agatha Christie-style whodunnit is that the film is structured toward solving one central mystery and other important dramatic elements can fall by the wayside. Once you know who the killer is, was the journey to unmask them worth the twists and turns? Johnson instead lets the audience in on crucial information so that Knives Out alters, and the “who” is less important than how this information affects our relationship with a set of characters. It becomes less who is the killer and more will this culprit get caught and how will they beat the encroaching investigation. It transforms the entire structure, where instead of everything leading to one reveal, now it becomes a series of mini-panics and scrambles to stay ahead of a trap. This made me that much more personally involved and Johnson doubled the dramatic irony and tension of scenes. It becomes more a series of obfuscation where we’re involved, remembering what clues might be the ones that ultimately prove too inescapable. There is a downside to this approach, letting out some big reveals early also serves to downplay the vast majority of the supporting players. These people are all given motives and suspicions early on, but once Johnson unloads his twists too many of these same characters just fade into the background, their story use extinguished.
Another cheerful aspect of Knives Out is simply how much fun its cast is having, none more so than Craig (Spectre). I never really gave much thought to Craig as a comedic actor until 2017’s Logan Lucky, where he seemed to be unleashed, digging full bore into a charming and kooky supporting character, and it was downright joyful to watch him cut it up onscreen. He’s given such serious, macho roles but he really excels in the right comedic role, and he just has the time of his life playing Blanc. His southern-fried accent, penchant for theatricality, and garrulous nature all contribute to both tweak the idea of the clever inspector while playing into those clichés as well, steering into the fun we have with them. There were several moments I was left breathlessly cackling because of how Craig was delivering his lines with such relish. His explanation of the mystery being “a donut hole inside a donut hole” might be one of the best film scenes of the year. It also helps that Blanc has an affectionate working relationship with Marta, the heart of our movie, which makes this eccentric even more endearing to the audience. Just as Kenneth Branagh is continuing the adventures of his mustachioed private eye, I would happily watch another murder mystery featuring Blanc if Rian Johnson felt so inclined (pretty please).
The other actors do fine work even if many of them end up being underwritten figures either meant to be threatening suspects or cartoonish buffoons. Armas (Blade Runner 2047) is the lead actress and often the contrast for our rich elites and their out-of-touch perspectives; she’s the sounding board for their pettiness, acrimony, entitlement, and thinly-veiled racism. Armas just shines in the role as this figure who routinely makes the right choice even when it costs her. She’s a relatable, hard-working, kind character trying to keep her moral bearing in this high-stakes contest. Evans (Avengers: Endgame) is enjoyably smug and a welcome force to antagonize and puncture the egos of his fellow family members. Shannon (The Current War) has his effective moments of conveying menace and being laughably impotent. Every other actor does good work but too many of them barely make a blip. I forgot Riki Lindhome (Garfunkel and Oates) was in this movie from scene to scene. It’s a big cast so the goal is to make the most of their moments, and there isn’t a bad performance in the bunch, though some are far more broad.
Knives Out is a fun experience and further proof that when Rian Johnson really sets his mind on a certain genre, good and clever entertainments sprout. I want this man to tell the stories that excite him because there are still many more genres that could use the Rian Johnson stamp.
Nate’s Grade: A-
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2019)
As I was watching the sweetly good-natured but somewhat superficial 2018 documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, I was left wondering if there could be a big screen story on minister-turned-children’s TV host Fred Rogers, a.k.a. “Mr. Rogers.” Was there enough material to open up this kind, affirming, gentle man into a three-dimensional character worthy of a deep dive? I’m still unsure after watching A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood with Tom Hanks as Rogers. The filmmakers made the conscious decision to construct a fictional narrative of family strife between a father (Chris Cooper) and his son, Lloyd (Matthew Rhys), a magazine writer. Fred Rogers begins as an assignment for Lloyd and becomes the change agent, pushing Lloyd, in the gentlest and most empathetic manner, to reflect on his anger over his father’s abandonment and to work through his feelings and potentially forgive the old man. Like the PBS star, the movie is sweet and optimistic and gentle and just a little bit boring. The film follows a pretty strict formula of catharsis, and while it works it doesn’t make A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood feel more than a TV-movie plot attached to a malnourished Fred Rogers biopic. I understand the storytelling difficulties of trying to make a soft-spoken man who isn’t given to long-winded speeches a starring role, so it makes sense that his presence would be a catalyst for a family in crisis, basically serving as therapist. Hanks is fitting and affecting, and once again I feel like there are glimmers of a more complex man underneath the persona we’ll never be treated to in any big screen examination, like about his struggles raising his own children, his crisis of relevancy late in life. The majority of the movie is a father/son story that is well acted and pretty much fine, and “pretty much fine” is a perfect description of the film as a whole. It’s nothing you’ll regret seeing and it will generally be uplifting and sincere, but it’s basically a 108-minute greeting card.
Nate’s Grade: B
21 Bridges (2019)
21 Bridges would have been a more interesting movie if it had simply been a conversation between the police detective, Andre David (Chadwick Boseman), and the mayor of New York City as he proposes shuttling all twenty-one bridges leading out of Manhattan to catch a pair of cop killers. My pal Ben Bailey surmised it should go with the mayor flatly refusing and telling them they should use actual police investigative work to catch the criminals, like all casework, instead. It’s not like Manhattan houses millions of people with deep subway networks and somebody could remain unseen for some time, or the fact that there are more ways off an island than bridges. This concept doesn’t even factor into the story in a meaningful way; the police could have just as easily used the bridges as checkpoints for the difference it makes. This eliminates the ticking clock factor. Another miscalculation was splitting so much of the narrative between the two sides, Andre and the cops doing the hunting, and the criminals trying to run away. I’m not emotionally invested in these guys escaping, and it doesn’t ratchet tension as the cops get closer. If anything it alleviates tension as I know we’re closer to them being captured. The shootouts, foot chases, car chases, and machismo barking are all serviceable from director Brian Kirk, a veteran of television. It’s fine if this is a genre you enjoy but there isn’t anything new in 21 Bridges, or anything new that works, to open up that entertainment for anyone else. It’s entirely predictable every step of the way, enough that I was correctly guessing the real villains before the movie even started. The actors all do respectable work. It’s all competent from top to bottom, but it’s in service for a forgettable by-the-numbers cop thriller. I have to believe the original script for this was something more daring, perhaps opening up Andre’s character and his reputation as a “cop killer killer” and what effects that has had on him. He really shouldn’t be the hero. He should be the guy who comes to learn his culpability in being part of a corrupt system of justice, pushing him toward an anti-hero reclamation arc. What we get isn’t even close to that level of character exploration, so I must believe 21 Bridges was noted to death by studio exec mismanagement. Otherwise what did the star of Black Panther and the directors of Avengers: Endgame see in this story that urgently had to be told on the big screen? It feels like some relic from the 90s that would have starred Wesley Snipes and absent any modern commentary on the role of a police state in urban communities. Alas, you get what you get with 21 Bridges, which could have been 18 Bridges, but some exec must have said, “No, that’s not enough bridges. But 30 is too many. Gentlemen, were gonna stay up all night if we have to in order to solve this number-of-bridges conundrum.” If you have a soft spot for this kind of thriller, you might find some fleeting moments of entertainment. Everyone else can look away.
Nate’s Grade: C+
Frozen II (2019)
While it’s become somewhat fashionable to call Frozen overrated, I still think it’s a great movie with an even better soundtrack, songs that I can instantly think of and hear them immediately in my head. I figured Disney would be very careful about a Frozen sequel out of a tactic understanding that they didn’t want to damage their brand. It was six years ago so I figured they hatched a sequel worthy of the big screen and legacy of their billion-dollar hit, but what I received with Frozen II was more akin to a direct-to-DVD sequel that is meant to jump start an afternoon cartoon series called Elsa’s Magical Friends. Prepare for mediocrity, folks, and start dialing back those expectations. The story revolves around Elsa (voiced by Idina Menzel) discovering her past, traveling to a magical land, meeting magical tribes of creatures, and helping to unite a divided people. The sloppiness of the storytelling is staggering. The plot is filled with exposition and the world building is clunky and unclear, designed more to move things along and set up cute creatures ready for holiday merchandise. The characters arcs are nebulous, in the case of Elsa considering she’s never longed to discover a past, and resoundingly lightweight in the case of everyone else; Kristoff (Jonathan Groff) is worried about having the perfect proposal (yawn), and Anna (Kristen Bell) wants to support her sister but also doesn’t want her to march off into danger needlessly (yeah, and…?). Olaf (Josh Gad), the magic snowman, remarks about the nature of change, but by the very end of the movie nothing has really changed, and that’s even after a gigantic potential sacrifice that Anna makes by her lonesome. I felt some emotional pull for the characters but that was because of the holdover of my feelings for them and less because of the situations they found themselves in with this sequel. And let’s get to the songs, which are shockingly forgettable. I was forgetting them even in the middle of them being performed. There’s no “Let It Go,” but there’s also nothing as low as the troll song, but what we’re left with are milquetoast ballads and tunes low on hum-worthy melodies. The best song might actually be a jokey power ballad along the lines of Bryan Adams where Kristoff sings his woes. That’s right, a Kristoff song is maybe the best track in this movie. That feels like a pretty big indication something went wrong. It felt like the kind of quality you’d expect from a direct-to-DVD sequel’s array of new songs. Frozen II feels so bizarrely perfunctory and routine, absent a cohesive theme holding everything together and providing a firm landscape to direct the characters, and going through the motions. It’s not a story that adds greater depth to this world. If you’re expecting something along the lines of quality from the first Frozen, it’s better to simply let those feelings go. And what’s the deal with Elsa’s neck on the poster? It’s far far too long.
Nate’s Grade: B-
I honestly have no idea who could enjoy Climax. I have watched dozens of movies where I knew it wasn’t for me but I could at least fathom some appeal to a select viewer. Climax is the rare film where I cannot even fathom any person enjoying it, because to even attempt to enjoy it on its fever dream level it purports would only lead to disappointment. I don’t think it’s even possible to enjoy this movie, and maybe that’s even some subversive point from writer/director Gaspar Noe. Is the very act of titling a movie called Climax with no climax itself a post-modern jape? Is that it? I’m confounded by this monotonous experimental triviality.
The plot: a Parisian group of dancers is practicing in an old school building one 1990s wintry night. One of the members spikes a bowl of sangria with LSD. The dancers unwittingly get high, freak out, and lash out, leading to one long sordid night of tumult. That’s it, folks.
Firstly, Climax is incredibly, unbearably, crushingly tedious. It’s 97 minutes that could literally be condensed into a music video for a three-minute song as far as substance is concerned. Apparently Noe was working off of a five-page script (note to readers: typically, in screenwriting terms, one page equals one minute of movie), so it’s no surprise that the overwhelming majority of this movie feels empty. The first six minutes or so are watching boring interviews of the various dance troupe members answering mundane questions. It’s still difficult to attach impressionable personalities or points of distinction for them beyond the superficial (Tall Blonde, Girl with Glasses, etc.). After that it’s an extended dance sequence, then about twenty minutes of chit chat where the dancers are improvising, and then we have another extended group dance, and then we get to the fateful spiked punch. What I’ve just described is the first 45 minutes of the movie, also known as half of the film, and it could have all been removed without missing a beat. That’s a serious storytelling problem. Oh, I hear others preparing the defense, the movie is intended to be an experience and not a story. If that’s the case I need more of an experience. Noe described the first half of Climax as a “roller coaster” but it feels more like the long wait in line and then the brief five minutes of actual activity. Even the opening dance sequence, while energetic, is less than extraordinary. It’s not exactly a sequence that would wow me any more than a deleted scene from a direct-to-DVD Step Up sequel.
Climax fatally errs by, of all things, restraint. I could accept the slow buildup, the tedium, and even the paper-thin characters if, and that’s a big if, Noe was able to pull out all the stops with his freak-out finale and just went bonkers. However, it’s not quite the same when we don’t also experience the hallucinations and madness befalling our dancers. Instead we watch them pace around and scream, cry, sometimes writhe, sometimes fall down, sometimes fall down and writhe, sometimes fall down and writhe and cry, and that’s about the extent. It can be downright embarrassing to watch especially as Noe’s penchant for tracking shots makes the performance takes so agonizingly long. There are brief moments of unpredictability where the dancers become violent and paranoid, but these are fleeting and we’re back to watching people we don’t care about scream about imaginary things. Imagine if Noe let the audience in on these personal, psychedelic, and monstrous drug trips. Imagine how much more visually alive that would be and also how much more it would connect us with the characters, perhaps linking their hallucinations to personal traumas and anxieties. I’ve had friends discuss going along for the ride with Climax, but what ride does it even offer? The final ten minutes consists of a confusing upside-down camera angle, a scathing red light, and more antic writhing on the floor with the occasional sexual copulation. At that point, I had long lost any interest to even attempt to decipher the screen.
None of these characters matter, so I kept waiting for the eventual bad fates to fall upon them as the movie ramped into its horror section but Climax doesn’t even do this. I was expecting things to get progressively worse and take on a tragic momentum of escalating mistakes. I was expecting something and all I got was an extended music video where the extras had taken over, trying to convince me that their little spheres of drama were worth following (there were not). The little moments of conversation between the characters feel like you’re eavesdropping on normal, ordinary, and boring people but also people without clear indication for character arcs, ironic reversals, or any of the sort of contexts that can make people interesting in narratives. There’s just no potential here for the characters and nothing that amounts to satisfaction (oh the ongoing irony of its title, I know). Here’s how bad Noe miscalculates: at the very end, we discover which character was responsible for spiking the sangria, and it’s treated like a big reveal, except this was never an important mystery and I didn’t even recognize the culprit. It didn’t matter because the mystery never mattered and the characters especially never mattered.
Noe has been a cinematic provocateur ever since his first film, 2002’s Irreversible, began with a grueling, graphic nine-minute rape scene. He seems more drawn to pushing button so he might devote an entire movie to a floating spiritual perspective (Into the Void) or shoot a love story with un-simulated sex including graphic 3D use of said parts (Love). He’s not exactly the kind of man who wants to tell a simple story in a simple way (though I would argue a majority of his stories are pretty simple). So, if it’s all about technical bravura and showmanship and pushing the envelope, then let the man be judged on those grounds, and he is found wanting with Climax. The long swooping camerawork can be impressive as it tracks all over the confines of this building but the positives are weighed down by the banality of the visuals. Far too much of this movie is simply following people walk down corridors. There aren’t key, striking visuals to sear into your memory and it feels like Noe’s heart just isn’t in this. There’s one scene where a dancer, goaded by an angry and accusatory crowd, starts stabbing herself in the face. I was expecting something far more graphic or bloody or consequential, but it’s like a shrug. It feels like he’s even bored by the assignment of directing his own movie and just keeping the camera running so he can cross the 90-minute finish line and call it over.
I come back again and again to the question of how it is even possible to enjoy Climax. I think, even if you were to be overly generous, Noe’s film just cannot measure up on any artistic or entertainment metric. If you’re eager for a crazy, trippy, immersive drug-fueled experience, get ready for something more akin to standing by and holding the hair of your friend while they vomit into a toilet.
Nate’s Grade: D
I’ve just sat and watched the entire 99 minutes of Ma, a low-budget horror thriller starring a three-time Oscar nominee, and I’m genuinely confused who exactly this movie is for. Does it qualify as campy? Is it meant to be campy? Is it meant to have a message? The optics are just all over the place and begging for more context, and you have Octavia Spencer holding court with a movie that teeters into Mommie Dearest territory of bizarre choices. If someone asked me to recommend this movie I wouldn’t know whether it was possible. Not because it’s so overtly bad that no human being could find some degree of enjoyment, though make no mistake it’s certainly not good, but because I have no idea who to recommend this to. It almost feels like if you’re that very small niche that absolutely loves Showgirls, Sleepaway Camp, Falling Down, and Everything Everything, then maybe this will be for you. Is that person out there? Does that person exist?
Ma (Spencer) is a lonely veterinarian technician in small-town Ohio who is enlisted by a group of teenagers into purchasing them alcohol. She offers up her basement for the kids to get their drink on, free from the law and other prying adults, and it becomes a hangout space for the entire school. Ma starts dressing younger, stalking the kids online and in person, and getting a little too attached to her new friends and the feeling of being young and part of the in-crowd.
This is a Crazy Person Movie, which means it falls under the formula of the Crazy Person infiltrating the likes of, presumably, non-crazy individuals, warming to their company, and then eventually going too far and revealing themselves to be dangerous and crazy. As such, there’s a natural plot trajectory where the Crazy Person cannot be too off-putting early on. They need to be a little odd, maybe misunderstood, and very vulnerable, enough so that other characters may take pity upon our Crazy Person and invite him or her into their lives. That doesn’t work when your Crazy Person is acting crazy and dangerous so early and at every turn. The entire premise hinges on a group of teenagers befriending a 40-something woman who opens up her house for their parties and underage drinking. I have to imagine, even in a small town as the setting, that teenagers have to find other places to go drinking. It can’t be that hard. Given the opioid crises, there has to be more than one or two abandoned houses in this neighborhood. Regardless, the first time this older woman invites them over to drink, under the auspices of making sure they’re going to be safe with their shenanigans, she literally points a gun at one of them and pretends like she will murder him. Then it’s revealed it’s not loaded and everyone has a laugh. Now, I don’t know about you, dear reader, but if a stranger pulled out a real gun and threatened a friend of mine, that would be our last interaction with that strange stranger. This tenuous grasp on reality makes the movie feel much dumber as it goes, as we keep waiting for what the final tipping point will become for our teenagers to finally conclude that Ma might not be all right.
The problem with this is that it makes all of the characters into complete morons, and they’re not very well developed beyond stereotypes to begin with. I was struggling to remember the difference between the white guys. The adults aren’t much better. Nobody seems to be acting like actual human beings and they’re all so boring. This means we’re drifting along and either waiting for them to get a clue or get killed, and when it feels like neither is happening any time soon, Ma can become a dreadfully tedious experience that invites further criticism.
Tonally, I don’t really know what director Tate Taylor (The Help) was going for here as he stepped into unfamiliar genre territory. This was also evident in his film adaptation of The Girl on the Train, which got really confusing and sloppy and potentially campy itself, at least with how self-serious it got to be even when it was twisting corkscrews into necks. When Ma wants to be scary, it’s mostly creepy. When Ma wants to be funny (?), it’s mostly creepy. When Ma wants to be dramatic, it gets very serious but never follows through, falling back on camp or creeps. Ma has a tragic back-story involving a sexual humiliation, and it just happens that her all-white high school are the cackling faces pointing and laughing at her pain. The flashback scenes of young Ma feel like they were made in the 1960s and not, presumably, the 1980s. She is victimized by the collective white supremacy of her school and the film never deals with the racial aspect. There’s a truly weird moment where Ma paints the black male friend’s face white, saying there is only room for one of them in the friend group, implying they are token minority positions, I guess. But she literally puts him in white face, and this moment isn’t given any more thought and the movie simply hasn’t earned any of this. None of the moments relating to race are given any more than passing mention. There’s a motherly revelation that, much like the other heavier elements, feels tacked on and never explored in depth, calling into question its very inclusion. There are so many story elements that get thrown out that it feels like Taylor and his screenwriter are just blindly stumbling through their narrative and hoping that something sticks together.
If there is in fact any reason to watch Ma, besides morbid curiosity, it’s Spencer (The Shape of Water) who works to find the humanity of an increasingly cartoonish character. Finding out Ma’s back-story provides a suitable tragic motivation for her to seek vengeance on the children of her high school tormentors, but there’s also the strange element of her intense attention on Andy, the son of the man she was crushing on in high school. Is she setting him up for some devious end result to get back at his father, or is she trying to get with this kid as a means of tapping into the intimacy with his father that Ma was denied but still obsesses over? She seems to zone out at work often, but is this a general malaise, the idea of a physical or mental sickness that she alludes to, or just her being a poor employee who daydreams about her murder vengeance fantasies? Spencer is bouncing around many different emotional poles and maintains a sense of dignity even when the movie is asking her to behave in cringe-inducing, youth-imitating behavior. I don’t know what movie Spencer thought she was acting in from scene-to-scene, but then I don’t know if Taylor knew what movie he was directing from scene-to-scene either.
Ma is a strange movie for Taylor, Spencer, and every viewer left scratching their head. It’s not really a comedy. It’s not really a horror movie despite some blood and gore. It’s not really a drama because whenever it introduces potent dramatic elements the film abandons them. And it’s not really a good movie. It feels like a game experiment that everyone attached just lost clear sight of, ultimately losing whatever thread or meaning had appealed to them with the project. Just say no to Ma and yes to Mamma.
Nate’s Grade: C-
Ford vs. Ferrari (2019)
I don’t care one lick about cars and I was greatly entertained by Ford vs. Ferrari, a thrilling look back where the gear-heads at Ford wanted to build a new model of racing car that could challenge the seemingly unbeatable Italians at the Le Mans raceway. The smartest move the movie makes is placing this as a character-driven story with a group of big personalities solving a puzzle and trying to prove the arrogant suits wrong. It has such winning elements that it’s got crowd-pleaser DNA all over it, even if you’ll likely predict every step of the story. Even if you know nothing about the history of racing and motor vehicles, you can suspect that designer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) and driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale) will, through grit and confidence and outside-the-box thinking, overcome their obstacles to win the 1966 Le Mans race. The movie even realizes this, and that’s why the climax of the movie isn’t whether or not Ford will triumph but on a very personal dilemma and choice. It’s less about the mechanics of cars and more about simply solving problems with innovative solutions, and there’s a great satisfaction in watching characters we care about get closer to solving a puzzle that has outwitted the masses. As the characters get excited, we get excited because the personal is what is felt most. Miles is an arrogant, disgraced driver that Ford doesn’t want being the face of anything for the company. Shelby is trying to transition from being in a car to the head of a company, and he’s the heat shield for his team, taking the corporate ire and laying more and more on the line for their experiments. Damon is great, and sounds uncannily like Tommy Lee Jones, but this is chiefly Bale’s movie and he is fantastic. He once again just disappears into a character, this time the lanky, cocky, hard-driving family man, and the scenes with Miles’ wife and son actually provide important dimension to all the participants. They aren’t simply there to express concern or admiration. The screenplay by the Butterworth brothers (Edge of Tomorrow) and Jason Keller (Machine Gun Preacher) have opened up these characters, their fear, anxieties, hopes, and dreams in a way that feels genuine and considerate. They hook us in with the characters early, so that the rest of the film serves as a series of payoffs for our investment. The racing sequences are thrilling as director James Mangold (Logan) has his camera career around the cars, placing the audience in the middle of the RPMs and feeling that immersive sense of speed. I never knew that the Le Mans race is 24 hours long, and the scene of these 1960s cars, with 1960s windshield wiper technology, driving in the rain and dark at 200 miles-per-hour is starkly terrifying. I still don’t care much about cars or their history, but you present me engaging characters and Oscar-caliber performances to boot, and I’ll watch those people anywhere. Ford vs. Ferrari is a bit long (150 minutes) but a well-crafted, potent crowd-pleaser with exhilarating racing and strong characters worthy of cheering.
Nate’s Grade: B+
The Irishman (2019)
In 2018, Netflix crashed through Oscar biases with Alfonso Cuaron’s personal epic Roma and this year they have their sights set on even bigger prizes. The streaming service has built an empire of original content (and debt) and put up the $150 million budget for Martin Scorsese’s decades-spanning crime drama, The Irishman. It’s a fitting reunion for Joe Pesci, Robert De Niro, and Scorsese, and then to add Al Pacino on top, well it all makes for one supremely entertaining and occasionally striking movie experience. However, I think some critics are getting a bit too carried away with their plaudits. While entertaining throughout its mammoth 3.5 hours, this is much more Casino than Goodfellas.
We follow the life of Frank Sheeran (De Niro), a Philadelphia-based truck driver who rose to be a Teamster union rep and, reportedly, a prolific hired gun for the local mob, headed by Russell Bufalino (Pesci). Sheeran is tasked with helping Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino) with his business, which helps the larger contingent of organized crime that used the Teamsters multi-million-dollar pension as their own slush fund to pay for projects and schemes. After he loses his leadership position, Hoffa begins to think of himself on the same level as the tough guys and just as protected. Sheeran tries to turn his friend back from the self-destructive path he seems destined for, and ultimately, it’s Frank Sheeran who says he pulled the trigger killing Hoffa (is this a spoiler?).
There are moments that just sing in this movie, buoyed by a wonderful film alchemy of the actors, the storytelling, the skill of Scorsese and his longtime collaborators like editor Thelma Schoonmaker, and it can feel exhilarating. There’s a rich world of day-to-day detail from the character interactions and mob politics, and once Hoffa comes onscreen the movie becomes something more and better. It’s just as much Jimmy Hoffa’s movie as it is Frank Sheeran’s. Here is a live-wire character bursting with unpredictability, later to his great deficit, and who pushes the other characters around in a way that creates instant tension and realignment. Considering the selling point of the movie is its perspective from the claimed killer of Hoffa, it only makes sense that these moments are allowed the most attention. Hoffa sees himself as a champion of the little guy, as an ideologue trying to make life better, never mind his own extravagance, ego, and inability to let go of grievances. Hoffa was the head of the Teamsters union for twenty years and was a well-known public figure, somebody people like Peggy Sheeran (Anna Paquin) could idolize unlike her father and his other cohorts she despised. He’s a larger-than-life figure and those theatrics find a perfect match with Pacino and his bombastic nature. It’s no wonder he steals the movie. Pacino is terrific and has the clearest arc of any character onscreen, a meaty role that gives Pacino new life. I predict he’s the front-runner for supporting Oscar gold. I was transfixed by the amount of details that Scorsese and screenwriter Steve Zallian (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) imbue in every scene, propelled by Frank’s narration and a dark sense of humor. It’s very easy to get immersed in this criminal underworld and its many machinations, which provides a steady stream of information points to tantalize. If one scene isn’t working, just give the movie a few minutes and another avenue might open to prove newly fascinating. It makes a difference on its running time, making 3.5 hours feel more mercifully like 2.5 hours. Of course, once it’s released onto Netflix, I feel like its size and scope will become less unwieldy for viewers.
Because of that surfeit of detail, I think The Irishman would have better benefited from being adapted into a miniseries than as a single movie that happens to be 15 minutes longer than Titanic. The finished film feels rather episodic, like three movies attached into one; the introduction into a life of crime and rising in the mob, the friendship and fall of Hoffa, and the finale as an old man. All of these segments have genuine interest and compelling drama but I think they would have been even more compelling with a larger narrative canvas to play out upon. That way each episode could have its own beginning/middle/end and play its part adding to the larger whole, which is essentially what scenes should be doing anyway for a story. The problem is that The Irishman gets a little lost in its own minutia in the middle and the plot stalls. It feels a little too taken with itself. It feels like we’re experiencing the same information just in more settings. How many moments do we need to show Hoffa pushing away sound advice, making enemies of allies, and dooming himself? Admittedly, the Hoffa portion of the movie is the most compelling, and longest, segment of the movie. It’s the best because of Pacino’s spotlight and from the personal involvement in Sheeran, pushing his loyalties to the test when he genuinely grows close to Hoffa and realizes he’ll be the one that has to eliminate his friend. It’s the most dramatic and harrowing and most interesting part of the movie (and no, not the somber final 30 minutes). I think it would have had even more punch over the course of multiple episodes of material and momentum. By going the miniseries route, the film could have also stripped its second and entirely unnecessary framing device, having the men drive their wives across the Midwest to attend Bill Bufalino’s (Ray Romano) wedding. The short scenes fail to lead to any import until it’s revealed late what also happened during this fateful weekend. It’s a long wait to justify its placement, and even after that it doesn’t feel like the occasional road trip updates were worthwhile.
Much has been made from several dazzled film critics and online pundits about the movie’s concluding half hour, which follows the “after” of a mafioso’s life. We got a taste of this in the conclusion of Goodfellas after Henry Hill and family were relocated to schlubby mundanity through witness protection, implying the boring life that awaited, but The Irishman dedicates its conclusion to demystifying these mob men. Few of them live to old age, so already Sheeran is the exception (he died at age 83 in 2003) but he’s also incapable of introspection. That gives the final half hour a change of pace and an air of contemplation but it’s stagnated. Frank’s family wants nothing to do with him, everyone from his earlier life has passed away, and he shows little regret for his life’s actions, shocking a priest, his only regular visitor. I suppose one could surmise the self-deluded and sad existence of this man who refuses to accept accountability, but I found this final thirty minutes to be interesting, yes, but far from revelatory. I think critics are doing a fair amount of projection by searching for some kind of tidy, accumulative meaning, as if Scorsese is providing some wise, decades-earned statement on his own famed works highlighting the flashy lives of very bad people doing very bad things. People are a little too desperate for The Irishman to provide that neat hook, that definitive statement, and it’s just not there. It may have been too “movie land convenient” but I was begging for a final confrontation from Peggy.
The de-aging CGI is the source of much of the film’s gargantuan budget, which was why studios balked before Netflix welcomed Scorsese with eager arms. The first display of the de-aging effect is jarring and jarringly bad. We see Pesci and De Niro as 40-year-old men and it’s initially horrifying. The effect looks wrong, like somebody drew over their faces to provide some degree of cell-shaded dimension (think of the video game Borderlands). There are also elements that will just never look right, namely the elasticity of the skin, which looks overly smooth and polished, reminding me of the doll faces of the stop-motion film, Anomalisa. It gets better from there. Interiors and lower-light environments are better at masking the unreality. After a while you simply grow accustomed to it and the characters are aging anyway, which means the effect is rarely used after the first half of The Irishman. It’s impressive at parts but even with the digital facelift, these are still 70-year-old men moving their 70-year-old bodies with new shiny faces. There’s a moment when a younger Sheeran beats and stomps on a grocer and it reminded me of professional wrestling with the stiff movements of one participant followed by the extravagant physical overreaction of the recipient. Captain Marvel is still the champ at actor de-aging.
There’s also the fairly strong possibility that Sheeran made all of this up. Well into his twilight years, he reportedly recounted his amazing tale to a medical malpractice lawyer before he died, and that became the 2003 book, I Heard You Paint Houses. An August 2019 article by Slate.com writer Bill Tonelli (“The Lies of the Irishman”) gives a pretty thorough rundown of the facts of the case, which align in one direction. All of the FBI agents during Sheeran’s time, as well as the local officials, and surviving criminal actors, all come to the same conclusion that Sheeran has grossly overstated his role in mob matters and outright fabricated his most sensational claims. According to Tonelli: “Most amazingly, Sheeran did all that without ever being arrested, charged, or even suspected of those crimes by any law enforcement agency, even though officials were presumably watching him for most of his adult life. To call him the Forrest Gump of organized crime scarcely does him justice. In all the history of the mafia in America or anywhere else, really, nobody even comes close.” It does seem far-fetched, but the next question is whether the enjoyment of the movie matters at all if the story it’s based upon is ninety-nine percent hooey? While I think the impact of the movie is slightly blunted with a fictional account, it plays larger into a self-aggrandizing theme and the first framing device of the movie, having Sheeran narrate his life experiences as an old man, left to rot in a nursing home. Perhaps he’s exaggerating to make himself feel more important and grant himself something of a legacy that is denied to him by a lifetime of self-serving choices that have left him abandoned by family. In this regard, there’s a strange meta-textual level that even helps support the larger tragedy and loneliness of these men, in case you needed it underlined.
There’s a delightful feeling of getting the gang back together for Scorsese’s massive, ambitious, and thrilling return to the world of gangster cinema. There are so many characters that it can be hard to keep things straight as we zip through decades, de-aging, framing devices, Boardwalk Empire supporting actors, prison time, nursing homes, and Jim Norton as a young Don Rickles. I wish the story had been parlayed into an epic miniseries rather than a movie. The finished film is certainly long and imposing but also compelling and entertaining. The personalities don’t have quite the pop as Pacino, a rollicking screen presence relishing the spotlight, but the rock star bravado has been replaced with a somber reality of self-cultivated isolation. Pesci is terrific in what might be his most nuanced, insular, and quiet role of his career. I wish he would continue acting. De Niro is suitably gruff and has a few scenes of trying to hold back a cascade of emotions, but he’s more our impassive face into a world of crime and vengeance. I don’t think the final conclusion has the power that others have claimed and is a result of projection. The Irishman is an entertaining deep dive that I only wish could have gone even deeper.
Nate’s Grade: B+
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