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.

SNL Review December 15, 2018: Matt Damon/Mark Ronson and Miley Cyrus

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CREDIT: Will Heath/NBC

This post was originally published on News Cult in December 2018.

Love It

Michael and Colin Swap Jokes – Anchorpersons Che and Jost started out this Update at their standard level, maybe a little better than usual, but they make their way to the top spot thanks to their wondrous finale, in which they recite jokes written by the other that they have not seen until this very moment. They brilliantly play off the personas that they have constructed to rag on each other: Che the Total Freak and Jost the Bland White Bread Racist. If “Uppity Bus Passenger Day” did not already exist to be reclaimed, then Michael Che needed to create it to force Colin Jost to say it.

You know something? The world could use more people who care as much as Matt Damon and Leslie Jones’ characters in the neighbor Christmas dinner sketch care about Weezer.

Keep It

It’s a Wonderful Trump – I thought today was finally going to be the day that I put my foot down and said “Enough’s enough” to a Trump-y cold open. But then there comes an inversion of It’s a Wonderful Life, and I have to admit that it is actually a good premise. The show’s insight into Trump is still not particularly insightful, but there is some amusement to be had here, and Robert De Niro’s cameo isn’t his normal complete disaster. While political SNL is in many ways a lost cause in this era, a few decent ideas do peek through here and there occasionally.

Matt Damon’s Monologue is a sweet paean to letting your kids stay up late enough to watch SNL live for the first time…The Westminster Daddy Show looks like it is a fan of daddies, but then it oddly mostly throws shade at them. Luckily it ends with the triumphant Broadcast Daddy joyously taking Best in Show…The Christmas Ornaments sketch presents a memorable microcosmic dystopia of personal and cultural detritus…The Jingle Bells performance at the Carnegie Lounge is a fair enough offbeat showcase for Cecily Strong…The Where’s Wes? gag would probably hit harder if it had a more interminable setup…Matt Damon’s appearance as Angel‘s boxer boyfriend is all well and good, but I’m mostly here for her Madea impression…The Cop Christmas at Frankie’s Ale House has plenty of welcome bonhomie amidst the ribbing and dark backstories…Happy Christmas, Britain! is a delightfully spot-on seasonal treat about how the current prime minister is being gifted with feces, but then due to bad time management, it gets cut off halfway through.

Leave It

Oscar Host AuditionsSNL has an addiction to behind-the-scenes impression showcase sketches, and understandably so, because the granddaddy of them all, the Star Wars 20th Anniversary auditions, are a stone cold classic. But since then, they have fallen into a trap of diminishing returns. This edition mixes things up a bit by transferring the setup from BTS of a movie to the search for a new awards show emcee. Alas, it does not breathe much fresh air the proceedings. The impressions are all decent, but none are transcendent, and the whole affair does not offer much insight into the Oscars. Although Aidy’s take on Hannah Gadsby does demonstrate that the actual Gadsby would be an ingenious actual choice.

Best Christmas Ever is both too tame and too over-the-top with its peaceful/hectic juxtaposition.

Matt Damon

On a scale of Christmastime hosts, Matt Damon sure is willing and able to jump right into the holiday spirit. And he absolutely had to be, as it appeared like a greater number of sketches than usual for the Christmas episode were seasonally themed. It’s a little hard to believe that it’s taken 16 years for Damon to have his second hosting stint. He really feels like he’s part of the extended SNL family.

Mark Ronson and Miley Cyrus

On a scale of SNL musical team-ups, I’m afraid that Mark and Miley are somewhere in the middle. “Nothing Breaks Like a Heart” is perfectly agreeable, and their version of “(Happy Xmas) War Is Over” hits the spot about as well as it can, but I don’t feel any of it sticking with me. On the other hand, Miley’s unzipped jacket is certainly striking and I do appreciate the lyrics flashing on the back screen. Anyway, I guess that is to say, this combo is only disappointing if you’re holding them to a very high standard.

Letter Grades:

It’s a Wonderful Trump – B-

Matt Damon’s Monologue – B

Westminster Daddy Show – B

Best Christmas Ever – C-

Christmas Ornaments – B

Oscar Host Auditions – C

Jingle Bells – B-

Mark Ronson and Miley Cyrus perform “Nothing Breaks Like a Heart” – B

Weekend Update
The Jokes (BEST OF THE NIGHT) – B+
Where’s Wes? – C+
Angel – B

Weezer Argument – B+

Cop Christmas – B

Mark Ronson and Miley Cyrus and Sean Lennon perform “(Happy XMas) War Is Over)” – B-

Happy Christmas, Britain – B

This Is a Movie Review: Miniaturization is Only the Start of ‘Downsizing’s’ Quest to Save the Human Species

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CREDIT: Paramount Pictures

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

Starring: Matt Damon, Hong Chau, Christoph Waltz, Kristen Wiig, Udo Kier, Rolf Lassgård, Jason Sudeikis, Maribeth Monroe

Director: Alexander Payne

Running Time: 135 Minutes

Rating: R for Scientific Full-Frontal Nudity

Release Date: December 22, 2017

How do you live in such a way that ensures both the health of the planet and yourself? That’s really what Downsizing is asking. Its light sci-fi innovation about shrinking people is just a quirky way to get in there and explore this big conundrum. No single piece of entertainment is going to answer that question to everyone’s satisfaction, but Downsizing at least knows how to grab our attention, and Alexander Payne’s take is interesting enough in getting us to where he wants to go.

Fair warning, if it is not clear already, that Downsizing is not exactly the movie advertised in its trailer. Its whimsical tale of the land of the miniatures is present, but it is ultimately just an entry point to smuggle a thornier story into. After all, there is only so far you can go with the visual humor of size differential juxtaposition. There are a few bits wringing laughs out of giant (i.e., regular-sized) crackers or Jason Sudeikis sitting on a cutting board and drinking from a tiny wine glass, but those moments are there to just add quick bursts of establishing color. In fact, most of the shots in the miniature world do not feature any contrast to the normal-sized surroundings.

The miniaturization process has been invented to reduce the strain that humans have been putting on the environment, which makes clear sense: if you’re only 5 or 6 inches, you consume many fewer resources than if you’re 5 or 6 feet. And from a personal standpoint, it’s a no-brainer as well, as the exchange rate is tremendous, multiplying the real spending value of your money by about a hundredfold. So Paul Safranek (Matt Damon), bored by his office job and feeling glum at home, signs right up. But his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig) pulls out of the procedure at the last minute, portending that everything may not be as rosy as promised.

Downsizing is primarily interested in digging into the questions raised by this near future world. The practical and scientific matters (like, do babies born to downsized adults grow up to be similarly small adults?) are not explained too thoroughly, but those matters are not ignored; you kind of have to roll with the film a bit and accept that those things have already been settled. Instead, the focus is on the knottier philosophical questions and the unexpected implications of downsizing. Why has this scientific breakthrough happened while people with chronic diseases still suffer? Should downsized people have the same rights as the natively-sized? Will governments use involuntary downsizing to tamp down undesirable segments of their populations?

The answer to that last question turns out to be a resounding yes, and we see its fallout in the form of Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau, giving the most forcefully charming performance of the year), a Vietnamese dissident who has been downsized against her will and then smuggled into America in a TV box. As we and Paul are introduced to her life, Downsizing makes it clear that it believes that humans are wired to always separate themselves into separate classes, no matter what utopian urges drive us. As she and Paul become entwined, the underlying, most burning question of this film becomes clear: is it better to specifically attempt to save the entire species, or to focus on being a good person in your own particular space? The resolution that Payne offers is a little pat, but not dishonest. Miniaturized or not, utopian or practical, whatever your station in life, no matter how weird things get, you have to give yourself the room to be a good person.

Downsizing is Recommended If You Like: Being John Malkovich, Captain Fantastic, Robot & Frank

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Utopias

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Suburbicon’ Pokes at the Myth of a Utopian America by Exposing Both Latent Criminality and Racism to Chaotic, Intermittently Thrilling, Results

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CREDIT: Paramount Pictures/Black Bear Pictures

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

Starring: Matt Damon, Julianne Moore, Noah Jupe, Oscar Isaac, Glenn Fleshler, Jack Conley, Gary Basaraba

Director: George Clooney

Running Time: 105 Minutes

Rating: R for Wiseguy-Style Punching, Stabbing, Explosions, and Poisoning and Some Slap-Happy Hanky-Panky

Release Date: October 27, 2017

In the perfect mid-20th Century American town of Suburbicon (basically Leave It to Beaver sprung to life), the dream of raising a family with no worries and getting along with all your neighbors has been fully, uniformly realized. Or at least, that’s how it’s being sold. Whenever a movie begins with a montage praising picture-perfect suburbia, it is clear that we are actually in for satire. In this case, it is a violently screwball riff on Double Indemnity.

The idea that a utopian town can really exist is punctured fairly immediately when the home of Gardner Lodge (Matt Damon) and his wife Rose (Julianne Moore) is invaded by a couple of goons intent on thievery and terrorizing. Rose ends up dying at the hands of the thieves, leaving Gardner to raise their son Nicky (Noah Jupe) with the help of Rose’s twin sister Margaret (also Moore). But it soon becomes clear that Gardner and Margaret were behind Rose’s death, for the sake of paying off Gardner’s mob debts and so that they can cash in on the life insurance policy on Rose and escape to a Caribbean paradise. So this really is 100% Double Indemnity in the Cleavers’ neighborhood.

Ultimately, though, Suburbicon does not offer much new to say with its recontextualization, save for Matt Damon riding a comically undersized bicycle. Considering the talent assembled, that is notably disappointing. But it is not entirely surprising, as the array of violence involves the Coen brothers (who wrote the script along with Clooney and Grant Heslov) indulging in their most outrageous tendencies. At least Oscar Isaac livens things up quite a bit as the claims adjuster of claims adjusters, though his appearance is all too brief (somewhat necessarily so).

But wait! If that narrative disappoints you, why not check out the other fully fleshed out story existing within the very same movie? Suburbicon has just welcomed its first black family, although “welcomed” is far from the right word for many residents. It seems that this town’s ideals are false not just because it cannot keep the mob at bay but also because its lily-white identity includes a big hunk of racism.

If this sounds like two completely different movies, that it is in fact how much of it plays out. But that is also kind of the point. The racism portion gets relatively short shrift, but the idea does seem to be that Suburbicon, and in turn America, would like to pretend that this problem does not exist. That is a tricky point to make, though, and Suburbicon’s touch is not exactly delicate. Ultimately, then, the film is well-intentioned, but its tone is too all over the place for those intentions to be as clear as they need to be.

Suburbicon is Recommended If You Like: Anything and everything influenced by Double Indemnity, The Coen Brothers at their most cartoonishly violent, Two movies with starkly different focuses smooshed together

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 Explosions

This Is a Movie Review: The Great Wall

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The Great Wall

This post was originally published on News Cult in February 2017.

Starring: Matt Damon, Jing Tian, Pedro Pescal, Willem Dafoe, Andy Lau, Lu Han

Director: Zhang Yimou

Running Time: 104 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Cutting Away Right Before the Blood and Guts Spill Out

Release Date: February 17, 2017

Matt Damon’s prominence in The Great Wall’s ad campaign has caused a bit of a fuss. Is this yet another example of the White Savior complex, come to save the helpless foreigners? In the actual film, Damon is not the leader of the Chinese army that the promos seem to make him out to be. But he does save the day. Although he kind of does so accidentally. Except by the end when he knows exactly what he’s doing. So… you could aim your social justice call-to-arms against The Great Wall, but it would be an awfully silly flick to focus on.

Damon’s presence is essentially an afterthought, despite him being one of the main characters. He may have been part of the story from conception, but this smacks of a business rather than artistic decision, regardless of intention. The Great Wall is already a hit in China, and it would be nice if it could add some bank in the U.S. (and Latin America, thus Damon’s partner is played Chilean-born Pedro Pascal of Game of Thrones and Narcos).

If the white faces are there to add star power, it does not quite work out that way, perhaps because director Zhang Yimou (HeroRaise the Red LanternHouse of Flying Daggers) does not have much experience outside of Chinese martial arts flicks. So the action is rousingly shot (Damon’s archery skills are thrillingly put on display throughout), but the English speakers find their charisma diminished. Luckily, Jing Tian, as the Commander of the Chinese Army, carries a lot of the heavy lifting of dialogue and plot progression, and she knows exactly what she is doing.

To get to the actual meat of this story, this film is concerned very little about cultural imperialism but a great deal about B-movie monsters. It posits that the Great Wall of China was built to keep out not invading Mongol hordes, but rather mythical lizard creatures that indiscriminately eat everything in their path. The character design and relentless ferociousness are fun in a schlocky, Midnight Movie Madness sort of way. (Thank you, Cinematic Gods, that they are not the umpteenth version of giant bug aliens.)

The sci-fi B-movies of the fifties and sixties represented the cultural fears of that era (particularly, nuclear holocaust and the insidious creep of communism). If we apply that same rubric to The Great Wall, then what does China fear in 2017? As it becomes a bigger and bigger player in the world economy, is there concern that the Chinese identity will be eaten up by Western hegemony? Or perhaps these monsters are the Chinese id, and this is a warning to everyone else of the Red Dragon’s Rise. Alas, they prove to have one key vulnerability that ensures their demise, just as this film ends up being a little too disposable to pay it much heed.

The Great Wall is Recommended If You LikeGodzilla, the archery scenes from Lord of the Rings, the Brood from X-Men

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 Grenades