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Movie reviews

This racing picture is a period piece, set in the early 1960s, and there’s also something retro about the kind of movie storytelling it represents. Directed by James Mangold and given spectacular horsepower by dual male leads Christian Bale and Matt Damon, “Ford v Ferrari” recounts, in a sometimes exhilaratingly streamlined fashion, a tale of Motor City dominance-seeking that compels you to root for good guys who are doing the bidding of rather bad guys.

Damon plays Carroll Shelby, a champion racer whose hypertension forces retirement. His opening voiceover about what it feels like to hit 7,000 RPM with a car sets the tone in the “Why We Race” category. After hanging up his gloves/helmet in Hollywood, Shelby goes into car sales with a sideline in modification and design, and he also manages some racers, including the hotheaded Ken Miles, played with a cheeky, elastic physicality by Bale. Both fellows are at low ebbs when opportunity knocks.

The opportunity originates in Detroit. There, Henry Ford II, played by Tracy Letts as if he’s suffering incurable heartburn, is dissatisfied with things at the company founded by his grandfather. (While the car is never mentioned in the movie, the Edsel had made its disastrous debut four years prior to the action in this film beginning.) He wants new ideas, and he’s not too crazy about the one brought to him by youngish hotshot exec Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal). The idea is to buy the Italian car giant of the movie’s title. Enzo Ferrari not only refuses the Ford offer, he delivers, via Iacocca’s proxy, some vivid insults to Ford the Second. This hurts Ford’s pride. And makes him determined to best Ferrari’s cars on the race track of Le Mans, home of a 24-hour race that has never been won by an American car.

You don’t need to be a car person to appreciate the conventional but crackling human drama that animates “Ford v Ferrari.” On the one side, there’s Shelby and Miles. Both mavericks, but one with a little more give than the other. Tasked by Ford with creating not just a car but a racing team that can best Enzo’s, they go all out with Ford’s money. On the other side are the often truculent Ford and his second-in-command Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas playing buttoned-up cocky). Beebe’s not an ambitious bootlicker. He’s something worse. He’s a guy who adheres to corporate principle because he actually believes it’s right. He doesn’t want Miles as the new car’s driver because the volatile “beatnik” (Beebe’s term) doesn’t conform to his or anyone’s idea of a “Ford man.” Beebe gets his way once, and it doesn’t work out for him.

But the thing about a character like this is if you thwart him once, he will just keep coming back. Beebe’s persistent attempts to screw Miles, in this film scripted by Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth, and Jason Keller, juice up the rooting interest aspect of the movie. As do its support characters: Caitriona Balfe as Miles’ wife, who is not, contrary to the usual practice in such films, a disapproving worrier; Noah Jupe as Miles' son who idolizes his dad unconditionally; Ray McKinnon as Shelby’s most trusted engineering lieutenant.

Damon is superb in the kind of role he excels at: a man of integrity who gets steered off the path and is subsequently righted. Lest all of this sound heavy, I should assure you that “Ford v Ferrari” is exactly as fun, maybe even more fun, than its well-put-together trailer makes it out to be. The dialogue is replete with zingers and the racing sequences are a blast. Mangold sticks to the verities and conveys high speeds and potentially deadly impacts with a lot of gusto; there’s very little that looks tricked-up or obviously animated.

As for the retro part, well it’s kind of sad: 30 or 40 years ago, a movie like “Ford v Ferrari” would be a staple of studio fare. Nowadays, it’s actually considered a risk, despite being, by an older standard, about as mainstream as mainstream gets. “Ford v Ferrari” delivers real cinema meat and potatoes. And its motor show spectacle deserves to be seen in a theater. 

Author: Glenn Kenny
Posted: November 14, 2019, 2:52 pm

"Mickey and the Bear," about a young woman and her Iraq war veteran father living in Anaconda, Montana, is an almost perfectly realized drama that feels as if it was time-warped in from 40 or 50 years ago, when people still wanted to see movies about people living in the actual world. It's getting a limited release and probably won't play in theaters for long—we live in a different era now, when only tentpole blockbusters and certain horror films can get people to leave their homes—but viewers who crave this sort of film should be able to rent or buy it online. It's worth seeking out for the way it observes psychologically complex small-town characters struggling to endure present-day hardships and past traumas. 

Camila Morrone stars as Mickey Peck, a high school senior whose mother died of cancer years ago from pollutants in her town. She works as an assistant taxidermist, has obvious artistic talent, and wants to get out of her tiny town and start her grownup life. But it's hard for her to leave. The main anchor keeping her in town is her complicated and often unstable relationship with her father, Hank Peck (James Badge Dale). 

Hank is a tattooed, muscled, hard-drinking Iraq war veteran who is dependent on oxycontin and becomes a mess when he doesn't meet a certain dosage. Hank loves his daughter and is proud of her, but because of his many problems—including unarticulated resentment at having been "abandoned" when his wife died—he's far from a reliable parent. In fact, his relationship with Mickey is in an awkward, potentially explosive twilight area. It's definitely father-daughter at its core, even though Hank isn't much for details (when he forgets Mickey's birthday, he pretends he was just doing a bit). But when Hank gets drunk and has to be bailed out of jail or escorted home from a bar, and Mickey has to help him off with his boots and tend to his hangovers the next day, we see a role-reversal happening. Even though Mickey is just 18, she's been put in the position of a mom, caring for an overgrown, self-pitying, and self-medicating teenager.

There are also trace elements of platonic marriage in the relationship, with Hank playing the role of the terse, macho Man of the House (Mickey does all the cooking) and expecting his daughter to be the immovable object to his irresistible force. He gets jealous of her boyfriend Aron, played by Ben Rosenfield, a domineering whiner who's like a cut-rate, younger photocopy of Hank. And when she takes up with a new guy, Calvin Demba's Wyatt—an English soccer player whose mom grew up nearby—Hank seems to resent her even more, because unlike Aron, Wyatt's got his act together. When he leaves Anaconda after graduation, he could take Mickey with him. 

It's easy to over-explain characters and situations in a film like this, and the temptation to just wallow in misery can be tough to resist. Too many independent films in this vein become self-regarding slogs. But "Mickey and the Bear" avoids nearly all of the usual pitfalls by seeming to take its cues from its characters, who aren't much for expository dialogue or therapeutic language, and its lead actors, who let us know what their characters are feeling while hiding what they might be thinking. There are plenty of opportunities for the actors and the filmmakers to overdo things, but they never take them. 

This is the debut feature by by actor-filmmaker Annabelle Attanasio—daughter of "Quiz Show" screenwriter Paul Attanasio—but it's so assured that it feels like it could be her third or fourth movie. There are a few elements that seem a bit indie-filmish, such as giving the heroine an escape valve and second love interest who's almost unnervingly sweet and decent, and has the face of a 1950s dreamboat hunk; from certain angles, Demba evokes the young Paul Newman or Marlon Brando. But their negative impact is so negligible compared to the film's accomplishments that they barely register in the long run.

Practicing a degree of restraint and discipline that feels as military-minded as Hank's facility at handling guns during target practice, the movie never takes aim at a target it can't hit. And it pulls off a number of brilliantly acted and inventively directed scenes with such subtlety that it takes a moment to register the degree of difficulty that must have been involved. What you come away with is a sense of uncanny precision and confidence—not just in the way the characters channel the characters' feelings, and draw on their histories to inflect each small moment, but in the way that Attanasio and her filmmaking collaborators (including cinematographer Conor Murphy and editor Henry Hayes) always try to focus our attention on what's important.

There are many impressive long takes that don't call attention to themselves in an acrobatic or otherwise show-offy way. When Mickey goes into a bank to ask for money, the camera starts in a wide shot of the desk and stays on it, creeping in to a tight closeup of her face as she registers news she didn't want to hear. A dinner table scene between Mickey and Hank where painfully raw history is discussed starts out in a profile wide shot of the two at a the dinner table, facing each other like boxers in a ring, and stays there until the scene changes emphasis in a way that makes you want to get closer to the actors' faces, at which point we see them in alternating closeups (exchanging increasingly destructive verbal blows). A confrontation at a street fair between Hank, Mickey and Wyatt is done with the camera very slowly circling them while resentment and distress builds. 

This is a movie in the tradition of great American cinema chamber pieces like "The Last Picture Show," "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore," "The Great Santini," and more recently, "Winter's Bone." It's almost excruciatingly tense at times, not because you expect physical violence to break out (although there is that potential with Hank, a volatile man) but because of the constant churn of emotional violence just beneath the surface. These characters are sitting on needs that they don't dare articulate, and payloads of pain that their social conditioning won't allow them to unleash. We know that after a certain point that it all has to be addressed. The question is how how bad it'll be when it happens, and whether the characters will be able to get through it without fracturing their relationships beyond repair. 

The film doesn't offer pat answers to any of the questions it poses, or slather inappropriate notes of optimism onto situations where you'd find that kind of approach insulting. "Mickey and the Bear" has an unerring sense of what sort of film it is and what kinds of characters it's trying to do justice to. When you look at the running time later (88 minutes) you might wonder if somebody counted it wrong, because the movie feels longer in a good way (it's very efficient). The final shot is as perfect as the closing images of "Naked" and "Big Night," summing up the movie's mix of emotion and control, anger and compassion.

The performances are uniformly superb, particularly by Morrone, who carries much of the film's tension in closeups of her face as the character silently thinks about her life; and Dale, one of the great, largely unsung American actors. He's a classically handsome hero-type, but with the soul of a 1970s eccentric, in the mode of a Brad Pitt or Jeff Bridges. He loitered around the edges of commercial cinema for nearly two decades looking for a breakout matinee idol role that never quite found him. But now, as he heads into his 40s, he's become the continuation of Robert Duvall by other means: the kind of actor who can play quiet or flamboyant, heroic or villainous, and everything in between, always making you believe you're seeing a real person who could walk into a diner and order the lunch special. 

The movie is filled with actors doing work in that vein, including Rebecca Henderson as Leslee Watkins, a social worker struggling to mediate between the government's limitations and her own compassion. Watch how Leslee handles Hank in a bar scene that could turn ugly. Something in the way she carries herself tells you that—as an Anaconda resident might put it—this isn't her first time at the rodeo.

This is the kind of small, great movie that goes largely unnoticed upon first release but gets discovered later. Later should start immediately.

Author: Matt Zoller Seitz
Posted: November 13, 2019, 4:21 pm

For their first live-action, original movie, Disney+ goes with what seems like a new Disney classic by default—a spunky, wholesome Christmas story with Anna Kendrick, Bill Hader, and a floating baby reindeer named Snowcone. “Noelle,” written and directed by Marc Lawrence, is a movie you can easily imagine watching on a video from a white shell case, or on the Disney Channel, and that’s a not-so-subliminal part of its appeal. But the big laughs and sweet moments in this movie—and there are many—show that "Noelle" has more going for it than just being one of the easiest ways for Disney+ to make a good first impression (along with a “Lady and the Tramp” remake, and "The Mandalorian"). 

“Noelle” imagines a North Pole where the role of Santa Claus is passed down to different generations of men in the Kringle family, meaning that the neurotic Nick (Bill Hader) is next in line, even though he doesn’t want the responsibility. In a funny Christmas simulation, he goes through the different training steps, like trying to land a sleigh on a rooftop, or guessing what a person wants just by looking at a picture of them. With Hader's sardonic quality making for a funny idea of a bad Santa, a more frustrating story arises to the surface—his sister Noelle (Anna Kendrick) is far more talented and ready for the gig, but was told by Santa, her father, that she’s meant to support her brother. Like the other women, including her mother (Julie Hagerty), Noelle doesn't protest, because men have always been Santa, and that's that. Lawrence juggles this institutional misogyny with establishing a candy-colored utopia; like “The Santa Clause” movies or even “Fred Claus” before it, he does some great world-building with delightfully silly dialogue (“Oh my garland!”) and fleeting visual jokes, as with a gavel that breaks when slammed, because it’s made from peppermint. It’s a strong establishment of context for the lovable but naive Noelle, and makes the movie all the more aware of itself—if it’s going to be cheesy, it might as well be clever, which “Noelle” often is. 

The story then whisks Noelle, the wise elder Elf Polly (Shirley MacLaine) and eight reindeer to Arizona when Nick vanishes, with Noelle setting to find (the North Pole citizens blame her for his actions, natch), and convince him to come back. The adventure starts at an outdoor mall in Phoenix, where they park the sleigh, much to the amusement of the locals. It's another sunny environ of bright colors and stuff, but with distracting product placement and a general cheapness that seems to inspire lazily staged sequences and bad special effects. Luckily, this movie has a lead performance from Kendrick that makes the film count where it matters most, especially as Kendrick inches “Noelle” toward its larger story of smashing the Yuletide patriarchy because she has what Nick clearly does not—“the twinkle.” In one genuinely touching scene, she meets a deaf girl and her mother while looking for Nick in a shelter; Kendrick sells the sincerity in how Noelle is then surprised that her own hands suddenly know sign language (that twinkle effect), and she comes off as both a grounded person and a Santa you can root for.

Noelle receives some help from a private investigator named Jake (Kingsley Ben-Adir), who is going through his own frustrations about having his first Christmas as a divorced dad. He initially thinks that Noelle is as delusional like many others do, but agrees to take on a pursuit for Nick when he sees how sincerely she interacts with people, and his son Alex (Maceo Smedley). Noelle urges him to take up the Christmas morning invitation from his ex-wife, her new husband, and Alex. “Traditions change,” she poignantly advises him. 

The closest that this G-rated movie gets to with a villain is Billy Eichner’s teach-savvy Gabe, Noelle’s cousin and another unqualified man handed the role of Santa after Nick vanishes. As someone whose rigid, data-driven approach to Christmas is like a kid’s version of a “Black Mirror” nightmare, he's an awkward killjoy, emphasis on "awkward." It’s always great to see Eichner outside of his brilliant impromptu interview series “Billy on the Street,” but he seems a little lost here. 

Lawrence's script spares no scene, and wields a punchy sense of humor I wanted even more of. For example, you take the comedic pleasures of Hader when you can get them, so while he seems to have been involved solely for his dry neuroses persona, his line-readings can be very funny and ground this whole Santa business. But then other big names get short shrift, like Shirley MacLaine. She's mostly in the movie for cut-away, sassy comic relief; the way she coasts through Noelle's American adventure seems to be a big part of the joke. 

Within the story's innocence, Kendrick is its most memorable ambassador, putting a shine to a character who is on-paper a grave case of arrested development. She has same spark as clear inspirations like Will Ferrell in “Elf” and Amy Adams in “Enchanted,” taking an earnest approach to childish fish-out-of-water gags like eating sunscreen, or thinking that the term is "yogurt pants." And when she has to share the screen's cuteness quotient with Snowcone, a CG reindeer that’s essentially a wiggly puppy with antlers, Kendrick can make it feel like an exciting piece of her world, as many Disney actors have done opposite SFX animals in the past. 

But any time there's awkward green screen sleigh riding, or flatly executed scenes of more serious dialogue, "Noelle" looks like a chintzy TV movie with the cast of a considerably higher-budget theatrical release. More specifically, it clearly looks like after Disney moved “Noelle” from its main calendar to a Disney+, the budget got slashed drastically, and garish product placement was used to stitch everything together. Most Christmas movies are fairly tacky with how brands pop up, but “Noelle” has a grotesque amount, like each time a magazine cover is brandished, or when the mall setting provides a perfect shot of a store name, or when a joke ends with the repeated punchline "and an iPad." For a movie that wants to make Christmas about the spirit of giving, “Noelle” also has no problem in telling you what to gift. 

"Noelle" is more about the victory lap in the third act, which layers its warm spirit with the touching image of a conservative community embracing that, yes, “traditions change.” It’s the kind of premise that you wish the movie had started from, but as a type of origins tale “Noelle” has plenty of charm—the kind that makes a Christmas story not just simply amiable, but worth a look. 

Author: Nick Allen
Posted: November 12, 2019, 2:39 pm

The march of Disney’s live-action remakes continues, but this time, its latest reimagining of a beloved classic will not open in a theater near you. Instead, “Lady and the Tramp” will only be available on Disney+, the company’s new digital streaming platform launching November 12. The situation may become an interesting case study on audience behavior (which isn’t that what every streaming company loves?). When faced with the choice of watching the original or a new remake at their fingertips, which option will the viewer choose? Will they binge the two back-to-back to compare? Or, will the new version replace the old as the family favorite? 

We may never know the answers to those questions because the streaming side of the movie business loves to collect our data but has very little incentive to share its findings. What I can tell you is this: Just like many of the Disney live-action remakes before it—think “Cinderella,” “Alice in Wonderland” and “The Jungle Book”—much of the “Lady and the Tramp” remake follows the exact story of the animated version. On Christmas in the 1900s, a young couple opens a Christmas present revealing an adorable cocker spaniel pup inside. Jim Dear (Thomas Mann) and Darling (Kiersey Clemons) are smitten with the affectionate puppy they name Lady (voiced by Tessa Thompson), and she becomes the center of their world. Her pampered life is nothing like that of the scruffy loner named Tramp (Justin Theroux), who roams the streets of New Orleans unattached to any other dog or family. On the run from an obsessive dog catcher (Adrian Martinez), Tramp crosses paths with Lady, and while at first, the two don’t get along, she helps him escape his captor and he warns her that her happy home life may change with a baby on the way. His words come true and Lady’s place at the center of attention is taken by Jim Dear and Darling’s new baby. When her owners leave her in the care of dog-hating Aunt Sarah (Yvette Nicole Brown) and her home-wrecking pair of cats (Nate "Rocket" Wonder and Roman GianArthur), Lady escapes and then finds and falls for Tramp, leading her to question her idea of home. 

Director Charlie Bean, who comes to the movie with a background in animation, works well to smooth over the rougher transitions between the live dogs, their animated mouths and human-like expressions. Of course, the harder or more dangerous scenes for pooches on the run are covered by the magic of computers. Luckily, the movie’s real-life fluffy stars have enough charm and appeal for any dog lover. In comparison, the human actors seemed more stiff and unnatural than their digitally altered co-stars. Like their animated counterparts, Jim Dear and Darling are unfortunately rather one-dimensional but well-meaning dog parents.

Although much of the 1955 animated movie remains intact, Andrew Bujalski and Kari Granlund’s script updates a few things. Lady still has her circle of neighborhood dogs to rely on, and while Trusty (Sam Elliott) the bloodhound is the same, Jock (Ashley Jensen) the Scottish terrier is now a lass instead of a lad. The street dogs Peg (Janelle Monáe), a Pekingese, and Bull (Benedict Wong), a bulldog, are present, but thankfully the many silly accents of the dogs in the pound, like a Chihuahua with a Mexican accent, have been left in the past. Instead of the “Meet Me in St. Louis”-style midwestern setting from before, now the story’s set in a jazzy turn-of-the-century New Orleans, a place brimming with diversity. Perhaps the most noticeable change is the welcomed excision of the Siamese cats and their infamous song, replaced instead with another pair of smooth-coated kitties. However, the song that replaces is so utterly forgettable, it felt even below the mediocre caliber of “Mary Poppins Returns.”

If we’re going to be getting more of the same old stories, at least Disney has caught on to making them more diverse. In that sense, “Lady and the Tramp” is closer to the 1997 “Cinderella” starring Brandy and Whitney Houston than the 2015 remake. Although it’s an idealized portrait of New Orleans and racial tolerance at the start of the 20th Century, this is a movie about talking dogs, after all. And as far as feel-good fantasies go, it isn’t so bad. Plus, it gives actors like Adrian Martinez a chance to play a comically single-minded dog catcher, while Ken Jeong is a sarcastic yet sympathetic (to Lady) doctor, and Arturo Castro shares a duet of “Bella Notte” with F. Murray Abraham. 

At the level of the dog’s point-of-view, much of the period details depends on the costumes by Colleen Atwood and Timothy A. Wonsik. The pair deliver a solid ensemble that’s eye-catching and fun in detail. There’s also an occasional pop of color in some of the outfits, like in Aunt Sarah’s wardrobe, that made me wish they could be more daring in their designs and fabrics for the rest of the cast.

“Lady and the Tramp” scratches an itch for dog lovers and may satisfy the young viewer’s curiosity when digging through the family’s new Disney+ subscription. However, so much of the movie is just fine when not feeling rushed or stilted, but doesn’t offer new surprises to stand on its own. I recognize that a lot of my affection for this movie came from the nostalgic rush of recognizing scenes and details, smiling like a goof at Disney World during “Bella Notte” and the restaurant scene, a childhood favorite I would sometimes watch while cradling a stuffed toy of Lady by my side or in my lap like she was my own dog. The version here even features the old school chorus of the original, which I’m sure will go over great with many viewers who, like me, watched it many times growing up. But while it's nice to share that thrill with a new generation, why not just put on the animated movie in the first place?

Author: Monica Castillo
Posted: November 11, 2019, 2:23 pm

Roland Emmerich’s “Midway” is not the first movie to cover the battle widely considered as the turning point in World War II’s Pacific Theater. Back in 1976, Charlton Heston and Henry Fonda headlined a prior film of the same name, this one presented by Universal Pictures in their patented sound system, Sensurround. For the young folks in the audience, Sensurround was like 3-D for your ears. Speakers were placed under the seats at selected movie theaters, originally to give the impression that viewers were experiencing the earthquake scenes in 1974’s disaster epic “Earthquake”. Heston’s “Midway” was the second feature to utilize this gimmick as an immersive audience experience, but as theatergoers and theater owners soon realized, the experience was a little too immersive. The rumbling sound caused plaster to fall from the ceiling and bolts to come out of the seats. Sensurround also had the unexpected though welcome effect of feeling really, really good on your NC-17-rated body parts.

Compared to the recent addition of 4DX theaters that shake your seat to the point of nausea, Sensurround sounds rather quaint. But I bring it up because the sound mix is the only part of the new “Midway” worth championing. It made me nostalgic for Universal’s speakers under my seat. Several times, I felt the sonic effects of plane engines, explosions and aircraft carriers pulsing through my torso, rattling me with a giddy sense of aural joy. Director Emmerich is no stranger to the types of movies that require perfect storms of loud noises—he made “Independence Day” and “2012”—nor is he a stranger to excessive use of CGI. The overabundance of CGI is one of the bigger problems with “Midway” because, far too often, it feels like you’re watching a video game or an F/X highlight reel. By virtue of the PG-13 rating, the carnage is largely bloodless, adding to the uneasy sense of fakery. Outside of an effective sequence involving a charred body, this is a virtually gore-free war movie. This is safe enough for a middle school history class screening.

The film’s toned down violence would be easier to ignore if its characters were compelling. The real-life players are embodied by a group of up-and-coming actors and a few veterans. For the latter team, we have Dennis Quaid, Aaron Eckhart and a startlingly white-haired Woody Harrelson. The gung-ho young pilots and servicemen are embodied by Ed Skrein, Darren Criss, and Nick Jonas. Everyone stalks around like a cliché from a 1940s studio system war movie minus the charisma and presence of the actors who originally held those roles. We never get close enough to any of them to feel genuine emotion. Perhaps “Midway” is going for the kind of enforced distance Christopher Nolan brought to the far better “Dunkirk,” but Nolan is a master of cinematic coldness. Emmerich is too sentimental to reach for that goal.

However, Emmerich definitely goes gunning for his contemporary, Michael Bay, by recreating the attack on Pearl Harbor. The staging is full of extremely large explosions, planes disintegrating in large chunks and last-minute escapes and demises. As an effects-laden spectacle, it’s a rather effective set piece. But Bay was smart enough to include a scene showing the heroics of African-American messman Dorie Miller and, before Disney scrubbed the film, was unafraid to bloody up the proceedings. As with the violence, Emmerich sidesteps the discomfort of representing the segregation of Black soldiers who fought at Midway by eliminating them altogether. The director does to WWII what he did to Stonewall.

“Midway” splits its scenes between the Americans and the Japanese, taking a cue from Richard Fleischer’s “Tora Tora Tora”. The Japanese are as clichéd as the Americans; they’re stoic and ramble off comments about honor while making thinly veiled threats. There’s even the famous line that also appeared in the 1976 “Midway” about “awakening a sleeping giant.” I know this line reportedly was spoken in real life, but it’s presented in a very hokey fashion here. The Chinese are also represented in a subplot featuring James Doolittle (Aaron Eckhart) that feels imported from a different movie. Considering that several logos for Chinese companies appear during the opening credits, these scenes must have been a prerequisite.

As daredevil pilot Dick Best, Skrein has the lead role. You can predict like clockwork that his wicked, untamable ways will be tempered with a newfound sense of maturity before fade out. Skrein is at least somewhat humanized by his wife Annie (a wasted though watchable Mandy Moore) and a rising sense of guilt over losing a fellow pilot he took under his wing. His co-stars aren’t so lucky. As Ed Layton, the military strategist that no one listened to when he correctly predicted Pearl Harbor would be a target, Patrick Wilson is reduced to a poorly written oracle role. Quaid’s Admiral Halsey, subject of that obnoxious Paul McCartney and Wings song, spends his screentime growling about not giving up before being overtaken by shingles. And the most memorable thing about Harrelson’s Admiral Nimitz is his hair, which draws your attention every time he’s onscreen. Wasting a gruff Quaid is as sinful as wasting a smartass, worrywart Harrelson.

I admire screenwriter Wes Tooke’s attempt to stick to scenes of military strategy and process, as well as Emmerich’s glee in wanting to show us what his F/X team can do. But the combined effect of a dull script and repetitive battle sequences lulled me into a state of boredom, so much so that at times I had my eyes open yet my consciousness had drifted elsewhere. I wasn’t asleep; I was just missing. You know what would have guaranteed my undying attention? A better movie. Or Sensurround.

Author: Odie Henderson
Posted: November 8, 2019, 2:48 pm

"I'm your cheerleader, honey boy." 

James Lort (Shia LaBeouf) says this to his son, 11-year-old Otis (Noah Jupe), whose career acting in movies and television keeps the shattered family afloat financially. The words are supportive on the surface, as is the nickname "honey boy" (which gives the film its title), but underneath is an ocean of unmanaged pain, resentment and rage. The emotional burdens on child Otis are heavy, and we see the end result in a separate timeline, when Otis, now a young man and rising movie star (played by Lucas Hedges) finds himself in court-ordered rehab after yet another DUI. While in rehab, he is diagnosed with PTSD, which enrages Otis (Otis is always in a rage). Isn't PTSD a war thing? What on earth does he have to be traumatized about? Prodded by the counselor (Laura San Giacomo) to go deeper, Otis—resistant and furious—starts to remember his childhood. "Honey Boy," directed by Alma Har'el, goes back and forth between the two timelines. 

Shia LaBeouf wrote the script, and based it on his own childhood. This means he is, in essence, playing his own father. The performance is so good, so in-the-trenches, it feels like it's an act of channeling rather than mimicry or even imitation. LaBeouf's struggles with addiction have made headlines in recent years, and he, too, was diagnosed with PTSD. He was an actor as a child, before he even knew what that would mean, before he could choose it for himself. It's not really a surprise that child actors sometimes flame out early. They were supporting their families when they were 9 years old! Their childhoods were sacrificed. What keeps "Honey Boy" from being self-pitying is not just its intelligence and humor, but LaBeouf's choice to play James. The film itself is part of a healing process, you can feel LaBeouf working out something, squinting into his past, trying to understand and heal. The final credits feature pictures of LaBeouf as a child and his father (who is still alive). 

James is a former clown, former alcoholic, and a convicted sex offender. His life didn't turn out the way he wanted it to. He and Otis live in a crappy motel, and commute back and forth to the studio on James' motorcycle. It's not clear where Otis' mother is, although she calls in on occasion, and has enrolled Otis in the Big Brother program. James and Otis are so on top of each other there's no privacy, and James is aggressive, jittery and insufferable. He seethes with envy at his son's success, and feels impotent because his son supports him financially. These feelings are not managed at all, and so he's always picking at Otis, making him do pushups, mocking the sound of his trickle of urine ("You've got a dick like a golf pencil"), mocking his son's innocence. He's a blue-collar "Great Santini." 

Otis is used to having to please others, and he does his best to manage his dad. (Young Jupe is a natural. Most of his scenes are painful ones, and he navigates all of it easily. He and LaBeouf work together so well they become a codependent unit, in tune with each other's rhythms and subtexts.) There's no real parenting going on. Otis wants to hold hands with his dad, his dad pushes him away. Otis lays his head on his dad's back, as they careen down the freeway on the motorcycle, and James bucks his head back, brushing Otis off him. Otis befriends a sex worker (FKA Twigs) across the way, and while their scenes together have a mix of excitement and tension (there's a beautiful scene where they pantomime playing baseball), there's a tentative quality to the sequences. The film shies away from the more queasy aspects of what potentially might happen. 

Har'el and LaBeouf have collaborated a couple of times before, and it was she who helped structure LaBeouf's script, weaving together the two timelines. Sometimes it's not clear if what's happening is real, a memory, a nightmare, or a scene from one of Otis' movies. This is what trauma can do, how flashbacks can operate. Cinematographer Natasha Braier bathes the film in golden-deep color: it's all lens-flares at sunrise and sunset, pouring over the shabby beauty of Los Angeles' outskirts. 

LaBeouf was so good in this year's "The Peanut Butter Falcon," playing a jittery charming chatterbox, and James in "Honey Boy" adds to the impression that LaBeouf is moving into very interesting territory as an actor, territory uniquely his own. No longer the charming kid, he comes to the screen now grizzled with tough experience, hardened but wiser. LaBeouf has taken painful memories and tried to work through them. He's an actor, and so the best way to understand why his father treated him the way he did is to put on the man's shoes and walk around in them for a while. It's an astonishing performance.

As I watched this painful father-son relationship, John Mayer's song "Daughters" came into my head (unbidden, unasked-for). In the song, Mayer cautions "fathers" to "be good to" their daughters, because "daughters will love like you do." Good advice, John! But then it derails with this terrible advice:

"Boys, you can break
You'll find out how much they can take
Boys will be strong
And boys soldier on."

Those four small lines are basically what is so wrong in our world. Yes, of course, you can "break" boys, but you shouldn't. Broken boys become broken men. "Finding out how much" a boy can take is abuse. Child Otis "finds out how much he can take" and it's a lot, as it happens. But it impacts his ability to function as an adult. By the time he reaches adulthood, his emotional capacity has narrowed to a pinpoint-sized tunnel, and the only thing allowed out is rage. That's what happens when you "break" boys, when you won't hold their hands, show affection, be gentle with them, just like you do with "your daughters." "Honey Boy" is a cry of pain for the neglected boy Otis was, but it is also a cry of pain for James. The most painful truth of all may be that James was doing the best he could. Because what was his father like?

Author: Sheila O'Malley
Posted: November 8, 2019, 2:48 pm

Mike Flanagan’s “Doctor Sleep” connects the visions of Stephen King and Stanley Kubrick with his own style, made most popular in Netflix’s “The Haunting of Hill House.” It is an often effective blend of the three as it’s forced to pay more homage to Kubrick’s vision than King was in his book, which served purely as a sequel to a novel that the filmmaker had drastically changed when he adapted it in 1980. Flanagan was tasked with making a sequel to a film that stays loyal to a book that ignores the changes made in the first movie. That ain't easy. Different characters are in different places at the end of the book and film versions of "The Shining," and Flanagan has to tie the two together. For example, King’s original book ends with the explosion of the Overlook Hotel. We all know that Kubrick’s “The Shining” does not. And while one can sometimes feel Flanagan struggling to satisfy both King and Kubrick fans when he really should be trusting his own vision, he’s talented enough to pull off this difficult blend of legacies.

After a prologue that reveals a young Danny Torrance figuring out how to control his “shining” powers and capturing the ghosts that haunt him, we’re re-introduced to an adult Dan, played by Ewan McGregor. Detailed a bit more in the book, he’s basically using alcoholism to hide his trauma, and he reaches rock bottom when he takes money from a single mother with whom he just had a coke-addled one-night stand. He jumps a bus to New Hampshire, where he tries to find stability, joins AA, and makes a friend named Billy (Cliff Curtis), before getting a job at a hospice, where his shining power allows him to help people on the edge of death cross over. There’s a respectful solemnity to these scenes that emerge from Flanagan’s empathetic and emotional side. The idea that someone who learned through trauma that ghosts are real could comfort those wondering what happens after death is one that Flanagan takes seriously.

While Dan is earning the nickname that gives the film its title, we’re introduced to two new characters. Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson) leads a roving group of powerful creatures who aren’t exactly invulnerable but have found a way to be immortal. They call themselves the True Knot, and they travel the country looking for children who “shine,” stealing their essence and feeding off of it. The idea that there are forces in this world that thrive off pain and misery, selfishly living off the greatness found within others, is a very King creation, and Flanagan doesn’t shy away from the grisliness here. In one of the film’s most disturbing scenes, the True Knot kidnaps a boy (Jacob Tremblay) and brutally murders him—after all, torture makes the steam he releases that much sweeter.

Connecting the Rose and Dan arcs is the character of Abra Stone (newcomer Kyliegh Curran), who is so powerful that she literally draws the attention of the True Knot and finds a way to psychically communicate with Dan. The True Knot could feed on her for generations or make her one of their own. Abra finds her way to Dan, and the two draw Rose and her team into a final showdown, which everyone who’s ever seen a movie knows can only happen in one place.

Flanagan and his team wisely don’t choose to visually emulate “The Shining” for most of “Doctor Sleep,” producing a film that looks a lot more like an episode of “Hill House” than the Kubrick original. The film has arguably too many close-ups and a bit too much of a cool gray/blue color palette, but these elements add to its eerie, twilight feel. Flanagan’s best work has a way of blending the emotional and the supernatural—things go bump in the hearts and minds of his characters as much as in the darkened hallways—and that makes him a good fit for a book that needed an emotional touch to work as a film. “Doctor Sleep” is often at its best when Flanagan is allowed to flourish and play away from both the source material and the Kubrick film. When he returns to the Kubrick vision, including actors playing iconic roles from the movie, it sometimes feels like “Doctor Sleep” is in a very big shadow.

The best thing about Flanagan’s film by some stretch is the work by Rebecca Ferguson. The director of “Gerald’s Game” and “Hush” proves again to be a very capable filmmaker when it comes to directing actresses, getting Ferguson’s career-best work to date. She walks away with the film as a presence that’s somehow both captivating and terrifying. Her take on Rose the Hat turns a thin character on the page into a great villain, someone who uses her good looks and charisma to disguise her evil intentions. McGregor isn’t so lucky, sometimes falling victim to a source material that never really gave us much of a character, while Curran is an engaging young actress, at her best when she’s selling Abra’s understandable confidence. I liked how Abra isn’t just a scared victim to be rescued by Dan. She needs help, but she also knows she’s a badass.

What’s going to be most controversial about “Doctor Sleep” is the final act, when, slight spoilers, Flanagan and his team find themselves in the halls of Kubrick’s film. And make no mistake—it is Kubrick’s film in which they’re playing and not King’s book. Some fans of “The Shining” will consider this sacrilegious, some will find it playful and nostalgic. I’m in the middle. I think Flanagan goes back to the Kubrick well 2-3 too many times, but the changes he makes to the final third of King’s book are smart and effective. He twists King’s sequel into something that’s less about empowerment and more about overcoming trauma, reclaiming the darkest moments of your life. He makes major changes to the source material and comes out illustrating again what a confident, interesting filmmaker he can be. Kind of like someone else did four decades ago. 

Author: Brian Tallerico
Posted: November 8, 2019, 2:48 pm

It’s clear that we’re entering surreal territory very early on in the family comedy “Playing With Fire” – specifically, from the opening titles.

The movie begins with a wildfire raging through a Northern California forest. People are stranded in their cars, roads are clogged, chaos and fear are swirling around with the smoke. The soundtrack for this emergency situation? Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars’ “Uptown Funk,” the perky and ubiquitous party anthem from a few years back. Maybe the filmmakers were taking the “Call the police and the fireman” section of the song’s lyrics literally. Whatever the reason, it’s a bizarre choice, but only the first in a series of many.

Director Andy Fickman, whose previous high-concept comedies include “You Again,” “Parental Guidance” and his piece de resistance, “Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2,” has slapped together a series of wacky antics with little concern for continuity, logic or pacing. I kept asking myself questions like: “How did that dog get there?” “Where did Judy Greer get that sweater?” “How did they paint that ‘My Little Pony’ mural so quickly?” and “What happened to Keegan-Michael Key? He was standing there a second ago.” Just to give you an idea of how the movie aims to appeal to the widest possible audience with its broad brand of humor, it features an even ratio of poop jokes to John Cena shirtless scenes. I counted.

“Playing With Fire” tries to be tasteless and crass but also treacly and cheery. It wants to you go: “Ewwww …,” but also: “Awwww ...” You’re more likely to groan, then look at your watch again.  

Cena stars as a by-the-book firefighter named Jake Carson, who leads his team of smokejumpers into harm’s way when flames threaten the rugged wildlands of Northern California. (A side note: It was also a strange experience seeing this movie when much of the state was burning in reality.) The fastidious Mark (Key), the sensitive Rodrigo (John Leguizamo) and the mute, burly Axe (Tyler Mane) are his co-workers. (Mane, Cena’s fellow former wrestler, plays a character with that name because he … carries an axe.) When a fire breaks out at a cabin and the team swoops in to put out the flames, Jake finds a trio of siblings trapped inside: responsible teenager Brynn (Brianna Hildebrand), impish little brother Will (Christian Convery) and the tiny, wide-eyed moppet Zoe (Finley Rose Slater).

The scene is a prime example of the awkward ways in which Fickman, working from a script by Matt Lieberman and Dan Ewen, will nonsensically yank us out of a moment for a cheap laugh. In the middle of a supposedly tense rescue, Jake and the kids have a petty argument about semantics before Jake gets hoisted back up to the helicopter too quickly in a misunderstanding with pilot Rodrigo. (Actually, he gets slammed up to the ceiling. Cena also falls on his face a lot. It’s never even good for a chuckle.)

Anyway, the whole point is to get the kids back to the fire depot, a pristine and orderly workplace where they can wreak havoc in a variety of ways. And because Jake can’t get a hold of their parents, he’s stuck taking care of them for far longer than he’d hoped. You see, Jake has no time in his life or room in his heart for other people—not even the scientist (Greer) doing research nearby who has a crush on him. He is all about the work. Nonetheless, madcap hijinks ensue involving paint thinner, soap suds and, yes, poop. There’s one bit involving projectile diarrhea and a protective firefighting suit that defies the laws of physics; I’m still trying to figure out how it makes sense logistically. Then there’s the scene in which Jake has to relieve himself outdoors, with the youngest sibling – a little girl who’s maybe 4 years old – standing directly in front of him and holding his head in place to ensure that he maintains eye contact with her the whole time. It is as uncomfortable as it sounds.

From there, it’s a dizzying, 180-degree turn into feel-good territory, with Mark rhapsodizing about the important, brave work smokejumpers do and Jake finally letting his guard down and becoming a warm, doting father figure to these kids when they need it the most. Cena has enjoyably toyed with his beefy image in a variety of comedies, including “Trainwreck” and “Blockers,” but he has nothing to work with here. An even more egregious offense is the way “Playing With Fire” wastes the ever-reliable Greer (with whom Cena has not an ounce of chemistry) and the hugely versatile Key. He gets the one genuinely funny line in the movie—a joke that only adults in the audience will understand—and is the only reason this is a half-star review rather than zero.

Don’t believe me? Just watch. Or better yet, don’t.

Author: Christy Lemire
Posted: November 8, 2019, 2:47 pm

It’s that time of year where multiplexes across the nation prepare to serve up Christmas fare as sugary as a cup of eggnog. The love-to-hate-it schmaltz and syrupiness of it all can be pleasant for sure, if the output is something wittier and more starry-eyed than “Last Christmas,” a seasonal rom-com with little romance and even fewer laughs to spare. A shame, as its blindingly trimmed package is shiny enough—directed by the comedy genius Paul Feig (“Bridesmaids”), co-scripted by Emma Thompson and Bryony Kimmings, starring Emilia Clarke of “Game of Thrones” and Henry Golding, who left his mark on “Crazy Rich Asians” as a timeless leading man. Plus, there is the wall-to-wall George Michael soundtrack, including “This Is How (We Want You to Get High),” a handsome, never-before-released song from the late artist, serving as the pretty bow on top. And yet, what’s inside this gift box feels curiously joyless for what looks to be a foolproof recipe on paper—“Last Christmas” only succeeds in reminding you pre-Thanksgiving that soon it will be holiday shopping time, rejoice!

But if you’re the type who loves to visit year-around Christmas stores in July—like the overstuffed one the frantic Londoner Kate (Clarke, generically endearing) works at—then you might find some magic in “Last Christmas,” however stale. Just don’t expect the card-carrying George Michael fan Kate to be the spreader of holiday cheer here. Clad in an elf costume and matching pointy slippers she might be, but the former chorus girl with dreams of a stage career is more a mess-maker than an organized helper of Santa. And by Santa, I mean a character with a self-chosen name played by Michelle Yeoh (creating what wonder she can with her cringe-worthy part), who owns the shop “Yuletide Wonderful” on a busy, twinkling square of London and expects great things from Kate with a tough, maternal sort of affection. Meanwhile Kate—donned in a leopard coat when she’s not selling peculiar trinkets—keeps running late for work, making bad decision after bad decision, couch-surfing (London circa 2017 doesn’t appear to be a reasonable city on an elf’s salary) and braving her familial problems. Not to mention a mysterious heart defect she struggles with—we learn in bits and pieces that she had recently been taken ill with certain complications and can’t afford to lead an irresponsible lifestyle.

Her family, immigrants from former Yugoslavia, certainly thinks so. There is her over-concerned, guilt-tripping mom Petra (Thompson, bit of an offensive caricature of an émigré) who intensely dotes on her two daughters—the other one being the dependable and disciplined Marta (Lydia Leonard), who hides from her parents that she is a lesbian in a stable relationship. There is also their hardworking father Ivan (Boris Isaković), who’s made a good home for his family in London. Still, something seems to be missing from Kate’s life in the waning days of 2017, despite being surrounded by supportive figures she doesn’t quite deserve the sympathy of. Then comes along the mysterious Tom (Golding, making good use of his effortless charms), appearing from out of nowhere, bringing Kate’s guard down slowly and igniting both a sense of kindness and self-worth in her; so much that with Tom’s influence, Kate starts volunteering at a homeless shelter on a frequent basis.

Rest assured, there will be a “Love Actually”-esque performance to cap off the romp and a twisty pay-off (albeit, a frustrating one) to conclude its “Just Like Heaven” vibe that manages to romanticize sparkly streets of London more than the couple that strolls through them. While “Last Christmas” does a decent job of cozily resolving Kate’s family issues and through Gary Freeman’s production design, transforming London into a jolly old holiday greeting card, it forgets to build chemistry between its seeming lovebirds, who live inside the lyrics of the eponymous Wham! tune more than they realize. It doesn’t help that neither Yeoh nor Thompson play a character that remotely resembles real people in a film that only brushes over the anxieties of immigrants in the still-early days of Brexit. There will be fans of this intensely rich Christmas pudding—always a better idea in theory than practice—but you might find you’ve had more than enough after only a couple of bites.

Author: Tomris Laffly
Posted: November 8, 2019, 2:47 pm

There’s a Stiff Records single from 1977 by the late Larry Wallis called “Police Car”; the first verse goes “I'm armed, and dangerous/I prowl the streets at night ... If you see a creep/In your rear-view mirror/It's a hungry black and white/'Cos I'm a police car.” This movie written and directed by Joel Souza could have been called “Police Car,” as it takes place mostly in such a vehicle as two cops, one a grizzled veteran (how unexpected), the other a rookie (no, you’re kidding) with a pregnant wife (watch out! duck!) and a snootful of idealism, navigate an unusually fraught evening. Two we-don’t-care-who-we-gotta-kill bank robbers, armed to the teeth with military style automatic weapons, are on the loose. What are the odds, I ask you? What are the odds.

Aside from a rock-solid performance by Thomas Jane as the grizzled cop, “Crown Vic,” which is named after the Ford model car that is the default of the LAPD black-and-white, has very little to offer the discriminating moviegoer. You’d have a better time listening to that Larry Wallis song 36 times than wasting an hour and forty seven minutes watching this. Souza depicts Jane’s Ray Mandel engaging in various abuses of power—the sequence that concludes with him telling a guy he’s compelled to drop his drawers in public “Now you been searched, see the difference?” is a doozy—culminating in an out-and-out cold-blooded murder while new partner (at least for the evening) Nick (Luke Kleintank) is compelled to contemplate the ethical ramifications of such actions.  

It’s too bad things have to be that way, but they do. Souza doesn’t even bring up the actual motto of the LAPD, “To Serve And Protect” in order to poke ironic fun at it. There’s no serving or protecting here, no help to ordinary citizens, no pretense at providing the citizenry with a sense of security. “It’s war!” screams a hyped-up plainclothes lunatic at the uniformed cops during a service station stop.

And it is! They’re using kids as drug mules! Ray bemoans the fact that “armchair lawyers” with phone cams make it impossible for him to do his job, then clues in Nick on how to get around body cams and radio transmissions to the station, the better to commit your entirely necessary malfeasance with. And don’t even get started on entitled drunk chicks from Newport Bay who puke in the back of your vehicle.

Being a cop just ain’t what it used to be, or what it should be. "They’re phasing out all the old Crown Vics … in two years, they’re all gone," Ray mourns. As for the rest of the movie, it’s basically, “You think you want a f**king piece of this?” and “Put the weapon DOWN!” and “Ain’t gonna happen!”

“A policeman’s job is only easy in a police state,” Charlton Heston’s honest-cop character says in Orson Welles’ “Touch of Evil.” In the philosophy of this aspiring-to-fascist movie, a police state is not a bad idea. Come on. It’s a jungle out there! 

Author: Glenn Kenny
Posted: November 8, 2019, 2:47 pm