Movie Review ~ Chaos Walking

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: Two unlikely companions embark on a perilous adventure through the badlands of an unexplored planet as they try to escape a dangerous and disorienting reality, where all inner thoughts are seen and heard by everyone.

Stars: Daisy Ridley, Tom Holland, Mads Mikkelsen, Demián Bichir, Cynthia Erivo, Nick Jonas, David Oyelowo, Kurt Sutter, Ray McKinnon

Director: Doug Liman

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 108 minutes

TMMM Score: (4.5/10)

Review:  I don’t know, folks, there may be some trouble keeping Tom Holland on the A-List if these past few weeks at the movies have been any indication.  It’s no wonder the hype machine on the third Spider-Man movie (titled Spider-Man: No Way Home, due later this year) surprisingly kicked into high gear right around the time the blistering review for Holland’s Apple TV+ film Cherry started popping up.  Just two weeks later, Holland has a new project coming out and another reason for his team to be sweating.  I can only imagine what bit of Spider-Man news will come out this weekend to direct attention away from the news that Chaos Walking is another dud from Holland, though this time it’s not entirely his fault.

This long in the works adaptation of the first book in a trilogy of YA novels by Patrick Ness published in 2008, it’s not shocking in the least why Chaos Walking struggled to get off the ground over the years.  Arriving on the scene in the midst of a number of other popular series for teens being adapted into movies with more of an adult slant, a fair share of high-profile writers tried their hand at the script before it finally wound up back with Ness who gave it a final polish.  At one point, Oscar-winning director Robert Zemeckis was circling the project and while that might have been an interesting route to take, I actually think the director Lionsgate wound up with, Doug Liman, is a solid choice.  Responsible for admirable work like The Bourne Identity and Edge of Tomorrow, Liman is no stranger to complex narrative or impressive visuals so he wouldn’t have struggled with bringing to life a world that has unique characteristics while not getting too deep in the fantasy of it all.

Two hundred years in the future on another planet called, of course, New World, is the small settlement of Prentisstown, named after the malevolent mayor (Mads Mikkelsen, Casino Royale) who presides over the entirely male population.  All of the females of the group were killed by the Spackle, native inhabitants to the planet that descended on the group one day not long after the settlers arrived on the planet, around the same time both genders discovered the planet gave them the ability to hear and sometimes even see the thoughts of other men.  The women’s thoughts, however, were hidden. These thoughts on display came to be called “Noise”.  While the book has the luxury of explaining this phenomenon in detail, the movie skirts the subject fairly quickly so we’re left with a “that’s that, move on” sort of attitude, not that we can ever hear the “Noise” that clearly thanks to the sound design being so muffled throughout.

Too young at the time of her death, Todd Hewitt (Holland, The Impossible) never knew his mother but is aware she trusted Ben (Demián Bichir, The Hateful Eight) and Cillian (Kurt Sutter, writer of Southpaw & creator of Sons of Anarchy) to care for him as his adoptive parents after she was taken.  So he spends his days trying to suppress his Noise while helping on Ben and Cillian’s humble farm.  He’s returning from the field one day when he sees something he’s never encountered before but only heard about…a girl.  Crash landing on the planet as part of the Second Wave, Viola (Daisy Ridley, Murder on the Orient Express) is the only survivor from her crew and needs Todd’s help to find a communication device to contact her ship so they know she made it and won’t abandon their mission.  However, Viola’s arrival uncovers a deadly secret from the history of Prentisstown that a number of people, including the town’s holy man (David Oyelowo, The Midnight Sky) would just as soon stay buried.  Pursued by those he formerly trusted, Todd and his dog Manchee accompany Viola to the far ends of New World where they’ll discover more truths about Noise, New World, and each other.

To his credit, Ness has laid a groundwork for a series that has potential.  So why is Chaos Walking so decidedly unexciting in its action and unmoving at its core?  Much of that comes down to what I think are simple logistics; nothing in the movie ever works in harmony so you have, essentially, chaos throughout.  The acting doesn’t seem to gel with the script, finding some of the cast exceling by tuning in their performances and taking the material for what it is and nothing more (like Ridley who got good at that working on the Star Wars films) while others take it too far in the other direction, working so hard to uncover what’s not there that they wind up totally blank themselves (sorry, Mr. Holland).  The simplistic, truncated script doesn’t seem to work with the style of movie Liman wants to make, either.  Liman’s action sequences are the best parts of the movie without question but they’re few and far between and never turn the dial up far enough so that you feel like any stakes are raised.

Chaos Walking also has a very bad habit of letting the focus fall on the wrong people for too long and forgetting (sometimes entirely) about characters that were introduced as important.  I won’t say who, but there’s one character played by an Oscar-nominated performer who never gets a final scene, so we have no idea what happened to them.  The last time we saw them, they may have been in danger but Liman and Ness never make it clear which way the teeter was tottering. It’s unfair to leave people hanging like that.  Also, the movie commits a cardinal sin that you simply do not do if you want a compassionate audience to remain even the slightest bit on your side.  Again, I don’t give out spoilers but if you’re paying attention to who goes with Viola on her journey you might be able to guess what said sin is.  And it’s not pretty.  It’s a cheap movie device that screenwriters should find a way out of using because it’s expected and, when it happens, only serves to show the inherent weakness in creative thought for how to motivate your hero/heroine.

Before I forget, we have to circle back to Ridley and Holland again.  Though Ridley manages to come out slightly unscathed here, there’s still a bit of a wonder why she’s back in this neo-sci-fi work so close to the end of her tenure in Star Wars.  If I were her agent, I’d be steering her away from these types of roles in favor of work that is completely different, so she isn’t pigeonholed.  Ridley is a solid actress but there isn’t much for her to work with, but at least she’s able to fashion it into something not totally goofy.  The same can’t be said for Holland who is reduced to muttering most of his lines (turn the subtitles on, you’ll thank me), many of which are descriptions rather than actual sentences, so he comes off like he’s just verbally pointing out things. “Yellow Hair” “Girl” “Pretty” “Bug” “Girl” “Pretty”.  Could another actor have fixed this?  Maybe not, but Holland seems more confused with what to do than anything… all the way up to flashing his bare bottom while fishing for his dinner.  The scene feels there to wake up anyone that might have been about to doze off.

Though this is based on the first book in a trilogy I’d be amazed if Chaos Walking performs well enough to warrant a sequel and it seems as if the filmmakers knew that too.  Thankfully, while the door is clearly open for a continuation, the ending can be interpreted in a number of different ways depending on how you’re approaching the film.  As a fan of the novels, I’m sure you’ll see the possibilities of what’s to come.  If you are new to the series and were entertained, could be that now you are invested and are crossing your fingers they can get Ridley and Holland back together again to finish the story.  However, my camp is the one that gets to the end and is ready to walk on past any more installments.  It doesn’t walk, nor run, nor jump, nor fly…Chaos Walking merely limps along, disappointingly so.

Movie Review ~ Ford v Ferrari


The Facts
:

Synopsis: American car designer Carroll Shelby and driver Ken Miles battle corporate interference, the laws of physics and their own personal demons to build a revolutionary race car for Ford and challenge Ferrari at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1966.

Stars: Christian Bale, Matt Damon, Caitriona Balfe, Jon Bernthal, Tracy Letts, Ray McKinnon, Josh Lucas, Noah Jupe

Director: James Mangold

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 152 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review:  With authors, historians, and filmmakers having greater access than ever before to archival materials for events throughout history, it isn’t long before we’ll have an easy way to bring up a certain important milestone that occurred and research it’s significance.  In the meantime, we have to rely on those who seek to preserve these cultural touchstones and explore the work they do to bring that information to the general public.  Maybe it’s an art exhibition of a painter that died before their time and was never known for their technique in their lifetime.  Perhaps it’s a long-lost book of essays from a famous writer that was found in a safety deposit box of their former lover.  Or it could be something as simple as a movie documenting the rivalry between two car companies seeking to win a world famous race and pushing each other to build better vehicles in the process.

That’s how I choose to look at Ford v Ferrari, the dandy new racing drama zooming into theaters this weekend.  Sure, it looks like that late in the year release that feels like a perfect film for your dad to enjoy while you’re shopping for the holidays at the mall but it’s far more than a mere ‘Dad Film’ and you should consider riding shotgun for this one as well.  If you do, you’re going to find a film gassed up and ready to go from the start, with A-list talent in the driver’s seat and a fine supporting cast of venerable characters actors admirably doing stellar work in the pit crew.  Though I know over the years I’ve come across a number of them, the last racing movie I can remember seeing (and liking) in a theater was a whopping 28 years ago with the (still great!) Days of Thunder – so it was high time to get back behind the wheel and try out this model that had some history to go along with it.

As a barely casual Formula 1 viewer, the only races I had any familiarity with were the Daytona 500 and the Indy 500 so learning about the 24 Hours of Le Mans that plays such a major role in this movie was a real eye opening experience.  According to Wikipedia, it is “the world’s oldest active sports car race in endurance racing, held annually since 1923 near the town of Le Mans, France. It is considered one of the most prestigious automobile races in the world and has been called the “Grand Prix of Endurance and Efficiency.”  I had always thought cars went around the track for a while and eventually whoever had the best time after a certain amount of laps won.  It totally blew by me that there was a strategy and skill involved in endurance racing, especially when you consider the length of time of Le Mans and how specifically the car has to be made to survive those conditions.

By 1963, the Ford Motor Company was in trouble.  Business wasn’t great and their production line wasn’t appealing to a younger culture that were becoming more enamored with the European cars they were seeing in films.  These foreign cars, driven by the likes of James Bond, were sleek and sexy, not boxy and chaste like the types Ford was churning out.  Inspired by his Vice President Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal, The Accountant), Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts, Lady Bird) makes an offer to buy the cash-strapped Ferrari who had steadily been losing business after investing so much money into their countless efforts to win Le Mans.  Hoping to claim a Le Mans victory for his company, Ford II or “The Deuce” as he was called behind his back, thought that by buying Ferrari he was guaranteeing himself a win.  When Ferrari balked, The Deuce made it his mission to destroy Ferrari by gathering a team of his own and winning Le Mans as a way to get a kind of revenge against Ferrari.

At the time, the best man to go to about cars was designer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon, The Martian) who had previously driven a car to a Le Mans victory in 1959.  The brusque Texan knew the right people to gather together to get the job done but also knew the corporate red tape that would ultimately get in the way – yet he soldiered on, eventually bringing in unpredictable British driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale, American Hustle) to test the car and steer it to victory.  Miles was known for his brilliant knowledge of cars and his talent behind the wheel, but also for his hotshot attitude and aversion to authority, a problem that comes into play when a ego-centric Ford company man (Josh Lucas, Thinner) gets promoted to oversee the racing team.  Under his penny pinching corporate eye, Shelby and Miles collaborate on a revolutionary automobile though and field test it endlessly to prepare for the legendary race.  The road to Le Mans is filled with potholes, though, and over the next years Shelby and Miles would have their professional relationship and friendship tested on multiple occasions as they navigated a company that wanted to win but with compromise and a leader who valued personal victory over loyalty.

Based on the 2009 book “Go Like Hell: Ford, Ferrari and Their Battle for Speed and Glory at Le Mans” by A.J. Baime was adapted by Jez Butterworth (Edge of Tomorrow), John-Henry Butterworth (Get on Up) and Jason Keller (Mirror, Mirror) into a well-oiled screenplay that, while heavy on car talk, doesn’t leave us non-car people in the dust.  In doing my research I’ve found that by and large Ford v Ferrari sticks fairly close to the events as they happened, taking few liberties with the real people that lived it.  As always, a movie can’t concentrate on every member of the larger team that led to success and I think focusing on Shelby and Miles was a good idea, mostly because the roles are so different yet complement each other so nicely.  Most agree that Shelby and Miles were key figures in Ford’s development of a racing car for the Le Mans race, though it’s well known it was a large team effort that wasn’t just accomplished by grease monkeys and the non-corporate type.

Director James Mangold (Logan) and cinematographer Phedon Papamichael (Nebraska) make the non-racing scenes look absolutely stunning, whether it be a conversation Miles is having with his son (Noah Jupe, Suburbicon, in another winning performance) or when The Deuce is throwing a tantrum in front of his executive staff.  It’s the racing footage that’s truly, incredibly, awesome.  Putting you right into the drivers seat without the shaking camera that often accompanies these views, whether we are looking in, out, or around the car Papamichael makes sure we know where we are and who we are following at all times.  With several races to go through before Le Mans, it allows audiences time to get a rhythm for the racing before the big one that takes up a large part of the last hour of the movie.  Having no knowledge of this event beforehand, I didn’t know the ultimate outcome of the Ford/Ferrari match-up and I’m so glad – it helped make the movie that much more enjoyable to be in some suspense as we near the finish line.

There’s already been a lot of talk about Ford v Ferrari around the performances of Damon and Bale, questioning if one actor should put himself in the running for Best Actor and one for Best Supporting Actor.  If we’re being fair, both are leading actors of the movie but I’d argue that Bale has the larger and more pivotal role…which is of course why many are saying he should campaign as Supporting Actor (??).  Even so, it appears both actors are going for the leading category now and I worry that it will either leave both out of the nominations or allow Damon to get in instead of Bale.  Nothing against Damon because he’s very good in this, I just responded more to what Bale was putting out onto the screen.  I also greatly enjoyed the Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Letts as the obnoxiously pompous son of Henry Ford.  Wait for the scene where Damon’s character takes him on his first ride in a true racing car…it’s worth the price of admission.  As the lone female in the film with any kind of significance (the film’s one true drawback), Caitriona Balfe (Now You See Me) is stuck with the Wife That Is Supportive Above All Else but makes it less saccharine than it could have been.  If only the script had allowed her a few more dimensions, Balfe would surely have been up to the challenge.

Some movies are easy to skip in theaters and wait until they arrive for rent at home.  This is not one of those movies.  I’d advise to see this on the biggest screen possible with the best sound system available.  It can only enhance what is already a thrilling film experience, a history lesson brought to considerable life by a crackerjack team of professionals at the top of their game.  I’ve had this one on my mind quite a lot over the past week and feel as if it’s one I’ll revisit sooner rather than later.  Definitely worth your time to see it in theater.

MIFF Movie Review ~ Mud

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mud

The Facts:

Synopsis: Two teenage boys encounter a fugitive and form a pact to help him evade the bounty hunters on his trail and to reunite him with his true love

Stars: Matthew McConaughey, Tye Sheridan, Jacob Lofland, Sam Shepard, Michael Shannon, Reese Witherspoon, Sarah Paulson, Ray McKinnon, Paul Sparks, Joe Don Baker

Director: Jeff Nichols

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 130 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  Owing a lot to similar coming-of-age tales like Stand By Me, The War, and even Whistle Down the Wind, Mud is director Nichols third film and follow-up to his critically hailed feature of 2011, Take Shelter.  What Nichols has crafted for his latest movie is an involving tale that mixes a few genres into its pot, puts the top on, and then waits for it to boil over.  While it simmers for a while and eventually ends up a satisfying if not quite hearty meal, Mud was a strong showing in the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival.

McConaughey has really been on a roll in the last few years.  After making a strong starring debut with A Time to Kill in 1996, he eventually sidelined into lighter fare that may have made money at the box office but didn’t season his acting chops any.  Then he started becoming involved with more independent features and that’s where he’s struck gold again.  Last year he made memorable appearances in Magic Mike (really the only good thing about the movie), Bernie, and Killer Joe.  Now he’s back in the leading man chair for Mud, playing the titular character…a man on the run that has a way with words.

Two boys find Mud living in a boat placed in a tree by flooding in the bayou and soon become involved with his plan to sweep the girl he loves (Witherspoon in a nicely muted small supporting role) off her feet and away to the gulf waters to avoid the law.  Mud paints a nicely romantic tale of forbidden love to the two boys but as the film develops we learn that everything isn’t as it seems and that some truths haven’t been acknowledged.

The film is told through the eyes of Ellis (Sheridan, in a well-layered performance) who seems to be on the same trajectory as Mud when it comes to falling for the wrong girl.  Barely a teen, he has eyes for an older woman and the pain of first love is handled by Sheridan and Nichols with care.  Paulson and McKinnon are nicely cast as Ellis’ parents, small-town folk adjusting to the reality of moving from their river home.

As you can see, there’s a lot of storyline to juggle and Nichols keeps everything flying for much of the film, only letting things dip when it feels natural.  Nichols once again is working with his Take Shelter star Shannon (Man of Steel) and resists casting him in several roles he may have been right for in favor of wisely utilizing him as the uncle to a friend of Ellis.

Mud is another nice departure for McConaughey – grubbed up with chipped teeth and greasy, tousled hair…he’s a fascinating character study that McConaughey seems to gobble up with aplomb.  As Mud starts to see the forest for the trees, we see the character at a crossroads rather than the actor making choices.  Nichols has given him a nice framework that McConaughey thrives in.

What I appreciated most about the film is the way that Nichols lets things happen in a naturalistic fashion.  It’s peppered with several edge of your seat moments…and not always for the reasons you’d expect.  If in the end the film sacrifices some of its earlier unexpected moments for a finale that feels too pat, it can be forgiven for the earlier noble attempts at something different.