How Was That Movie?

popcorn

Ann Hornaday’s book Talking Pictures: How to Watch Movies might sound like a superfluous entry in a list of how-to-do-it guides. What prep do you need? Sure, you can just relax and let the movie experience wash over you, but Hornaday’s deconstruction of the process makes viewing a richer experience.

Hornaday, a movie reviewer for the Washington Post, has organized the book usefully, too—with chapters on screenplays, acting, production design, cinematography, directing, and various technical aspects. She approaches each review with the following three questions.

What was the artist (the screenwriter, the director, an individual actor) trying to achieve? Entertainment? Enlightenment? Not sure? A fluffy confection of a comedy can be just as satisfying and successful (often more so) than a serious drama. A movie hollow at its core can try to distract you with a glitzy surface and stellar cast. But if you find yourself saying “whaaaat?”, a vague purpose or the cross-purposes of too many off-screen cooks may be at fault.

Did they achieve it? Here’s where it’s fun to see several versions of the same material, if you can. The 1996 and 2020 Emmas (Gwyneth Paltrow and Anya Taylor-Joy) up against Alicia Silverstone’s Clueless. On successive nights, I watched Dangerous Liaisons (1988) and Valmont (1989). Same story, very different movies. Critics liked DL, but I liked both, and Valmont has the added allure of a young Colin Firth. Or the two excellent Truman Capote biopics (Toby Jones vs. Daniel Craig). Even a fresh conception of a familiar classic can succeed spectacularly: Caesar Must Die is a documentary about prisoners in Rome’s infamous Rebibbia prison being cast, rehearsing, and producing Julius Caesar. Astonishing.

Was it worth doing? Now, there’s a question. And, each of us will have different metrics for arriving at the answer. But if you’ve ever walked out of a theater asking yourself “Why?” perhaps it’s because the answer—at least for you—was “no.” The Wolf of Wall Street, 1917, and The Greatest Showman were films that, for me, weren’t worth the ticket price.

Keeping these three questions in the back of your mind may help if you want to go beyond “Loved it!” or “It was crap!” when you get the inevitable, “So, what did you think?”

Movie Picks: 1917, Just Mercy

1917

I was sorry not to like 1917 better, because that conflict is cinematically neglected (trailer). Director Sam Mendes was inspired to make it by his grandfather’s stories of World War I (a rare veteran who would apparently talk about his war experience).

Lance corporals Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay) are given the near-suicidal task of crossing nine miles of hostile territory to reach the commander of some 1600 British troops, Blake’s brother among them. They carry orders for the commander to call off an offensive that is a certain trap. The power of the opening scene, one long take, and the two lads’ perilous trek across no-man’s land dwindles into predictability. There’s an overlong chase scene through a bombed-out town, and an unnecessary encounter with a Frenchwoman and baby (why?). Still, audiences not familiar with The Great War may find it bracing.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 89%; audiences 89%.

Just Mercy

Based on Bryan Stevenson’s book of the same name, Just Mercy, directed by Destin Daniel Cretton, is the story of Stevenson’s early days as a legal advocate for prisoners (trailer). His organization, Montgomery, Alabama’s Equal Justice Initiative, has freed more than a hundred wrongly convicted death row inmates.

In the film, Stevenson (played by Michael B. Jordan) has taken on the case of Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx), convicted to murdering a young white woman on evidence so flawed no court should have accepted it. Jordan and Foxx do a terrific job—Jordan, unwavering; Foxx, afraid to hope.

Stevenson, in real life, and in one scene in the movie, says the issue is not the fate of a single individual, but the system that institutionalizes discrimination and thwarts equal justice. (See his inspiring recent Firing Line interview here.)

Half a century after the Civil Rights movement’s heyday, those battles are not over, and the movie, though bringing out familiar tropes in both black and white characters, is a good reminder. As Danny Leigh says in the Financial Times, “The markers of the story are so familiar (venal law enforcement, leaned-on witnesses, the courtroom), it takes nerve to tell it this simply.”

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 83%; audiences: 99%

Two Tasty Movies

Ramen Shop

Ramen shop, directed by Eric Khoo, is a movie from Singapore with a slight plot (trailer), but who cares? The real star is the food. A young Japanese ramen shop worker’s father—a legendary ramen chef—dies. The son, in his early 20s, and a skilled chef himself, goes in search of his roots in Singapore. That’s where his father met his Chinese mother. He isn’t seeking just family connection, but also culinary roots, as a precious childhood memory is his uncle’s spare rib soup, bak kut teh. You see a lot of this dish being made (I’m using an online recipe to try it myself this week!) The healing power of food and the closeness inspired by cooking together as a family are sweetly invoked. If you don’t eat dinner before going to this film, you may end up chewing the sleeve of your jacket! Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 86%; audiences: 83%.

In Search of Beethoven

The composer’s 250th birthday year is generating numerous celebratory concerts and events, including resurrection of this 2009 documentary, written and directed by Phil Grabsky (trailer). Featuring a great many fine European pianists, string players, and orchestras, to a great extent the film lets the music speak for itself. It makes nice use of street scene photography (Bonn, Vienna), paintings and sculptures of the artist, and charming drawings of city life in the 1800s. The director is a frequent user of extreme closeup, in which you can almost feel the piano keys and violin strings under the musicians’ fingertips, which creates an unusual intimacy with the music. Nice sprinkle of talking heads and thoughtful narration. You come away feeling as if you’ve been to one of the best concerts ever. Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 92%; audiences: 80%.

Movie Jam-Up

popcorn

In Hollywood’s haste to release films under the wire for this year’s Oscars, a number of excellent movies appeared during the holiday season, and I haven’t even seen them all yet. But I would recommend these:

Ford v Ferrari – One of the most exciting films I’ve seen in a long time, and not a single spy in sight, other than the corporate kind (trailer). And the tension held, even though I knew the ending. Yes, some of the corporate doings of Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) and his management team were fictionalized, but not Ford’s 1966 accomplishments on the LeMans race course. Wisely, Ford entrusted creation of his racing vehicles to legendary engineer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), who insisted on using his favorite driver, Ken Miles (Christian Bale). Damon and Bale are perfection. Rotten Tomatoes critics rating 92%; audiences 98%.

Little Women – So much has been said about how writer/director Greta Gerwig draws new insights from this much-produced tale. Her framing of the story of four sisters growing up in the mid-19th century works (trailer), and in sister Jo’s (Saoirse Ronan’s) negotiations with her publisher (Tracy Letts again), the blending of Jo with author Louisa May Alcott is clear. Amy (Florence Pugh) receives a more well-rounded treatment than usual. She has the best lines of the movie, suggested by Meryl Streep, when she matter-of-factly explains to Laurie (Timothée Chalamet) that marriage for a woman is not a question of love, but finances. Rotten Tomatoes critics rating 95%; audiences 92%.

Dark Waters – Tales of crusading lawyers and journalists (think Spotlight, The Post) are especially refreshing in these times, when idealism seems quaintly outmoded. The film is based on the true story of how a determined Cincinnati lawyer (Mark Ruffalo) takes on DuPont for covering up the damaging health effects of Teflon exposure (trailer). He persists, even though the head of his law firm (Tim Robbins), which serves many corporate clients, is reluctant; his wife (Anne Hathaway) thinks he’s unhinged; his kids grow up; and the powerful company works for two decades to shut him down. Rotten Tomatoes critics rating 90%; audiences 95%.

Knives Out – It’s very entertaining to see writer/director Rian Johnson put this great cast—among them, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Toni Collette, and Ana de Armas—through its paces (trailer). Wealthy family patriarch Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), who made a fortune writing mystery stories (this is fiction, remember) is found dead of an apparent suicide. But was it? Not only do his children stand to inherit, but they all have additional motives to kill him. Or do they? Courtly Southern detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) arrives to sort lies from truth. Rotten Tomatoes critics rating 97%; audiences 92%.

Go Like Hell! On Screen

The new movie, Ford v Ferrari, is based on the exciting 2010 book, Go Like Hell: Ford, Ferrari, and Their Battle for Speed and Glory at Le Mans, by AJ Baime. The movie, directed by James Mangold, stars Matt Damon, Christian Bale, and Tracy Letts (trailer). It opened while I was in Egypt and audiences love it! (98% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes). Critics too: 91%.

I’ve listened to the book twice over the years. If the movie is as good as the book, it’s a must-see. It is for me, no matter what. Here’s my review of the book, read by Jones Allen.

Go Like Hell is the story of classic duels of machine and driver in the French countryside.There’s just enough biography of Henry Ford II (the Deuce) and Enzo Ferrari to understand the motivations of these two rivals, willing to stake their fortunes, their companies’ futures, and (all too often) their drivers’ lives on this grueling competition.

The Deuce believed—correctly—that supremacy in the racing circuit would lead to sales of Ford cars. The components that had to be developed to survive the 24-hour race at Le Mans were testaments to product reliability as well as power, and many advances originally developed for racing vehicles—such as independent suspensions, high-performance tires, disc brakes, and push-button starters—have found their way into passenger cars.

For Enzo Ferrari, whose interest in consumer cars was always secondary to racing, the point was being the world’s best and proving it in the world’s most prestigious and dangerous sports car race, Le Mans.

If you’re at all familiar with auto racing’s “golden age,” the big names are all here: Carroll Shelby, AJ Foyt, Dan Gurney, Phil Hill, John Surtees, Ken Miles, Bruce McLaren, and an upstart kid from Nazareth, Pennsylvania, who took the pole position in the Indianapolis 500 the year I saw that race, Mario Andretti. To get an idea of the speeds they achieve, Baime notes that at top speed, they complete the 100-yard distance of a football field in one second.

This was a fast, fun read that shifts between Dearborn, Shelby’s racing car development team working for Ford in Southern California, and Ferrari’s workshop in Maranello, Italy. For a Detroit girl like me, whose grandfather, father, and many uncles worked for the Ford Motor Company, it was a thrill a minute! But even for people who don’t get goosebumps when they hear those Formula One engines roar, Baime’s cinematic recreation of the classic Le Mans races of 1965, 66, and 67, with all their frustrations, excitement, and tragedy is a spectacular true story.

Times have changed, and these past automotive battles have faded. But, hope is on the horizon. According to a 5/22/15 Jordan Golson story in Wired, new rules under consideration “could make Formula One exciting again.” Yea to that!

Watch for These Films!

Unlike the two excellent first-run movies reviewed last week, showing widely now, it may take a little effort to seek these three out. Well worth it, in each case. To help, the hotlinks for two of them include a “where showing” button.

The Lehman Brothers Trilogy

A National Theatre Live broadcast of a London play about a family “that changed the world,” written by Stefano Massini and directed by Sam Mendes, may come to a theater near you. It’s coming to Broadway too, not sure when. Though I wasn’t sure I’d like it, with only three actors—Simon Russell Beale, Adam Godley, and Ben Miles—playing every part, it’s a stunner (trailer). And staged so cleverly. It follows the original three brothers through their earliest days as immigrants in Birmingham, Alabama, through the establishment of a foothold in New York and their dizzying success there, to the company’s inglorious end. Find a showing here.

Van Gogh & Japan

A documentary by David Bickerstaff explores how, now almost 140 years ago, Vincent Van Gogh incorporated in his art themes and ideas from Japanese art (trailer). He learned about it by studying woodblock prints available at the time. His interest took place in a France whose artists were captivated by Japonisme. Excellent commentary. The film’s a beauty, if, at 85 minutes, a bit longer than necessary. Find a showing here.

Shadow

Van Gogh had his Japonisme, I have my love of ancient-China action movies! Zhang Yimou’s 2018 film, is all in “shadowy” yet rich tones of black, gray, and white, heavy rain and fog throughout (trailer). The only color is from candle flames and people’s skin. And, when it comes, the shocking red of blood. A rival clan has occupied the hero’s city. The hero (Deng Chao), stripped of his rank, approaches the rival leader to carry out a pledge for single combat—which he has scant hope of winning. But if he does win, his clan gets its city back. And he has a ragtag army to take on the leader’s well-trained forces using an innovative weapon—umbrellas. Not like yours. Yin-Yang symbolism, excellent score, and romance (Sun Li), too. If you enjoyed Zhang’s previous movies Hero and House of Flying Daggers, you’ll love this one!

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 95%; audiences 82% (Americans don’t like subtitles).

Another Day, Another Film

popcorn

You could call it a “self-curated film festival” or you could just call me lucky to have two top-notch independent movie houses nearby. Whatever you call it, five movies in five days is a lot of popcorn-eating opportunity. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend any of these very different films if they sound like your thing. Two here, three next week.

Official Secrets

Gavin Hood’s film (based on a true story, whatever that means these days) centers on a woman (Keira Knightley) working for British intelligence in the run-up to the Iraq war (trailer) . A memo comes through asking analysts to dig up information the Americans can use to pressure UN Security Council members to support the War. A Security Council endorsement would give the Bush Administration and the Blair government much-needed political cover.

But it’s wrong, and she leaks the memo, in violation of Britain’s strict Official Secrets laws. Matt Smith and Rhys Ifans are helpful and entertaining investigative reporters. She has a Muslim husband (Adam Bakri) a rights lawyer (Ralph Fiennes), and between them, they give fine and timely speeches about loyalty and treason. I was on the edge of my seat. Generally, I don’t like Knightley, but she’s great here.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 82%; audiences 89%.

Judy

Rupert Goold’s film, written by Tom Edge, about Judy Garland’s sad last days doesn’t contain plot surprises (trailer). It’s showstopping strength is Renée Zellweger’s amazing performance. You know Judy’s going to crash and burn, and you so, so, don’t want her to. It’s painful to watch.

She scrapes herself together at times, which gives you hope that she can fulfill her contract with a London theater for five weeks of sold-out performances. They’re bringing in the cash she desperately needs in order to reclaim her two younger children from husband #4, Sidney Luft (Rufus Sewell).

Zellweger doesn’t try to imitate Garland’s voice, but she’s got the mannerisms cold, and the way she belts out the songs, no wonder fans adore her. Flashbacks provide a cold appraisal of Hollywood’s exploitative star system, where her addictions began.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 83%; audiences 86%.

David Crosby: Remember My Name

This A J Eaton documentary (trailer), released so close in time to Echo in the Canyon, covers some of the same ground and personalities, but in a totally different way. Echo is about the musician-heavy Laurel Canyon area in a brief period of the mid-sixties. This film, by contrast, examines one man’s career and his musical and cultural influence over a lifetime, and it shares a fair amount of that music with you.

As to cultural influences, in a poignant coincidence, the film tells how Dennis Hopper modeled the character of Billy in the film Easy Rider on Crosby. It was bittersweet seeing clips from the film so soon after its star Peter Fonda died (a young Jack Nicholson too).

In the documentary, David Crosby says he’s 76 years old, has eight stents in his heart, diabetes, a liver transplant—in short, a load of health problems. “How is it you’re still alive?” he’s asked, when so many others are not. There’s no answer to that, and he doesn’t attempt one.

Yet he’s still making music, still releasing albums as recently as last year. He’s touring. His life is music. It’s too bad he shot himself in the foot so many times with his band mates in the Byrds, and Crosby Stills Nash, with and without Young. His behavior was terrible, but it was in Echo that he said point-blank that Stills, Nash, and Young dumped him “because I was an a——.” Subsequently, acrimony has repeatedly thwarted the group’s attempts to reassemble.

He doesn’t spare himself or make excuses. What emerges from the many hours of interviews with Cameron Crowe, who’s known the musician for 45 years, is compelling viewing. Jon Bream in the Minneapolis Star Tribune says, “Rarely have we seen such an unvarnished, unflattering and revealingly real portrait of a music star.”

Echo was dinged for not including Joni Mitchell (she came later, the filmmakers said), but you see plenty of her here. Crosby saw her perform in Florida and brought her to Los Angeles, but as with most of his relationships with women, theirs was fraught. He blames himself. In 1969, his girlfriend Christine Hinton was killed in an auto accident, and Graham Nash (if I remember correctly) said that after Crosby identified her body, he was never the same. Since 1987, he’s been married to Jan Dance.

Asked whether he has regrets, he admitted to big ones, mainly the wasted decade as a junkie, which led to lost music and lost potential. Time, he says, is the ultimate currency. “Be careful how you spend it.”

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 91%; audiences: 92%.

The Farewell

This lovely new film written and directed by Lulu Wang starts with that staple of family dramas, assembling the clan (trailer). In this case, a woman’s sons and their wives and children are returning to Changchun, China, from Japan and America on the pretext of a family wedding, but in reality because the family matriarch, Nai Nai, is dying. Though widely dispersed, they are united in a conspiracy to keep that truth from her as long as possible.

All except Billi (Awkwafina). She immigrated to America with her parents at age four and has adopted this country’s attitudes toward personal autonomy. This secret is too big, too consequential, too awful to keep. So, when her young poleaxed-looking cousin moves up his wedding to a Japanese woman as a ploy to get the family together, Billi is discouraged from attending. She doesn’t have the poker face necessary to maintain the deception. She goes anyway.

And what do families do when they get together? They eat! Over a series of meals, including the eerily familiar wedding reception, the food serves as a distraction when discussions become too intense and personal. Grandma Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen) is lively and charming, and the mutual love between her and a devastated Billi is beautifully portrayed. They tell her she isn’t sick, and that’s the attitude she adopts. And, really, she manages the family and the wedding minutiae with energy. The family keeps trying to take on various tasks, but she’ll have none of it.

I especially liked the portrayal of Billi’s parents, her stunned father (Tzi Ma) and chilly, no-nonsense mother (Diana Lin), as well as the poor Japanese bride (Aoi Mizuhara), gamely participating in everything without understanding a word.

The movie delves deeply into cultural differences and, by exploring them in such vivid detail, establishes bona fide universals. Given the subject matter, you would not expect this film to have a nice dose of comedy, but it does. Families closely examined almost always do, in the midst of whatever chaos surrounds them—painful wedding toasts eliciting surefire groans.

Christy Lemire for RogerEbert.com, nails it when she says Wang has “made a film about death that’s light on its feet and never mawkish. She’s told a story about cultural clashes without ever leaning on wacky stereotypes or lazy clichés.” See it!, then go out for Chinese food. You will be in the mood.Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating 99%; audiences 88%.

Echo in the Canyon

In the brief musical moment of 1964-1967, Laurel Canyon in the Hollywood Hills was the place to be. It was home to an astonishing number of California-based rockers, the vanguard of rock music’s California sound. And it was the pilgrimage destination of choice for British bands like, oh, The Beatles. Across an ocean and a continent, the two nation’s young musicians inspired each other. Meaningful lyrics, tight harmony, the 12-string . . .

Andrew Slater’s documentary about this era is a mishmash of different parts (trailer). Yet it manages to provide enough music and tickle enough memories to create a pleasing whole. It has  a modern-day concert recreating some of the music and coffee-table discussions about the concert; historic documentary footage of performances, television appearances, and in-studio recording sessions; current-day interviews with a good number of aging principals; and unexplained snippets of a 1969 French movie set in Laurel Canyon, Model Shop, mysteriously appear. As to the last, give Slater credit for an inventive, if baffling, bit of cinematic free association.

Handsome, low-key Jakob Dylan is the film’s interviewer and concert performer (along with Cat Power, Fiona Apple, and Beck). What’s so refreshing about Dylan is that when he asks one of the aging rock stars a question, he shuts up and listens to the answer. His singing voice isn’t great, but it’s plenty good enough, and with the concert’s songs featuring younger performers and today’s musical styles, it brings the music to a new generation.

The best parts of the film are the interviews and 1960s (mostly black and white) video clips of the original folk-rock stars in action—jamming at home, in the studio, on stage, and on television. The Byrds, the Mamas and the Papas, Buffalo Springfield, the Beach Boys. OMG, the hair, the clothes, the polyester. But The Sounds are what blow you away again.

Wonderful interviews about the experience of living in and visiting Laurel Canyon with many stars, including: Stephen Stills, Graham Nash, Michelle Philips, Roger McGuinn, Brian Wilson, Tom Petty (in his last film interview, pictured with Dylan, above), Eric Clapton, and Ringo Starr. David Crosby explained that people are wrong when they say creative difference caused him to be booted from the Byrds. “I was kicked out because I was an a——” (an insight borne out by the preview for a new documentary about Crosby, shown prior to Echo).

This joins the group of excellent rockumentaries like The Wrecking Crew, Twenty Feet from Stardom, and Standing in the Shadows of Motown.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ ratings: 93%; audiences, 91%.