Ford v Ferrari = Friendship!

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CREDIT: Twentieth Century Fox

I’m not sure what the message of Ford v Ferrari is, and I’m not sure if that’s a mostly good or mostly bad thing. (We could be doing a lot worse in this world!) Is it about how you can’t ever stop American individualism from being as individual as possible? Or is it about how the United States won’t ever stay an underdog for long, even in pursuits usually dominated by the Europeans? If it’s either of those, then why is the main character an Englishman? Maybe it’s about how teammates stick with each other no matter what, and the whole American-ness of it all just be how it be. Certainly what stuck with me the most is the friendship between Christian Bale’s vroom-vroom-goer Ken Miles and Matt Damon’s vroom-vroom-guider Carroll Shelby. It’s an oft-contentious relationship, which only makes sense when you’re gearing up for a race that lasts a full day. Such competition, such support, such politics behind the whole affair – I saw it all!

I give Ford v Ferrari 240 out of 360 Laps.

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Widows’ is the Best Cinematic Crime Saga in Quite Some Time

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CREDIT: Twentieth Century Fox

This review was originally published on News Cult in November 2018.

Starring: Viola Davis, Elizabeth Debicki, Michelle Rodriguez, Cynthia Erivo, Colin Farrell, Brian Tyree Henry, Daniel Kaluuya, Liam Neeson, Jacki Weaver, Carrie Coon, Robert Duvall, Lukas Haas, Garret Dillahunt, Molly Kunz, Jon Bernthal, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo

Director: Steve McQueen

Running Time: 129 Minutes

Rating: R for Professional Criminals at Their Scariest

Release Date: November 16, 2018

Sometimes I am at a loss of what to say about a film because of how powerfully it has affected me. Widows is one of those films. Its immediate effect was similar to that of The Dark Knight, in which I sat stunned, not quite sure what had happened, but certain that I had seen something special. Steve McQueen’s massively sprawling saga about Chicago crime and politics is populated by a ridiculously sterling cast, with at least ten, or maybe fifteen, of them receiving the gift of really juicy material to bite into.

Chief among them, in all fairness, are the titular widows, who are left to clean up the very expensive mess left behind by their recently deceased criminal husbands. Veronica (Viola Davis), Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), and Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) are forced to form an uneasy alliance or run the risk of the rest of their livelihoods dissolving away. While each actress is compelling, their characters are not necessarily likable. Do they bear some guilt for benefitting from their husbands’ activity despite not knowing what they were tup to? On the other hand, they are in many ways trapped in a situation with no good options for escape. Their predicament demonstrates the limits of feminism and standing up for a yourself in a world ruled by violence.

Thus far in this review, I have barely touched upon even 10% of this film. It runs just a little over two hours, but it is so stuffed with goodness that I am amazed it is under three hours, yet it is simultaneously so sleek that it feels like it is running for just an hour and a half. There are about six (maybe more) stories running alongside each other and somehow they run seamlessly together. There’s Bryan Tyree Henry as a crime boss trying to break good by running for alderman in a gentrifying neighborhood and Daniel Kaluuya as his brother and terrifying enforcer. His opponent is Colin Farrell, who is struggling with maximal agita as he finds his place as a successor in a long line of Chicago politicians. And we cannot forget Cynthia Erivo as a babysitter/beautician/hustler who also plays a big part in all this. Plus there is plenty more to know about the shadowy machinations of ringleader Harry Rawlins (Liam Neeson), Veronica’s husband. And how is there also room for Matt Walsh to show up for one key scene?! McQueen is dynamite with his clear, effective craftsmanship. If you see Widows, you will likely understand everything that happens plot-wise, and you might also just feel compelled to take part in the exhaustive analysis of every frame that is sure to follow in the years to come.

Widows is Recommended If You Like: Heat, The Town, The Dark Knight, “Sisters Are Doin’ It for Themselves” by Eurythmics and Aretha Franklin

Grade: 4.5 out of 5 Aldermen

 

This Is a Movie Review: The Writer of ‘Sicario’ and ‘Hell or High Water’ Directs the Snow-Blanketed Mystery-Thriller ‘Wind River’

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CREDIT: Fred Hayes/The Weinstein Company

This review was originally posted on News Cult in August 2017.

Starring: Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olsen, Gil Birmingham, Jon Bernthal

Director: Taylor Sheridan

Running Time: 111 Minutes

Rating: R for the Terrible Things That Men Do When They Think They Can Get Away With It

Release Date: August 4, 2017 (Limited)

As a lover of cinema, I favor originality, moreso in terms of premise than subject matter. It is worthwhile to give voice to underrepresented stories, but it can be disheartening when they hew closely to the formulas of familiar narratives. Wind River makes those conclusions a little more complicated by baking the invisibility into its entire purpose. The dead body of a young woman is discovered in the snow in Wisconsin’s Wind River Indian Reservation, and the investigation is complicated by the harshness of the elements, the fact that this is technically a federal jurisdiction, and the lack of attention given to Native American women in peril.

Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen), the FBI agent sent to investigate, pulls up right in front of the check-in cabin but cannot see it, as a relentless blizzard erases any concept of visibility. That is not the only way she is unprepared, as the locals assure her that her lack of winter gear  means she is liable to freeze to death in a matter of hours in the woods. She just flew in from Las Vegas but was somehow the closest agent available. The residents of Wind River are bemused, but not offended. They are used to being forgotten and either making peace with the harsh conditions or surrendering to them.

Most of Wind River is a team-up between Banner and US Fish and Wildlife agent Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner), a tracker who knows the land better than anyone and discovered the body in the first place. She is the novice outsider doing her best to understand this world, and he, with a Native ex-wife and son, is the outsider from within. The snow and the lack of hard evidence force them to take meditative breaks and philosophical detours, rendering much of the film a lament about the waste of promising life. For those of you who prefer your mysteries wrapped up neatly, the truth of the crime is eventually revealed in a bravura flashback, but the full extent of it is only presented to the audience. The investigative team puts it all together, but this is still a world in which everything is ephemeral unless someone shines a light on it.

Wind River is Recommended If You Like: Hell or High Water, Mud, Prisoners

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Frostbites

This is a Movie Review: ‘Baby Driver’ is a Fun Thrill Ride, But More Alarming Than Expected

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This review was originally posted on News Cult in June 2017.

Starring: Ansel Elgort, Lily James, Kevin Spacey, Jon Hamm, Jamie Foxx, Eiza González

Director: Edgar Wright

Running Time: 113 Minutes

Rating: R for Everything Spinning Out of Control

Release Date: June 28, 2017

I am not sure if the one nagging thing preventing me from fully embracing Baby Driver is a moral one or a storytelling one. I am also not sure if that thing matters and I should just embrace the film unabashedly. But either way, let me let you in on my thought process: am I bothered by not just all the bloody mayhem, but also that we are seemingly meant to cheer on all this violence? Or am I more flummoxed by the lack of context regarding Doc the crime boss (Kevin Spacey)? Part of the issue is that I was prepared for just a fun stylized thrill ride but what I got did not skimp on the consequences. In fairness, I should have been prepared, as writer/director Edgar Wright’s films always grapple with the practical and emotional fallout of even the most outrageous circumstances. While that is alarming, Baby Driver is frankly better for it.

But back to that highly stylized premise for a moment. Baby (Ansel Elgort) is a getaway driver with a drum in his hum (i.e., tinnitus sustained from a car accident that killed his parents) and thus always has earbuds in to keep himself centered and rhythmic. Accordingly, the soundtrack never lets up. It is a toe-tapping mix of classic rock, funk, and R&B that is never too familiar to be too tiresome. It would be impractical to list every track, but I will pick out a few favorites (Bob & Earl’s breezy “Harlem Shuffle,” Golden Radar’s ominous-but-in-a-fun-way “Radar Love,” Focus’ face-melting yodeler “Hocus Pocus”) and note that all of them have everyone’s heart ticking at just the right click.

This could all be a setup for a nearly dialogue-free sensory experience, but instead it has an honest-to-goodness narrative, and the result is more challenging than the alternative. It traffics in clichés, but it spins gold out of them. Baby never meant to get mixed up in this world of thieves, and he is going to get out of the game after ONE LAST JOB. Naturally, Doc threatens to break his legs and destroy his loved ones, but the two also seem to somehow have a genuine friendship. The contradictions are striking but lived-in and convincing. The love story is just as basic and formulaic, with Baby dead-set on driving out of town with diner waitress Debora (Lily James). But their attraction is sparkling and immediately filled with mutual respect. The only improbable thing is how they lucky they are to have met their perfect match by sheer happenstance.

Ultimately Baby chooses to resort to some extreme means to escape his lot in life, and the fate that then meets him somehow feels simultaneously black-and-white and filled with shades of gray. Herein Baby Driver reveals itself as an illustration of the tension between a decent man and an indecent world. We all need to something to keep us centered to get by. For Baby, that is not just his music. Even more so, it is a penchant for mutual acts of kindness and pleasantness. A valuable message absolutely, and one that makes the few moments when Baby slips into darkness so difficult to bear.

Baby Driver is Recommended If You Like: Its Trailers – this is a well-advertised movie

Grade: 4 out of 5 iPods

This Is a Movie Review: Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

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me-earl-dying-girl-popsicle

Greg Gaines (the titular “me”) is reminiscent of Community‘s Jeff Winger. In the beginning of his story, he puts a great deal of effort into proving that he does not care, only for his ending to underscore the lengths to which he does care.

Greg defines himself by how detached he is from the high school clique system. He affects a dispassionate disposition, but he puts so much effort into being on amicable terms with every group. He goes so far as to devise a taxonomy that is thorough enough to include “Boring Jewish Senior Girls, Subgroup 2A.”

Every other major character is presented through Greg’s limited perspective, and accordingly they register as if they are all in their own distinct movies. Nick Offerman and Connie Britton play slightly against type/slightly extending from their types as Greg’s parents, making for a pretentious art flick and a slightly overbearing dramedy. Molly Shannon is right in her wheelhouse in the overbearing comedy portion as the mother of the girl with cancer. Jon Bernthal is Greg’s history teacher in the slightly dangerous bildungsroman. And Katherine C. Hughes, as Madison, the hot girl who means well but makes Greg feel terrible by virtue of being a hot girl, prompts the animated fantasy sequences.

Fuller portraits of Earl and Rachel (the titular girl) manage to shine through, thanks to their significant screen time. Greg refers to Earl, his filmmaking partner, as his “co-worker,” but Earl is quick to point out that they are in fact friends. There is a bit of a magical Negro vibe at play, which could have been unfortunate save for RJ Cyler making Earl so strong-willed and the narrative presenting plenty of personal background.

Rachel could have very well been the embodiment of cancer-related epiphanies or just one half of a typical teenage weepie romance. Indeed, Greg often suggests that the story seems to be going in that direction, only to immediately rebuke that idea. Instead, Olivia Cooke keeps Rachel appropriately grounded, as she comes across as just a person dealing with her illness on her own terms. As far as Greg and Rachel’s relationship goes, they develop a true friendship as a result of spending a lot of time with each other. Potential interpretations of the exact nature of their friendship are left wide open.

Madison represents an intriguingly unique story tack. She emerges as another love interest for Greg, which – for a character with only a handful of scenes in a movie with a more expected potential romance – is disconcerting, but also resonant. Greg assumes that Madison’s attention towards him is just pity, but there are enough subtle tells to suggest that her interest is genuine. What emerges is a film accomplished in its thorough commitment to taking on the subjective perspective of a protagonist so insecure that he cannot imagine that anyone would actually think highly of him. As Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is stuck in Greg’s head for so long, it is cathartic when he is finally able to get out of it.

A few words must also be devoted to Greg and Earl’s parody films (with dumbly brilliant pun titles like “Eyes Wide Butt,” “My Dinner with Andre the Giant,” and “Pittsburghasqatsi”). Because Greg is so unassuming regarding their quality, they come off as more charming than annoying. And based on what footage is actually shown, there appears to be decent composition and editing. It helps that Earl’s committed performances consistently shine through. Much of the story is leading up to the premiere of the film that the duo are making for Rachel, which could have ended up as so many clichés, but instead emerges as an idiosyncratic vision (regardless of quality level) and hardly what anyone could have possibly expected.