Tuesday, November 19, 2019

In Theaters: FORD V FERRARI (2019)

(US - 2019)

Directed by James Mangold. Written by Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth and Jason Keller. Cast: Matt Damon, Christian Bale, Jon Bernthal, Caitriona Balfe, Tracy Letts, Josh Lucas, Noah Jupe, Remo Girone, Ray McKinnon, JJ Feild, Jack McMullen, Corrado Invernizzi, Gianfranco Tordi, Benjamin Rigby, Wallace Langham, Jonathan LaPaglia, Ward Horton. (PG-13, 152 mins)

With a pace as relentless as the 24 Hours of Le Mans race that takes up most of its third act, FORD V FERRARI is a throwback to the kind of vintage, character-driven, star-powered crowd-pleasers that we don't see nearly enough of these days. It's probably the fastest two and a half hours of the year, and it's also nice to see it click with moviegoers in a year when films aimed at grownups haven't been doing well (a shame nobody went to see MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN). It's a quintessential dad movie that's both feel-good and a man-weepie. It's funny and filled with riveting action, dramatic tension, quotable dialogue, and terrific performances all around. At its heart, it's a classic buddy movie and one of the best films about racing ever made, but is engineered as such that you don't even need to be a racing fan or a huge car aficionado to get completely sucked into it. "They don't make 'em like this anymore" is a cliched turn of phrase, but it applies here. FORD V FERRARI is the kind of mainstream, multiplex popcorn movie that ends up winning a ton of awards simply because it gets just about everything right and is almost impossible to dislike.

Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) won the 24-hour endurance race Le Mans in 1959 but was soon forced to retire from the circuit after being diagnosed with a heart condition. By 1964, he's a successful businessman who runs Shelby American, which builds and modifies sports and racing cars for the circuit and for private buyers wealthy enough to afford them (Steve McQueen is mentioned as a regular client). At the same time in Detroit, Ford is struggling and CEO Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) demands solutions from his marketing team. His VP Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal) suggests they abandon the '50s style vehicles and start focusing on flashier, sportier cars to appeal to Baby Boomers who are now driving age. Iacocca goes even further by suggesting they make the Ford name synonymous with cool (Iacocca: "James Bond doesn't drive a Ford." Ford II: "James Bond is a degenerate") by entering the racing world in a partnership with Italian auto magnate Enzo Ferrari (Remo Girone), who rules Le Mans but is secretly facing bankruptcy. When Ferrari reveals himself to be playing them simply to drive up his asking price for preferred partner Fiat, and insults an enraged Ford II--aka "The Deuce"--and the entire Ford company, the blustering CEO orders Iacocca and senior executive VP Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas) to find the best engineers and drivers in the US--with no expense spared--to design and built a Le Mans-ready machine and crush Ferrari into the ground.

Iacocca immediately meets with Shelby, knowing he's the best in the business, and the top driver Shelby has in mind is his British buddy Ken Miles (Christian Bale). Miles is the best at what he does, but he's hot-tempered and doesn't play well with others, and he rubs Beebe the wrong way by showing up at an event as Shelby's guest and wasting no time derisively dismissing the Mustang, Ford's newest product on the market. Fearful that Miles' abrasive personality makes him the wrong driver to represent Ford, Beebe forces Shelby to keep his friend behind the scenes to placate Ford. But when none of the Ford drivers finish the '64 Le Mans, Shelby convinces Ford to allow Miles behind the wheel going forward, much to the sneering disapproval of the scheming Beebe, who basically functions as the film's chief villain. It's hard to imagine turning the engineering of the perfect racing vehicle--in this case the Ford GT40--into compelling cinema, but that's exactly what FORD V FERRARI does, culminating in the 1966 Le Mans, where Ford's racing team, headed by Miles, gives Ferrari his first serious competition in years.

Titled LE MANS '66 in Europe and some other parts of the world (apparently American moviegoers have no idea what Le Mans is--they probably don't, even though we already had the Steve McQueen vanity project LE MANS way back in 1971), FORD V FERRARI began life nearly a decade ago as a Tom Cruise-Brad Pitt teaming set to be directed by Michael Mann. Cruise's OBLIVION director Joseph Kosinski was later attached, though nothing ever happened and the two stars moved on. The script by brothers Jez and John-Henry Butterworth (EDGE OF TOMORROW, GET ON UP) was tweaked by Jason Keller (MACHINE GUN PREACHER, ESCAPE PLAN--the latter under the pseudonym "Arnell Jesko"), and directing duties landed with James Mangold, one of Hollywood's top journeymen (COP LAND, GIRL INTERRUPTED, 3:10 TO YUMA), coming off 2017's LOGAN, arguably the UNFORGIVEN of superhero movies. The end result is pure entertainment from start to finish, anchored by Damon, who sometimes appears to be channeling Tommy Lee Jones in his portrayal of a take-no-shit Shelby, and Bale, who's rarely been this loose and likable onscreen, even when Miles is being a surly, uncooperative pain in the ass (Bale gets to show Miles' soft side in his scenes with Caitriona Balfe as his supportive wife who never hesitates to let him have it when he's got it coming to him, and Noah Jupe as their son, who idolizes his dad). They get excellent support from Letts, Bernthal, Girone (who lets his scowl do most of his emoting), Ray McKinnon (bringing a Dennis Weaver-ish folksiness to Shelby's chief engineer Phil "Pops" Remington), and Lucas, who makes an utterly punchable Beebe, depicted throughout as a servile, boot-licking toady who's willing to throw anyone under the bus if it makes him look good in The Deuce's eyes. While there is no doubt some liberties taken in the service of telling the story, FORD V FERRARI is exhilarating filmmaking and an inspired addition to the pantheon of underdog sports cinema.

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Retro Review: STREET PEOPLE (1976)

(Italy - 1976)

Directed by Maurizio Lucidi. Written by Ernest Tidyman, Randal Kleiser, Gianfranco Bucceri, Roberto Leoni, Nicola Badalucco and Maurizio Lucidi. Cast: Roger Moore, Stacy Keach, Ivo Garrani, Ettore Manni, Fausto Tozzi, Ennio Balbo, Loretta Persichetti, Pietro Martellanza, Luigi Casellato, Romano Puppo, Rosemarie Lindt, Aldo Rendine, Emilio Vale, Salvatore Torrisi, Franco Fantasia, Giuseppe Castellano, Salvatore Billa. (R, 92 mins)

One of four films Roger Moore made in quick succession between his second and third 007 outings (1974's THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN and 1977's THE SPY WHO LOVED ME), the 1976 Italian-made mob thriller STREET PEOPLE was always an oddity in his filmography, and that's even counting his appearance in the 2003 Cuba Gooding Jr/Horatio Sanz atrocity BOAT TRIP. Moore never held himself in any particularly serious regard as an actor, and with the mountains of cash he was making once he got the James Bond gig, his other jobs seemed to be decided by how nice of a working vacation they'd provide. Much of STREET PEOPLE was shot in San Francisco--which offered plenty of sights to see in his downtime--with interiors done in De Paolis Studios in Rome. Moore is quite improbably cast as Ulysses, the half-Sicilian/half-British consigliere to his uncle, San Francisco mob underboss Salvatore Francesco (Ivo Garrani), who helpfully gets the viewer up to speed on Ulysses sounding like Roger Moore by mentioning, apropos of nothing, "The smartest thing I ever did was get you out of Sicily and into that English law school!"

It's Ulysses' job to make Uncle Salvatore's business ventures look legal and that gets difficult when Salvatore arranges the importing of a large Sicilian cross from a church in the small town where he grew up in the old country. It arrives at a pier in the warehouse district, accompanied by Father Frank (Ettore Manni), a childhood friend of Salvatore's. But it turns out the inside of the cross, unbeknownst to Father Frank, has been packed with a massive heroin shipment that's hijacked by three ambitious gangsters--Nicoletta (Fausto Tozzi), Pano (Pietro Martellanza, aka "Peter Martell"), and Fortunato (Romano Puppo)--looking to make a huge score. Salvatore claims to know nothing about the drugs and pleads his case to boss of bosses Don Giuseppe Continenza (Ennio Balbo), who orders all the drugs off the streets in order to find the culprits. Don Giuseppe's edict still doesn't out them, which means it must be an inside job with someone in the organization, prompting Ulysses to recruit his racing driver pal Charlie (Stacy Keach) to track down the three gangsters and find the mastermind behind the shipment.

The mystery doesn't prove to be a difficult one to solve, especially once an enraged Father Frank starts reminding Ulysses about a long-suppressed traumatic memory from his childhood. The plot gets far too convoluted for its own good, and it doesn't sufficiently explore the frayed relationship between Salvatore and Father Frank or any parallels you might expect in the friendship between Ulysses and Charlie. It's possible these themes were touched upon in the 101-minute European version titled THE SICILIAN CROSS, but the film was chopped down to 92 minutes and rechristened STREET PEOPLE by American International when it played drive-ins and grindhouses in the fall of 1976. Director Maurizio Lucidi (STATELINE MOTEL) was one of six credited screenwriters, and it wouldn't be at all surprising if none of them bothered to check anyone else's work. Other hands in the screenplay include diverse figures like future SANTA SANGRE co-writer Roberto Leoni; a 30-year-old Randal Kleiser, the same year he directed the John Travolta TV-movie THE BOY IN THE PLASTIC BUBBLE and soon on his way to big-screen fame with 1978's GREASE and 1980's THE BLUE LAGOON; and Oscar-winning FRENCH CONNECTION screenwriter Ernest Tidyman, no stranger to '70s crime thrillers having also written 1971's SHAFT (based on his own novel) and 1975's underrated REPORT TO THE COMMISSIONER.

Just out on Blu-ray in its US cut from Kino Lorber with a new Stacy Keach interview (because physical media is dead), STREET PEOPLE isn't quite on the level of those gritty Tidymen-penned gems. But it does get a lot from some genuinely likable Terence Hill/Bud Spencer-style camaraderie between Moore and Keach, the latter having an especially good time as a devil-may-care hellraiser prone to oddball quips ("I'll have to tell everyone on the street that you're a turkey deluxe!" he says to a potential snitch who doesn't want to play ball), ambitious but foolhardy schemes (switching out the heroin with powdered milk), and some proto-SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT levels of wanton destruction. In addition to a vaguely FRENCH CONNECTION-inspired car chase, there's a long sequence where Charlie takes a car being sold by a cash-strapped Nicoletta for a test drive and speeds up and down the streets crashing into anything in sight and demolishing the car to the point where it's a barely-recognizable hunk of metal. It's unquestionably the film's highlight and also does a nice job of showing off Keach's rarely-utilized comedic skills. As enjoyable as STREET PEOPLE's goofy side can be, it's also indicative of its struggle to find its own identity, as the film can't decide if it wants to be a gangster buddy comedy, a violent pseudo-polizia mob thriller, or something more serious in terms of Ulysses confronting a horrible childhood memory, which is really sold by composer Luis Bacalov going for his best mournfully elegiac Ennio Morricone-style cues. Lucidi (1932-2005) had a generally undistinguished journeyman career, dabbling in peplum (1965's HERCULES THE AVENGER), spaghetti westerns (1967's HALLELUJAH FOR DJANGO, 1972's IT CAN BE DONE, AMIGO), macaroni combat war actioners (1969's PROBABILITY ZERO), gialli (1971's THE DESIGNATED VICTIM), and he even used the alias "Mark Lander" when he made a one-off, late-career sojourn into hardcore porn in the late '90s with A GYNECOLOGIST AND HIS VICES. He was also one of several uncredited directors who didn't want to deal with the always-unstable Klaus Kinski on 1988's notoriously troubled NOSFERATU IN VENICE. Lucidi isn't exactly an Umberto Lenzi or a Fernando Di Leo, and STREET PEOPLE isn't about to make anyone's list of top 1970s Eurocrime outings, but it's got some great San Francisco location work throughout (check out Keach driving through the city's seedy red-light district, and Moore and Keach chasing Tozzi across some downtown rooftops), and it's better than its reputation, even if Roger Moore was rarely more miscast.

Monday, November 11, 2019

In Theaters: DOCTOR SLEEP (2019)

(US - 2019)

Written and directed by Mike Flanagan. Cast: Ewan McGregor, Rebecca Ferguson, Kyliegh Curran, Cliff Curtis, Carl Lumbly, Bruce Greenwood, Zahn McClarnon, Emily Alyn Lind, Robert Longstreet, Carel Struycken, Jocelin Donahue, Zackary Momoh, Alex Essoe, Henry Thomas, Jacob Tremblay, Nicholas Pryor, Selena Anduze, Catherine Parker, Roger Dale Floyd, Dakota Hickman, Violet McGraw, Michael Monks, Hugh Maguire, Sadie Heim, KK Heim, Danny Lloyd. (R, 152 mins)

There are no shortage of reasons to be apprehensive about a sequel to Stanley Kubrick's 1980 classic THE SHINING. It's been almost 40 years since it opened to middling reviews and disappointing box office (and got Razzie nominations for Kubrick and co-star Shelley Duvall) only to become one of the most iconic masterpieces of cinema and a ubiquitous pop culture touchstone, even though Stephen King, the author of the 1977 source novel, still hates it. The sequel is based on King's own 2013 follow-up Doctor Sleep, and isn't considered one of his better books. Mike Flanagan, who did as good as job as he could turning King's almost unfilmable GERALD'S GAME into a Netflix film a couple of years ago, opted to fashion the movie version of DOCTOR SLEEP as both a King adaptation and a direct sequel to Kubrick's film. Flanagan (OCULUS, HUSH, Netflix's THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE) is one of the top contemporary horror genre craftsmen, but to say DOCTOR SLEEP is a daunting task is an understatement. He seems to realize the gravity of this endeavor and the time and thought he put into his screenplay and his choices as a director are ample proof that the need to do right by both King and Kubrick was a responsibility that he absolutely did not take lightly.

To put this on a more personal level, THE SHINING is my all-time favorite film. I first saw it at the drive-in with my parents in 1980 when I was seven years old. Maybe they couldn't find a sitter, maybe they assumed I'd go to sleep, but all I know is, once the plot kicked into gear, I started paying attention and I was riveted from the backseat of the car. Partially because it was obvious that I shouldn't be watching it ("Close your eyes!" my mom said as the woman in room 237 got out of the tub; I didn't), and partially from the story, which I probably didn't fully get, but also from the look of it. My dad started taking me to movies a couple of years earlier, around the time I was five, and I remember seeing JAWS, JAWS 2, SUPERMAN, and ROCKY II on the big screen and I remember watching the good parts of THE GODFATHER SAGA (the re-edited network TV version of the first two GODFATHER films) with him, but they didn't look like THE SHINING. I didn't realize it at the time, but Stanley Kubrick would be the first instance where I was actively aware of who the director was and that it was a person of importance. I've seen THE SHINING countless times since. I stopped keeping track at 100 and that was probably 20 years ago. I've been obsessed with it since the summer of 1980. It was one of the defining moments of my life. The dialogue is committed to memory. I could recite the whole thing for you. My point is, for someone whose love of THE SHINING is somewhere in the vicinity of the maniacal, it would be a small victory if DOCTOR SLEEP simply managed to not be terrible, and even that's only because Flanagan's involvement meant approaching it with cautious optimism instead of immediate dismissal.

Running an epic 152 minutes (eight minutes longer than THE SHINING), DOCTOR SLEEP occasionally feels like it should be an HBO or Netflix limited series, but works just fine as a feature film. Flanagan paces it like an engrossing novel, cutting back and forth between three different narratives that eventually intersect. That's following an opening prologue set in 1980, just after young Danny Torrance (Roger Dale Floyd) and his mom Wendy (Alex Essoe, doing a spot-on Shelley Duvall) have relocated to Florida following their horrific winter at the Overlook Hotel. Danny still "shines" and is still haunted by the ghosts of the hotel, particularly the rotting woman in the bathtub in room 237, and is frequently counseled by the spirit of Overlook chef and fellow shiner Dick Hallorann (Carl Lumbly in place of the late, great Scatman Crothers), who was killed in Kubrick's film but survived in King's novel, and whose presence is a perfect example of creative ways Flanagan does his best to stay true to both Kubrick and King.

Cut to 2011, and adult Dan (Ewan McGregor) hasn't dealt with the trauma of his childhood and is now an alcoholic drifter some years after his mother has passed on. At the same time, a nomadic cult known as "True Knot," led by Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson), moves around the country seeking recruits as well as victims, psychically-gifted children that they kill to absorb their life force--"steaming," as they ingest the steam that exits their mouths as they die, thus healing wounds and holding off the aging process, enabling them to live hundreds of years and adapt to a changing society. Dan ends up in a small town where he befriends Billy (Cliff Curtis), a recovering alcoholic who knows one when he sees one. He sponsors Dan in AA and helps him achieve sobriety and get a job as an orderly at a local hospice, where he earns the nickname "Doctor Sleep" for his ability to sense, via his psychic abilities, when a resident is about to die. At this same time, Dan starts getting vague "shining" messages from a young girl named Abra, who then goes silent for seven years. Cut to 2018, Dan is still sober and still working at the hospice. True Knot is still on a quiet rampage undetected, though their latest victim is a child (Jacob Tremblay) who shines to a now-13-year-old Abra (Kyliegh Curran), who then tries to alert Dan. She even tracks him down, and while he offers sympathy and describes his experiences with The Shining, he advises her to keep her head down and ignore it. But as Abra continues to psychically connect in a dangerous game with Rose the Hat and her minions, the stakes increase and Dan has no choice but to help her, especially when Rose realizes Abra's abilities far exceed her own.

After the 15 minute opening sequence taking place in 1980, DOCTOR SLEEP settles into its own groove and the overt SHINING references are dialed down, at least in terms of the developing plot (check out the visual shout-out to the Overlook manager Stuart Ullman's office when Dan meets with the head of the AA group, played by Bruce Greenwood in a rare sympathetic role). This gives Flanagan enough opportunities to make the film his own, and during this majority of its duration, it sticks generally close to King's book (the "True Knot" cult is very reminiscent of the RV-travelling vampire clan in NEAR DARK). One of King's major gripes about Kubrick's film is that he felt it lost the humanity and the central themes of alcoholism, violence, and the traumatic effects of abuse on a family in exchange for the "coldness" that typified Kubrick's work. Flanagan keeps those ideas intrinsic to the heart of DOCTOR SLEEP, with McGregor very believable as a man still haunted by ghosts both literal and figurative, whether it's the woman from room 237 or the psychological specter of an abusive father who tried to kill him and his mother, eventually using alcohol and self-destruction as the quickest coping mechanism. DOCTOR SLEEP resonates on a more emotional level than THE SHINING ever could, especially in the few scenes where the spirit of Hallorann appears (it should be mentioned that Lumbly is just terrific here). A SHINING fan might actually get a little choked up when Hallorann tears Danny a new one over his reluctance to help Abra, telling him "You was just a kid when you wandered into my kitchen all those years ago and here I am, still on the hook." As good as those dramatic elements are, it's Ferguson who creates the most indelible character with Rose the Hat, who's quirky and terrifying at the same time ("Well, hi there!").

It's not until about the two-hour mark that Flanagan has a Kubrickgasm and takes a deep dive into full-on SHINING worship. Some may feel it's an awkward shift in style and tone, but I found the transition to be handled in an effective way that, in lesser hands, would've seemed like a tacked-on compromise akin to the out-of-nowhere, studio-mandated exorcism finale in THE EXORCIST III. On the run with Abra, Dan decides to lure Rose the Hat to the long-shuttered, boarded-up, moldy-walled ruins of the Overlook, where he's been mentally locking away the spirits that have haunted him all these years. It's giddily, dizzyingly surreal to see McGregor's Dan wandering through almost perfect recreations of those legendary sets at England's Elstree Studios (except for one thing--there were steps going into the Torrance apartment). Everything is as it was left in 1980, looking like a combination of a crime scene and a SHINING museum (plus there's that droning, rhythmic beat, a crescendoing "Dies Irae," and a little "Midnight, the Stars and You"). The attention to detail is actually breathtaking at times (even after Steven Spielberg's tribute in READY PLAYER ONE), and it results in what should be one of the most crowd-pleasing comeuppances in recent memory once Rose the Hat shows up for the big showdown in the Colorado Lounge.

But something unexpected has happened: DOCTOR SLEEP flopped its opening weekend. Nobody cares. There's a million ways this could've shit the bed, and almost any other filmmaker would've been content to play it safe and rely on easy SHINING fan fiction. Flanagan doesn't cave to the lowest common denominator, and maybe that's why it's not playing well or bringing in the crowds despite acclaim from critics and hardcore SHINING fans. IT kickstarted a King renaissance a couple of years ago, but are we already suffering from fatigue and burnout? The inferior IT: CHAPTER TWO made a lot of money a couple of months ago but it definitely didn't have the fan adoration or the lasting impact of its predecessor (and does anyone remember we had a new PET SEMATARY earlier this year?). Or do the kids just not know THE SHINING like Warner Bros. assumed? I saw the 4K restoration of THE SHINING theatrically in September and there were a lot of younger people in attendance, and "Here's Johnny!" didn't even register with them. They don't know who Johnny Carson is. Has it been too long between films to attract anyone but the most devout--and likely middle-aged and older--superfans? A similar fate befell the 35-years-later sequel BLADE RUNNER 2049, which opened big with devotees of the 1982 Ridley Scott classic but dropped nearly 66% in its second weekend after everyone who wanted to see it saw it immediately. DOCTOR SLEEP is an entirely different beast than THE SHINING, but speaking as someone who regards the Kubrick film as sacrosanct, it surpasses all expectations and is the most worthwhile sequel that a Shining and SHINING fan could hope to get, and maybe the best big-screen Stephen King adaptation since 1994's THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION. Like THE SHINING, DOCTOR SLEEP will stand the test of time and hopefully find an audience on streaming and cable. In the meantime, I just don't know what the hell moviegoers want anymore.

Saturday, November 9, 2019

In Theaters/On VOD: PRIMAL (2019)

(US/UK - 2019)

Directed by Nicholas Powell. Written by Richard Leder. Cast: Nicolas Cage, Famke Janssen, Kevin Durand, Michael Imperioli, LaMonica Garrett, Jeremy Nazario, Sewell Whitney, Braulio Castillo Jr,  Tom Walker, Isaac Santiago, Leon Joseph, Ray Hernandez, Jaime Irizarry, Pablo Tufino. (R, 96 mins)

Nicolas Cage continues to squander the potential Cageassaince that last year's MANDY quite erroneously portended with what feels like his 17th straight-to-VOD effort this year, PRIMAL, dropping the same week that trailers for another two upcoming Cage movies went online. With Cage battling an escaped lunatic and a bunch of wild animals set loose on a cargo ship, the Puerto Rico-shot PRIMAL sounds like the kind of high-concept hit the actor would've made for Jerry Bruckheimer two decades ago, with a no-expense-spared budget, a top-notch supporting cast, and a solid genre craftsman like Renny Harlin, Stephen Hopkins, or Simon West at the helm. But PRIMAL has none of that other than the always-slumming Cage, reunited with his OUTCAST director Nicholas Powell, who, like his leading man, had his best days a generation ago, back when he was a stuntman and stunt coordinator on blockbusters like BATMAN, BRAVEHEART, GOLDENEYE, GLADIATOR, and THE BOURNE IDENTITY.

Opening with a shot of a rotting goat carcass that also serves as an inadvertent metaphor for the current state of Cage's career, PRIMAL has the LEAVING LAS VEGAS Oscar-winner as big-game hunter Frank Walsh, who's in the Brazilian rain forest where he's just captured "La Gato Fantasma," an elusive, mythical "ghost jaguar" that the superstitious locals call a "white devil." He's got a contract to deliver it to a Madrid zoo for a huge payday, and he's also caught some various other beasts of the jungle--some spider monkeys, toucans, and a few extremely venomous snakes--for some smaller side payouts. Commissioning the Mexican cargo ship Mimer Brando, he's about to set sail with his hired crew until the ship is commandeered by US marshals and a black ops team led by Ringer (LaMonica Garrett) under the supervision of US attorney Freed (Michael Imperioli) and US Naval officer and neurologist Dr. Ellen Taylor (Famke Janssen). They're transporting rogue Special Forces officer-turned-international assassin, mercenary-for-hire, and indestructible madman Richard Loffler (Kevin Durand), who was caught in South America and is being taken back to the States to stand trial. Loffler has a brain condition that makes him prone to seizures, and of course, he fakes one to get out of his makeshift holding cell. And of course, after killing the two guards on duty, he lets all the wild animals loose, forcing Walsh and everyone else to contend with crazed spider monkeys, poisonous snakes that could be hiding anywhere, and a pissed-off jaguar created with the best CGI that 1995 had to offer, not to mention Loffler, who starts methodically offing them one by one.

This CON AIR/SNAKES ON A PLANE mash-up sounds so foolproof that you almost have to tank it on purpose. How can PRIMAL possibly be this boring? Maybe a better director would've helped, as Powell brings no energy or style to the table, and even a couple of fight scenes are unexciting and incoherently-edited in that shaky-cam style that was all the rage a decade ago. For such an unstoppable killing machine, Durand is pretty dull, and something like this needs a hammy, scenery-chewing John Malkovich as "Cyrus the Virus." It also needs a hero more engaged than Cage, who's on total autopilot here. No outbursts, no meltdowns for the Nic Cage YouTube highlight reel--just some inconsistent beard continuity, a lot of cocky swagger ("Is that all ya got?" he sneers as Loffler is beating the living shit out of him), and some 100% chemistry-free banter with Janssen, who appears to be actively contemptuous of the material. Cage can still summon his mojo when he gives a shit, but those glorious occasions are happening with much less frequency. You know he's just not feeling it when he allows himself to be out-acted by a wisecracking macaw named Einstein.

Friday, November 8, 2019

In Theaters: PARASITE (2019)

(South Korea - 2019)

Directed by Bong Joon Ho. Written by Bong Joon Ho and Han Jin Wan. Cast: Song Kang Ho, Lee Sun Kyun, Cho Yeo Jeong, Choi Woo Shik, Park So Dam, Chang Hyae Jin, Park Seo Joon, Jung Ziso, Jung Hyun Jun, Lee Jung Eun, Park Myung Hoon, Park Geun Rok, Jung Yi Seo. (R, 132 mins)

"You know what kind of plan never fails? No plan. With no plan, nothing can go wrong." 

The latest film from South Korean auteur Bong Joon Ho (THE HOST, SNOWPIERCER, OKJA), the dazzling PARASITE deservedly won the Palme d'Or at this year's Cannes Film Festival. Alternately funny, dramatic, tragic, and nail-bitingly suspenseful, it continues Bong's recurring themes of class conflict and economic and social disparity, with enough shades of gray that it never becomes the kind of misanthropic, spleen-venting screed that a less-nuanced filmmaker (or the inevitable US remake) would create. Resourceful Kim Ki-woo (Choi Woo Shik) has the smarts to go to college but it's out of the question: his broke, lower-class family--dad Ki-taek (Bong regular Song Kang Ho), mom Chung-sook (Chang Hyae Jin), and adult sister Ki-jung (Park So Dam)--live in a crummy, stinkbug-and-cockroach infested basement apartment at the end of an alley in the slums of Seoul. The only window offers a view of a dumpster that a local drunk uses as a toilet, and they have to crouch on a raised platform in the bathroom to steal wi-fi from the restaurant above. What little income they have comes from pre-folding boxes for a nearby pizza joint, and even that doesn't work out because Ki-taek's sloppy workmanship gets their pay docked, but they still have enough to get their phones turned back on for another month.

Ki-woo's friend Min (Park Seo Joon) is about to go off to grad school in the US, and on the basis of Ki-woo's past military service where he mastered English, gets him a job as a replacement private tutor for Da-hye (Jung Ziso), the teenage daughter of wealthy tech CEO Park Dong-ik (Lee Sun Kyun). Armed with documents and credentials forged by Photoshop wiz Ki-jung, Ki-woo uses his charm to manipulate Park's nice but passive, gullible wife Yeon-geo (Cho Yeo Jeong) into landing the job, and he immediately sees an opportunity. Yeon-geo believes their rambunctious, attention-deficient young son Da-song (Jung Hyun Jun) has artistic abilities ("It's a chimpanzee," Ki-woo marvels when looking at one of the child's drawings, to which his mother replies "It's a self-portrait"), prompting Ki-woo (who goes by "Kevin" with the family) to introduce Ki-Jung as "Jessica," inventing a story that she's a friend of a friend and an art therapist who went to school in Chicago. With Ki-jung hired as Da-song's art teacher, she devises a plan to land cushy jobs for their parents, first by getting rid of the Parks' driver Yoon (Park Geun Rok) by planting her own dirty underwear in the backseat of the car for Dong-ik to find, then orchestrating the ousting of loyal housekeeper Moon-gwang (Lee Jung Eun), who came along with the house when the Park family bought it four years earlier from the previous owner, the aging architect who designed it and has since moved to Paris.

With the Kim family essentially invading the home and now parasitically latched on to the wealthy Parks, there are any number of directions Bong and co-writer Han Jin Wan can take the story. But before a wacky comedy or an old-school Michael Haneke movie can break out, everything abruptly shifts and they pull the rug out from under you with a shocking development at exactly the midpoint that sets in motion a chain reaction of one jaw-dropping predicament after another. PARASITE is a case study of perfection in terms of balance of tone, plotting, and pacing, displaying an almost Larry David-esque style in the way insignificant events and sometimes humorous and seemingly throwaway lines come back into play much later. There are no wasted or or superfluous lines of dialogue here.

Refreshingly, PARASITE is not a one-percenter rage piece like SNOWPIERCER, since that would just be Bong repeating himself. For all their con games and deceit that sometimes crosses the line into sociopathy, the Kims are a loving family even if they behave in a morally dubious and often illegal fashion in order to scrape by as perpetual have-nots. And the Parks are not the kind of rich and privileged assholes that most movies would make them out to be (at least not for a while). Bong stages one memorable set piece after another that has you alternately laughing out loud and cringing in anticipation of where any scene might go, whether the family is rehearsing their invented personas in their shitty apartment ("Dad, you need to bring it down a little," Ki-woo advises the overacting Ki-taek), or when all four new hires are in the Park home going about their business and pretending they don't know one another and young Da-song loudly points out that they all smell the same ("Now we all have to start using different soap and detergent?" Chung-sook seethes). The house itself is also a significant character, as the camera glides along its long hallways and around its many corners, offering numerous hiding places and allowing Bong to take full advantage of the widescreen frame to demonstrate that the Parks, oblivious to everyday concerns in their life of luxury, have no idea what's going on in their own home (contrast that with the tight, cramped quarters of the Kims' basement apartment and the symbolic way they have to travel on downhill roads and down steep sidewalks and steps to get home). PARASITE is a brilliant film, in many ways a summation of Bong Joon Ho's career thus far, and absolutely deserving of all the accolades it's getting.

Thursday, November 7, 2019

On Netflix: THE KING (2019)

(US/Australia/UK - 2019)

Directed by David Michod. Written by David Michod and Joel Edgerton. Cast: Timothee Chalamet, Joel Edgerton, Ben Mendelsohn, Robert Pattinson, Sean Harris, Tom Glynn-Carney, Lily-Rose Depp, Thomasin McKenzie, Andrew Havill, Dean-Charles Chapman, Steven Elder, Edward Ashley, Stephen Fewell, Tara Fitzgerald, Tom Fisher, Ivan Kaye, Thibault de Montalembert, Philip Rosch, Lucas Hansen, Harry Trevaldwyn. (R, 140 mins)

A revisionist, GAME OF THRONES-inspired take on three plays in Shakespeare's 15th century-set Henriad (Henry IV Part I, Henry IV Part II, and Henry V), THE KING eschews the Bard's prose in favor of straightforward dialogue scripted by director David Michod (ANIMAL KINGDOM, THE ROVER), and co-star Joel Edgerton. Edgerton takes the role of Falstaff, and the character as presented here is notably different from past HENRY V incarnations in the 1944 Laurence Oliver and 1989 Kenneth Branagh films, and particularly the gold standard that is Orson Welles in his own 1966 masterpiece CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT, which made Falstaff the central character. In Shakespeare, Falstaff, the bad influence, rough-around-the-edges guardian-turned-best friend of King Henry IV's wayward son Prince Hal, is rejected and left heartbroken by his beloved young charge upon his ascension to the throne. In the Michod/Edgerton take, Falstaff is left adrift on his own until his services are needed by the newly-crowned King Henry V (CALL ME BY YOUR NAME's Timothee Chalamet), who neither forgot nor abandoned his friend but essentially has too much going on to immediately touch base with him.

Prior to becoming king, Prince Hal enjoyed his hedonistic, hard-partying lifestyle with Falstaff and their miscreant friends. Hal is only summoned to the palace to be informed by his gravely ill father Henry IV (Ben Mendelsohn) that he's being passed over upon his death in favor of his younger brother Thomas (Dean-Charles Chapman), described by the king as "weak but eager." As Thomas prepares to head into battle against the forces of rebellious Hotspur (Tom Glynn-Carney), he's joined by a reluctant Hal, who ends up the hero of the day after killing Hotspur in a duel when the latter refuses to acknowledge the second-born son. Enraged that Hal got all the attention, Thomas moves forward to another battle and is killed, forcing Hal to inherit a throne he never wanted when his father dies soon after. Now crowned Henry V, the former Prince Hal vows to be a different king, initially insisting on withdrawing from all of his father's petty conflicts, despite the constant push for battle by some of his close advisers, including a relentlessly warmongering Archbishop of Canterbury (Andrew Havill). All the while, the young king is given guidance by his father's right hand, William Gascoigne (Sean Harris), and finds himself in an escalated conflict with France after King Charles VI's loathsome son The Dauphin (a scene-stealing Robert Pattinson) sends him an emasculating gift of a lone ball in honor of his coronation. Soon, an assassin is sent to off Henry V in collaboration with two traitors from his inner circle, prompting him to have them beheaded, followed soon after by inviting his oldest and most trusted friend Falstaff into the fray as they prepare to face King Charles' Dauphin-led army at the Battle of Agincourt.

The cutthroat royal machinations are pretty familiar as far as these things go, and it's really a long buildup to Michod staging an epic, bloody, mud-soaked Battle of Agincourt in the third act. The friendship between Falstaff and Hal isn't explored to quite the depth that it was by Welles and his co-star Keith Baxter in CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT, and nothing here has the emotional gut-punch of the Welles film because the devastating rejection of Falstaff--when Baxter's Hal cruelly turns his back on him when he happily arrives for the coronation--never happens here. Co-produced by Brad Pitt, THE KING is well-made, well-acted, and looks great, but it doesn't really justify its existence beyond being a two-plus hour diversion that's sufficiently engrossing while you're watching it, but doesn't really stick with you when it's over. That is, unless you count Pattinson's insane performance as The Dauphin, where he manages to channel Klaus Kinski in AGUIRRE, Mickey Rourke in BARFLY, and Gary Oldman in THE PROFESSIONAL, then wraps it all in a French accent straight out of Pepe Le Pew. Portraying The Dauphin like some kind of flamboyant, medieval Batman villain, Pattinson doesn't show up until 75 minutes in, but after one condescending dressing-down of Henry V, you'll wish Michod would immediately get busy giving him his own Dauphin spinoff movie.

Wednesday, November 6, 2019


(US - 2019)

Written and directed by Edward Norton. Cast: Edward Norton, Bruce Willis, Willem Dafoe, Alec Baldwin, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Bobby Cannavale, Cherry Jones, Michael Kenneth Williams, Leslie Mann, Ethan Suplee, Dallas Roberts, Fisher Stevens, Josh Pais, Robert Ray Wisdom, Radu Spinghel, Peter Lewis, Stephen Adley Guirgis, DeShawn White. (R, 144 mins)

If it seems like MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN is the kind of film that's been frozen in ice since 2002 and is just now getting thawed, that could be because director/writer/star Edward Norton has been shepherding it through a nearly two-decade development since he purchased the movie rights to Jonathan Lethem's acclaimed novel shortly after it was published in 1999. But it's also because this is the kind of prestige piece that's becoming an increasingly rare commodity in multiplexes these days. A complex NYC noir with echoes of CHINATOWN and a generous helping of the kind of big-city corruption that's reminiscent of Sidney Lumet, MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN probably would've received a more welcome reception as a period HBO or Netflix miniseries, where it would've earned significant acclaim and cleaned up at the Emmys and the Golden Globes. But in theaters, it's a different story. Warner Bros. even seemed to lose confidence in it as the release date approached, knocking it down to 1300 screens in the days before it opened, even after a relentless TV ad blitz in the preceding weeks. The sad fact is that times have changed, and in an era when everything has to be a blockbuster, this kind of modest, mid-level production doesn't bring in the crowds anymore, whether you want to call it a movie for "grownups" or one that's geared toward "older audiences," or simply, a "dad movie." There's plenty of explanations--the trend toward mega-budget franchises, the fact that it'll be on VOD and Blu-ray in three or four months, and that, let's be honest, Norton hasn't headlined a hit movie in a long time. Even though it's a top-notch "dad movie," it's still a small miracle that MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN is in theaters at all.

Norton takes so many liberties with Lethem's novel that one could argue the film is its own separate thing. Two major changes: he moves the setting from the then-present late 1990s to the late 1950s (his feeling being that the use of hard-boiled dialogue in the present day worked on the page but would seem too ironic and gimmicky on the screen, and he's right, since BRICK already beat him to it), and he invents a major character exclusive to the film in one Moses Randolph, a venal political power player inspired by notorious Manhattan city planner and parks commissioner Robert Moses, whose post-Depression projects ran up debt and seemed insidiously designed to isolate black neighborhoods, thus propagating the long decline in areas that became slums and ghettos in the ensuing decades. As loose as Norton plays with Lethem's source work, MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN works as a well-made, leisurely-paced, and very character-driven film that unfolds like a good book, with a memorable hero in Lionel Essrog (Norton), who has Tourette's and can't stop shouting inappropriate things at the wrong time. On one hand, this feels like another chance for Norton to do his PRIMAL FEAR/THE SCORE schtick, but fortunately, Norton the actor is kept in check by Norton the director, who's careful to avoid turning his long-gestating pet project into a self-indulgent vanity project.

Lionel works as part of the investigative crew of Brooklyn gumshoe Frank Minna (Bruce Willis), who affectionately calls him "Brooklyn" and makes use of Lionel's ability to remember even the most trivial of details. The crew--which also consists of Tony (Bobby Cannavale), Gilbert (Ethan Suplee), and Danny (Dallas Roberts)--have been with Frank since they were kids, when they were all in an orphanage and he took them under his wing. When Frank is killed (aaaand...exit Bruce Willis 15 minutes in) during a dangerous meet in a fleabag hotel with some mystery men--where Frank hid a phone in a dresser drawer so Lionel could listen at a pay phone across the street--Lionel becomes fixated on piecing together the puzzle of meaningless words and phrases from the conversation to find out what Frank was up to and why he wouldn't clue them in. Lionel's pursuit of numerous disparate leads--Laura Rose (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a legal aid for civil rights and gentrification activist Gabby Hurwitz (Cherry Jones); a jazz club owned by Laura's father (Robert Ray Wisdom); a worldly jazz trumpeter (Michael Kenneth Williams); a disgruntled engineer (Willem Dafoe, midway through growing his LIGHTHOUSE beard) who's fallen on hard times; and Randolph (Alec Baldwin), who runs a dozen powerful city offices but remains an unelected public official with enough juice to bully the mayor (Peter Lewis) into bending to his will--eventually comes together, though he gets roughed up several times by a group of Randolph goons led by Lou (Fisher Stevens) and lets things get personal when he realizes that Laura's life is in danger.

Norton's tic-filled performance can be big but it's never hammy, and it's a welcome approach that everyone seems to understand that there's something wrong with his head that makes him act the way he does. He often has to explain that "It's like a piece of my head broke off and is just joyriding me," followed by something like "Giant faggot munchkin meat!" or "Tits on a Tuesday!" or, if he gets really worked up, a loud "IF!" accompanied by a wild head thrash. Even though the other guys in Frank's office call him "Freakshow," it's a term of endearment among them, as they demonstrably take his insights and opinions seriously. Norton's Lionel is a real character instead of a series of awards-baiting outbursts. The creation of Baldwin's Moses Randolph serves to add social and historical commentary to the story line with the dead-on Robert Moses parallels, as well as an obvious, and maybe slightly ham-fisted modern political allegory, with Baldwin's performance being a significantly less cartoonish interpretation of his SNL Donald Trump impression (Randolph even quotes him nearly verbatim at one point, arguing the semantics of rape and stating "When you're powerful, you can do anything you want"). The Trumpification of Robert Moses into Moses Randolph helps MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN become a film of its time in ways that it couldn't have had Norton made this 20 years ago, though, admittedly, die-hard devotees of Lethem's novel probably won't be enthused about these additional layers.

"Bruce, I said I'd *try* to get you out of here
in one day, but I never made any guarantees." 
At 144 minutes, MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN may run a little long, but it's always engrossing, and the only weak spot is the perpetually inconvenienced Willis, continuing to give Steven Seagal a run for his rubles as the laziest actor alive. It's really something to watch the way Norton has to shoot Frank's meeting with the four Randolph goons in a gimmicky way to cover for Willis obviously not being there with Fisher Stevens and the other actors. The hotel room is dark and shadowy and the image drifts in and out of focus in an almost hallucinatory fashion for no reason, with Willis obviously doubled from the back (the guy's head isn't even shaped like Willis') and his close-ups are always just him with no one else in the shot when he's responding to someone's questions. This sequence is in the first ten minutes and it actually gets the film off to a clunky start because it looks like Norton is going for some pointless auteur wankery right out of the gate until you realize that it's this way because Willis can't even be bothered to show up for work on good movies, let alone Lionsgate's landmark, ongoing "Bruce Willis Phones In His Performance From His Hotel Room" series. When Norton was on the dais of Comedy Central's roast of Willis last year, with MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN already wrapped, he wondered if he could get away with the things Willis does: "Could I just leave the set of a movie after my close-ups are done and have my co-stars act opposite a C-stand with a red X taped to it while a script girl reads my dialogue to them?" Gentle ribbing or spoken from experience?