‘Ford v Ferrari’ Review: Racecar drama isn’t quite as gripping in its story as it is thrilling on the track

This review was first published on KENS5.com and can be viewed here. 

 

The elegant bluntness of its title aside, the conflict fueling “Ford v Ferrari” – a sleekly-produced but vaguely-formulaic and overlong racetrack drama in the running for Best Picture at the Academy Awards – isn’t so much the one between two legendary auto companies duking it out at 200+ mph, but rather an intracontinental feud. The cozy offices of Detroit vs. the liberating, wide-open roads of the West. Image vs. performance. White collar vs. blue collar. The movie shows how ambition of the portfolio and ambition of passion are two different things, though the route it takes to reach that conclusion is distractedly conventional.

A film that pays due attention to the aesthetic details of its pretty cars both in the showroom and on the track – as well as when they’re getting ripped to shreds in competitive mishaps – “Ford v Ferrari” fetishizes competition and white male provocation through the (mostly-accurate) lens of history. For his first directorial effort since the R-rated superhero western “Logan,” James Mangold goes exponentially safer in telling the story about how the Ford Motor Company reasserted its international dominance via the iconic 24 Hours of Le Mans race, a feat of endurance that may be on par with watching the more tedious segments of this 150-minute auto epic unfold—that the movie has a strange aversion to using on-screen graphics to inform the audience of the story’s timeline (it could have taken place in a span of a few weeks or a few years, as far as I’m concerned) does it no service in terms of comprehension. Continue reading →

‘Little Women’ Review: Immense triumph

This review was first published on KENS5.com, and can be viewed here. 

 

Before any other occupation, we are creators—natural architects of futures limited only by the boundaries of childhood imagination, artists presented with a blank tapestry that evolves from sketches to swatches of paint as goals come into ever-sharper focus. We’re constantly writing our stories with fantasies of the future. Lack of experience isn’t a factor; that comes much later.

As much as we love stories, the author is just as important in Greta Gerwig’s immensely satisfying “Little Women.” In and of itself, that isn’t particularly significant in what is the fourth big-screen adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s classic domestic story about lessons imparted on four artistically-inclined sisters in Civil War-era America as they transition out of childhood and into futures molded less by dreams and more by realities.

What is significant is Gerwig’s technique; for her second, highly-anticipated film, the “Lady Bird” writer-director triumphantly toys with structure to place renewed focus on homely Meg, vivacious Jo, sweet Beth and determined Amy March as architects of their futures, on the tendency of the child to be their own biographer. In a stroke of screenwriting ingenuity from Gerwig, “Little Women” cross-cuts portions of a familiar odyssey into a fresh remixing of the March sisters’ story, breathing lavish new life into the source material’s themes while modernizing the chestnuts-roasting-on-an-open fire period drama with a contemporary energy reminiscent of the filmmaker’s rambunctiously funny first feature.

If a chronological telling of Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy March’s story is a coming-of-age tale, Gerwig’s re-jiggered, rejuvenating iteration proves to be a tale of coming into one’s own—of ambitions refined and redefined as our beloved little women navigate progressive sentiment with traditional constraints. The emotions that swirl throughout are foundational and instructional; “Little Women” is joyous without being kitsch, halcyon without feeling grim, and wise without feeling preachy. It’s simply a cinematic joy, and one of the year’s best.

Those familiar with the “Little Women” story will notice Gerwig’s unconventionally-constructed narrative from the jump: Instead of opening on four young March sisters on Christmas morning, we briefly are introduced to two of them as adults. Jo (a characteristically fiery Saoirse Ronan) is in New York and selling her stories (though ones without morals; “They don’t sell,” a publisher insists), having started her path of self-sufficiency. Meanwhile, Amy (Florence Pugh, putting a stunning capper on her breakout year) is accompanying Aunt March (Meryl Streep, delightfully caustic) around Europe when she runs into an old friend of the March family from across the Atlantic, Laurie (Timothée Chalamet), and extends an invitation to a ball that evening amid subtle glances of affection.

It’s clear there are histories to be fleshed out for these characters, but it’s also clear from early on how Gerwig’s intentions transcend gimmickry and find purpose. Instead of anticipating where the sisters end up, Gerwig’s “Little Women” re-locates eventual payoffs to how they get to be where they are, in mind as well as in life—the foundational virtues, the shifts in character, the socio-economic forces nudging them in certain directions.

How will we be able to differentiate between periods in time? Gerwig makes that easy, too. The moment the movie’s internal clock winds back seven years and we meet the younger versions of the Marches, we’re vaulted into a mode of more playful filmmaking, of a relationship built from steadfast sisterly love and warmth that radiates emphatically through the screen. Shot-to-shot cuts come quicker and more compulsively than the film’s more deliberate opening minutes, and an acute cinematic jubilance contrasts the melancholy tone of scenes from seven years into the future.

That sensation also, vitally, connects the performances of Ronan, Pugh, Eliza Scanlen’s Beth and Emma Watson’s Meg. Gerwig recognizes that “Little Women” can only soar as high as the chemistry between its four leads, and we’re lucky as moviegoers that this is not only ever a concern under her direction, but a well of delight that never runs dry. (I wonder if Gerwig didn’t consider how the audience’s familiarity with Ronan, Watson and Pugh – a trio of well-known, well-regarded actresses – would provide us, and her, with a head start in bringing the characters to life.)

There’s a heaviness to the adoration the March sisters have with each other that’s not often glimpsed in movies, but it’s as tangible as the house they live in, almost as if the stars portraying them were related in real life. Watching them console each other, confront each other, bicker, laugh, play and personify the undefinable – but instantly recognizable – qualities of what makes this quintessential American family a family is one of 2019’s true cinematic treasures. Chalamet, meanwhile, is perfectly sympathetic as Laurie, adopted by the Marches as a surrogate sibling who matches their effervescent spirit step-for-step.

But watching them grow is just as important to the “Little Women” legacy, and Gerwig weaves the push-and-pull of childhood and maturity, plans and reality, empathy and agency into a delectably substantive product. The more the film spritzes on, the more its dual timelines harmonize with each other; events contemplated from the past and events realized in the future mirror each other with remarkable accessibility as flashbacks feel less like flashbacks and more like memories revisited. The later timeline isn’t without its own narrative thrust, propelled by an emotional crux of an event with a build-up that is engaging and also smartly utilized by Gerwig to organically provide conduits back to the past.

Meanwhile, those past anecdotes add texture to the familial dynamics played out against lavishly-shot backgrounds—moments in lives remembered for their picturesque beauty as well as the worldly knowledge gained by the Marches, even as that knowledge grows from foundational teachings of forgiveness into the compromising of love, ambition and financial necessity reserved for the precipice of womanhood. Even as “Little Women” bounds along with seamless flow, you can pluck individual scenes – Jo meeting Laurie for the first time, Meg getting a taste of high-society lifestyle that’s out of her reach, Beth growing in affection to her neighbors – like stanzas of a tender song, eventually returning to a chorus of wisdom often sung by Laura Dern’s matriarchal Marmee (in a quieter key here than her “Big Little Lies” and “Marriage Story” turns, but no less good).

The movie’s triumph is rooted in the four young actresses; particularly Pugh, whose doing something different than her costars by deftly combining a self-awareness of Amy with the blasé confidence needed to bring the youngest March sibling to life as a child, and later with the conviction that makes the older Amy an appropriate portal to some of the story’s most enduring themes.

But “Little Women” blossoms under the direction of Gerwig, who is a reliable conductor of emotion, and also highly skilled at mirroring mood with production design (a tip of the hat to Jess Gonchor in that regard). Pay close attention to subtle differences in how cluttered the March house feels, resembling how lived-in it is at any given point in the story, as well as the evolution of colors that change like the seasons; even as the tune might become a bit colder in its final third, it’s no less earnest. And I can’t in good conscience neglect to mention the merry strings and stirring pianos of Alexandre Desplat’s score, an uplift of the heart in audio form.

Those familiar with “Little Women” will know that it takes its turns for the somber, complicated and inevitable—what makes the March sisters so distinct is part of what makes them so timeless, after all, and the goals they have for themselves doesn’t call for them sharing the same home forever. Some of their futures turn out to more closely resemble the stories they’ve authored for themselves as children than others, but each experiences a moment of reckoning that proves life will never have one more lesson to provide.

This is a very generous film, to Gerwig’s ends, to Louis May Alcott’s, and to our own. It never stops bursting with life, and never for a moment feels malicious—unfair, perhaps, but never malicious. Gerwig’s slightly-amended ending fortifies the March sisters as writers of their individual stories, now with more tools and possibilities they couldn’t have yet imagined while waking up with glee on that Christmas Day several years prior. It’s a supremely of-the-moment message from the film’s director. Plans are phoenixes, Gerwig shows here. They rise, again and again, from the ashes of themselves.

 

“Little Women” is rated PG for thematic elements and brief smoking

Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Eliza Scanlen

Directed by Greta Gerwig

2019

The 25 best movies of the decade

This article was first published on KENS5.com, and can be viewed here. 

It’s a maxim among cinephiles that movies don’t change—but people do. Our reaction to a new film is shaped by the experiences and perceptions we bring into it, even as the first words upon leaving the theater (or turning off Netflix) typically are about an actor’s performance, a screenplay’s effectiveness, a specific shot’s inventiveness. That we can revisit movies later and come away with new insights – new pieces of the cinematic fabric to grasp onto – says as much about the medium’s unspoken power as it says about our malleable connections to art. Who among us doesn’t have a movie we refuse to revisit for the first time since childhood, out of fear that adult sentiment will muddle our memory of it?

A decade that felt both historic in that the world has never been more connected by social media and fleeting in that we’ve never been more empowered to move on to the next viral story – or the next thing in our streaming queues – shaped the cinematic product, too. For one, movies have never felt so much like a reckoning with real-world forces that are continuing to mold what the 2020s will look like.

For another, it’s an increasingly rare thing for a film to be universal, in its ability to resonate not (or not only) through legions of audiences, but through time, beyond the moment it carved out for itself on a release schedule. These 25 films – the best of the 2010s – remain moviemaking triumphs as the curtain begins to close on this decade, and may very well endure as such into the next as well.  As a certain purple Mad Titan would say: They are inevitable. Continue reading →

‘Uncut Gems’ Review: Adam Sandler has never been wilder than in the Safdie Brothers’ new anxiety attack of a movie

This review was first published on KENS5.com, and can be viewed here. 

 

Adam Sandler is such a morally unkempt, familiarly uncouth and determinedly unkillable livewire of shameless intention in the adrenaline rush of “Uncut Gems” that watching him in Josh and Benny Safdie’s new film doesn’t involve seeing an actor strut about and say their lines so much as observing a star on the verge of bursting into supernova.

And as Sandler’s pernicious Jewish jeweler Howard Ratner goes, so do the Safdies and their movie. “Uncut Gems” – a grand showcase of acting, and also of the Safdies’ cosmic filmmaking sensibilities – swells when Howard swells, spirals when he spirals and takes a breath when he takes a breath (which, if I recall, is practically never). As with Robert Pattinson in the Safdies’ 2017 breakout “Good Time,” Sandler’s performance and the movie itself are impossible to separate and scrutinize on separate terms. A scant few other films in 2019 have had a similar kind of deeply-anchored performance—among them Elisabeth Moss in “Her Smell,” Lupita Nyong’o in “Us” and Jessie Buckley in “Wild Rose.”

It may very well be a career-defining performance for Sandman, but it’s worth parsing out what exactly that means for someone whose filmography is enshrined in memes and reaction gifs, and not necessarily conversations of the prestige. Continue reading →

‘Marriage Story’ Review: A complex portrait of love at the end, and one of the year’s best movies

This review was first published on KENS5.com, and can be viewed here. 

 

“Marriage Story,” Netflix’s newest offering that finds the life-traipsing of writer-director Noah Baumbach at his most soulfully devastating, begins with a pair of monologues from the couple at its center played over scenes from a marriage. You may remember snippets from the trailers – she loves that he’s brilliant, he loves that she’s brave – but some details are missing. Who are these things being said to? Who are they being said for?

The questions are answered early. And, well…it’s complicated. But if you think those mirroring floods of compliments are Charlie and Nicole at their most honest, prepare to be emotionally walloped by “Marriage Story”—one of the very, very best movies of the year.

It isn’t a spoiler to say “Marriage Story” ends with divorce, but this is largely, and marvelously, unlike most divorce movies you’ve seen. It’s certainly not like Baumbach’s own “The Squid and the Whale,” a thornbush of a film in which every other caustic remark rocketed between members of the Berkman family is intended to do maximum damage. In the story of Adam Driver’s Charlie and Scarlett Johansson’s Nicole, whose mutual vow to keep an initial, seemingly amicable separation free from the tentacles of lawyers is doomed from the start, Baumbach trades in causticity for the infantile inexperience of two people navigating new waters of love and life as they become uneasy participants in contemporary structures meant to pit them against each other. It’s a key choice by Baumbach that Charlie and Nicole aren’t out to make enemies of themselves, and it’s not just for the sake of their son. The auteur is exploring something more heart-wrenching and universal: If we give ourselves completely over to another, what could possibly be left of us when they’re no longer by our side? Continue reading →

‘Waves’ Review: A24’s new family drama will shatter you, and help put you back together

This review was first published on KEN5.com, and can be viewed here. 

 

Trey Edward Shults is allegedly the director of the new A24 drama “Waves,” yet it’s impossible to imagine anyone “directing” this intensely naturalistic movie – the year’s most unbearably honest – in which storytelling agendas takes a backseat to the mysterious, often-dizzying pulse of life itself.

For those who go to the movies seeking temporary escapes from reality, “Waves” will perplex: There’s no place for traditional structure or plotting in its observations of an ostensibly ordinary black American family. Consequences and implications stretch far, far beyond its 135 minutes. And the most easily-discernible decision by Shults in guiding the movie’s events – the thing I found myself responding to with shifting loyalty before giving in during the film’s sublime final half-hour – is a complete submission to the idea that the movie’s events should actually guide him. That experimental nature, at first, feels like it limits “Waves.” Then it becomes the air under its magical wings, lifting it into something wondrous in its universality—and into the upper echelons of 2019’s most memorable movie-going experiences.

“Waves” anchors its start on high school teen Tyler Williams (a stunning, go-for-broke Kelvin Harrison Jr.), though nothing about our meeting him is anchored, really. We’re lurched into the frenetic pace of life as a 17 or 18-year-old in the social media age, cinematographer Drew Daniels matching the seductive thrum-thrum-thrumming of Tame Impala with a camera that spins through cars and classrooms and adolescent impulse with such boundless energy that you may not want to eat lunch 30 minutes beforehand. Whirlwind images of wrestling practice, meeting his girlfriend’s eyes, scream-singing in a car on the highway with eyes everywhere but the road—we’re not just watching Tyler experience life. “Waves” insists we experience it with him, by forcing a bottle of cinematic Adderall down our throats. Continue reading →

‘Dark Waters’ Review: Mark Ruffalo does battle with systemic corruption in grim, slow-burn drama

This review was first published on KENS5.com, and can be viewed here. 

 

“Dark Waters” spends its two-hour runtime desperately searching for something to be hopeful for. Many scenes early in Todd Haynes’s enraging, dispiriting corporate-greed-run-amok truth-teller of a story have the feel of an ecological horror – the teeth of an American heartland town’s denizens are blackened, a cow inexplicably turns on its owner, a chemical plant lingers like a beast of steel and steam – in which hope extends as far as putting up a fight for as long as you can.

Robert Bilott (Mark Ruffalo) knows all about refusing to put down the sword. As the events of “Dark Waters” depict with slow-burn intensity – and as the details of the Nathanial Rich-penned New York Times article on which the screenplay is based show – a substantial part of the lawyer’s career was devoted to holding the American company of DuPont to account, after discovering it had for years knowingly contaminated water resources. Lives were endangered for the sake of that common American drug: Profit.

It’s one of the movie’s many ironies that Robert, up to the start of his crusade (1998, sparking an in-movie chronology that stretches unbearably close to present-day), started his career defending chemical companies like DuPont, which is presented as less a company and more a harbinger of American essence—and excess. It isn’t a stretch to say that his life – professional and personal – is turned around after a farmer with loose familial connections seeks him out with concerns that something is wrong on his property. Continue reading →

‘Frankie’ Review: Patient observations of love and life swirl together in Ira Sachs’s latest

This review was first published on KENS5.com, and can be viewed here. 

 

“Loved? I don’t know. He liked me, and he was rich.”

The line, uttered early in Ira Sachs’s small, contemplative new movie “Frankie,” is a verbal shrug from Isabelle Huppert’s titular actress, and it encapsulates the mood the Memphis-born filmmaker is going for. His latest is stuffed with similar fleeting, retroactive observances of  love and life, tinging the movie with an airy melancholy. Everything about “Frankie” is unassuming and humble; none of it is to be taken for granted.

The movie’s backdrop: an idyllic Portuguese town, the kind where history feels preserved in the amber of its picturesque landscapes. But just as important as the setting of Sachs’s script – which he co-wrote with frequent collaborator Mauricio Zacharias – is his extended ensemble filling it, a who’s-who varied in age, experience, race, sex. Huppert, Brendan Gleeson and Marisa Tomei are here. So are Greg Kinnear, Jérémie Renier, Sennia Nanua. Ariyon Bakare, Vinette Robinson and Pascal Greggory fill out the guest list. The reason they’re all here, the thing connecting their visit, slowly reveals itself with time, as do the occasional details of where they’re at in their lives; some of them are related; some work in the movie business; some have been thinking about their futures; others are in limbo. There are discussion of beginnings and beginnings of endings, as well as low-key tensions that barely threaten to even nudge Sachs’s light tone. The common thread is Huppert’s Frankie, an actress in the late stages of her career who prefers to live unassumingly, but who also doesn’t turn down the chance to attend a party when recognized by a fan. Continue reading →

‘The King’ review: Chalamet gets grimy as King Henry V in new Netflix drama

This review was first published on KENS5.com, and can be viewed here. 

 

Following the tempo of the brooding masculine personalities at its center, David Michôd’s “The King” is 140 minutes of purposeful mundanity; a movie about the façade of rightful rule, rooted both in Shakespearean works and in history, with a cinematic pulse that rarely quickens to the level we’d expect of sword-and-chainmail epics. Betrayals, battles, duels, triumphs, death—Michôd’s movie takes on all of it, but with an attitude so straight-faced that you could mistake it for a lack of interest.

As sure as I am that I’ll forget about “The King” by next week, I don’t think Michôd is uninterested in the story of King Henry V’s rise so much as his desire to subvert genre norms – the stuff of rousing speeches and emotional crescendos topped with brutal acts of violence – overwhelms anything that is particularly memorable about his new Netflix movie. There’s a reason Mel Gibson’s guttural “FREEEDOMMMMM” scream has endured; for better or worse, Michôd doesn’t intend to have any part in creating that same thrill of high-stakes drama, where the results become the stuff of myth, within the movie and without.

His movie – which he wrote in collaboration with Joel Edgerton, who also has a role in the film – is instead trying to be more poignant in nature, if poignancy could be equated with grimy battlefields and the occasional beheading. Continue reading →

‘Jojo Rabbit’ Review: Taika Waititi’s anti-hate crusade is a surprisingly introspective one

This review was first published on KENS5.com, and can be viewed here. 

 

In a recent episode of NPR’s “Fresh Air,” a former member of the Westboro Baptist Church – infamous for putting its hateful ideology on shameless display at the funerals of U.S. servicemembers – discusses liberating herself from the beliefs that had indoctrinated her into an isolated worldview of faux moral righteousness.

The way Megan Phelps-Roper puts it, emerging from the dangerous cocoon of the church was a “devastating” exercise in isolation in and of itself—isolation from everything she had known and from the family that had taught her. The cognitive dissonance was world-shattering, and what followed was the start of a lifelong journey to piece together a new perspective.

“How could we have possibly believed that we alone had had the one true answer, and to believe that everyone else was wrong?” she says. “There was just this special kind of shame and humiliation, and this reminder to me of the need for humility and how we see the world and other people.”

Taikia Waititi’s “Jojo Rabbit” knows all about the discomforts of changing your entire worldview. Large stretches of it are spent dwelling on the the solitude of being stranded in a moral No Man’s Land, though you’d be forgiven early on for thinking the director of “Hunt for the Wilderpeople,” “What We Do in the Shadows” and “Thor: Ragnarok” has no intention of broadening himself beyond the sanitized sentimentality of Hallmark Channel Christmas movies. The Kiwi auteur is a sucker for pathos here, and it’s best exemplified by the transformation of Roman Griffin Davis’s adorable Jojo, who has exactly the kind of face Pixar storytellers will search for when they begin making live-action movies. Continue reading →