On the surface of things, this is the story of a rivalry between two car manufacturers, Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) and Enzo Ferrari (Remo Girone). It’s a battle between two captains of industry, fought out on the circuit of the toughest endurance race in the world held over 24 hours at Le Mans in France. The rivalry begins when Ford’s offer to buy Ferrari, dreamt up by Vice President Lee Iacocca (Jon Berthal) is scuppered by a counter deal Ferrari makes with Fiat. In response to the insult, Ford vows to build a car to take away Ferrari’s Le Mans crown.
Dig a little deeper, though, and it’s a story of a firm but sometimes fraught friendship between former La Mans champion Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) and hot-headed driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale). It’s a finely written and masterfully executed relationship built on a combination of exasperation with each other tempered by respect and a belief in their abilities to build and drive a car that can do things everybody else thinks to be impossible.
Dig deeper still and this is really a story about Miles and his obsession with exploring the limits of what a man and machine in harmony can achieve. It is also his search for himself; to discover who the man behind the wheel really is – not just the driver, but the husband, the father and the son. Bale is outstanding as Miles. It’s a pitch-perfect performance that is inspiring and heart breaking in equal measure, but it’s also a performance that is elevated by the talent surrounding him. As his wife, Mollie, Catriona Balfe finds a rare place between her fears and frustrations and her belief that her husband must pursue this dream at all costs. More commonly in sporting films about the male obsession and drive to excel, it is the marriage that falls foul as collateral damage. Not so, here. They’re a team, and when Miles decides to give it all away and get a real job for the sake of his family, it’s Mollie who convinces him that he must persist. And it’s not just the marriage that gives him strength, it’s the family with a sweet performance by Noah Jupe as Peter, their son, who idolises his father but not to the exclusion of his mother. It’s a neat balancing act pulled off with humour and heart.
And then of course, there’s Damon who’s in fine form as the champion forced to retire by a heart condition who discovers a talent for designing race cars that comes from his instinct as a driver rather than from a commercial imperative. He walks a precarious line between the corporate world as embodied by both Ford and his Senior Vice President Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas) and the world of his colleagues and friends including not just Miles, but second-in-command Phil Remington (a tender performance by Ray McKinnon). If there’s a false note in this film, it’s in Lucas’ performance as the arrogant and self-serving Beebe who continually rides roughshod over Shelby’s advice for his own and self-aggrandisement. It’s a less subtle performance than the rest of the cast, played with more villainy than is necessary to make the point. Letts, on the other hand, is terrific as the ‘old man’ who harkens back to the days of his grandfather Henry and is driven more by desire to get back at Ferrari than he is by a love for innovation. But he’s not without heart and the scene where Shelby takes him in their proto-type race car and changes his mind about things is, for me at least, one of the most memorable of the year.
So, what holds all this together and draws such exceptional performances in the telling of this story. Well, for a start the screenplay by Jez and John-Henry Butterworth and Jason Keller is a cracker. Yes, they have a pretty exciting and dynamic real-life story to work from, but this is no museum piece or faux-doco-biopic. It’s well paced and underscored by deftly realised emotions that underpin every bit of action in the story. Then there’s the casting by Ronna Kress that pulls together an ensemble of great actors to bring that screenplay to life. But, of course, at the centre of all these elements is director James Mangold who does here for the car racing movie what he did for the superhero movie with Logan (2017); elevates the film above the surface of the story and the conventions of the genre into something that is more deeply embedded in the nature of human relationships, especially those under extraordinary pressure. That doesn’t mean that he ignores the nuts and bolts of the action on the racetrack. The driving sequences are edge-of-the-seat, heart pounding exhilaration shot like an action thriller car chase and made as real as possible by Bale’s ability to make us believe that it’s really him behind the wheel. Maybe the film goes a couple of scenes too long? There’s a lovely moment near the end with Shelby and Miles walking off together down the Le Mans racetrack like Humphrey Bogart and Claude Rains beginning their beautiful friendship at the end of Casablanca (1942). But this film is based on a true story and there’s more to tell after that touching moment, even if it means that poignant moment together becomes a false ending. Nevertheless, for me, Ford v Ferrari is still one of the best films of the year and places James Mangold and Christian Bale as the ones to watch for whatever they do next. Who knows, it may even change my mind about car racing movies.
Alicia Vikander stars as Lucy, a Swedish-born translator who’s used her years in Japan to escape reminders of her troubled past. The film’s events are largely shown via flashbacks (more on that below), which adhere to a roughly chronological order but also quickly settle into well-worn story beats. First, Lucy meets and develops a relationship with Teiji (Naoki Kobayashi), a talented photographer with an enigmatic reluctance to share the work he obsesses over.
Shortly afterwards, Lucy’s boss introduces her to Lily (Riley Keough), a recent expat struggling to settle in much like Lucy had once. Although the two women appear to have little in common, they begin spending more time together; Lily even becomes first of Lucy’s friends to meet Teiji. Before these extended flashback sequences start, I should add that we’re told Lily is missing and possibly dead in EARTHQUAKE BIRD’s opening minutes. In fact, Lucy is telling this story to detectives as part of an interrogation. I guarantee some readers will be able to guess the rest of the plot from here.
Although Vikander’s incredible turn in Ex Machina proved she doesn’t need much dialogue to shine, I found her role here underwritten. Lucy is too often relegated to jealous glares or thousand-yard stares, particularly once Westmoreland leans into the love triangle trope. In the brief scenes where her character begins to elaborate on the tragedy and abuse of her upbringing, Vikander is utterly devastating. Yet these moments occur past the film’s halfway point, resulting in an uphill battle to regain viewers’ attention. I will say though, Japanese is difficult to pick up as an additional language and Vikander did consistently impress me with her ostensible fluency even during lengthy monologues.
Kobayashi and Keough are also given very little to work with (the former is basically just a dick in most of his scenes), but I did at least think Lily’s thin characterisation works in the context of the film. After all, Lucy is reluctant to pursue a friendship and later sees Lily as a threat to her relationship. We’re clearly being shown a biased depiction, which Keough subtly affirms during moments of compassion like tending to Lucy’s injuries on a hike. Keough’s performance is my favourite of the core trio, primarily because she managed to create some actual subtext.
EARTHQUAKE BIRD is simultaneously one of those films where the setting itself is a character, with its reverence for Japanese culture flowing through every frame. Westmoreland sets most of the Tokyo scenes in traditional households and crowded restaurants, far away from the sprawling metropolis at the centre of Western portrayals of the city. This version of Japan feels lived-in, once again perfectly matching Lucy’s experience. Similarly, the leads’ trip to Sado Island is beautifully filmed on location; cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung becomes the MVP for these scenes, especially when Lucy storms off alone at sunset into a festival. Between the energy of the crowd and dimming natural light, it’s a stunning portrayal of her disorientation.
Nevertheless, I wish the same care had been shown in the rest of the adaptation process. I don’t detest every film which prominently uses flashbacks, but establishing the wrap-around premise only to abandon it for over an hour makes me wonder why it wasn’t structured differently. While it’s isn’t bad per se, it’s jarring to suddenly cut back to Lucy being interrogated. Speaking of Lucy, as the novel’s original narrator she suffers the most from Westmoreland’s rushed and lazy characterisations. This is highlighted by just how good EARTHQUAKE BIRD’s final scene is: without spoiling too much, Lucy and a friend discuss individual’s reactions to trauma and grief. Not only is it emotional, it’s genuinely insightful and thus maddening that I had to sit through the previous 90 minutes to see it. Consequently, my lasting impression of EARTHQUAKE BIRD has simply been to wonder what could’ve been.
Cole’s desire to do something to address the issue of bullying in schools and beyond is genuine and heartfelt and he has no shame in almost stalking a whole bunch of celebrities who might be able to help him on his journey (the gallery of selfies with these famous faces on his website is pretty extensive). In one case, he enlists the help of a photographer friend to pretend to be the paparazzi lying in wait for him outside an exclusive nightclub to try and give him enough celeb cred to get past security. In many cases, his genuine desire to do good seems to pay off. He convinces actor and musician Jeff Goldblum to play piano on the track and that seems to pave the way for an impressive line-up of other singers and musos to come on board; Julian Lennon, Slash (Guns N’ Roses), Steve Vai (Frank Zappa Band), Chad Smith (Red Hot Chilli Peppers), Robbie Krieger (The Doors), Lemmy Kilmister (Motorhead), Billy Morrison (Billy Idol), Dave Stewart (The Eurythmics), singers Chantal Kreviazuk, Jim Cuddy, Sam Roberts and more. And while all this is going on in LA and New York, Cole is also spending time in England, trying to track down the illusive teenage bully Paul Blades so that he might confront him after all these years.
Splitting the focus between these two storylines works as much against the film as it does for it. With the bullying theme being the only connector, we often seem to switch to the Paul Blade story just as the recording story gets interesting and vice versa. The distraction of these narrative shifts doesn’t successfully find a way to let one serve the other and the diluted focus is exacerbated as the doco tries to extend its enquiry into much larger issues such as #Me Too, the Columbine Shootings, the incident of Lenore Skenazy (the so-called worst mother in the world who famously left her nine-year-old son alone on the subway to find his own way home) and even the Rwanda genocide, looking to makes links between these issues and the bullying issue at the heart of the doco. Rather than deepening the material, it ends up feeling like padding to a subject that doesn’t really have enough to sustain the 71 minute running time and ends up simply drawing us away from the main game.
Where the doco is at its most interesting is when Cole widens his search for musos and singers to include interviews with other celebrities on their own experiences of bullying. For the most part they’re the kinds of stories we’ve heard before, but there’s a genuine fascination when actors Sir Patrick Stewart and Michael Biehn shamefully admit to having been bullies themselves. There’s also a perverse fascination as Charlie Sheen describes the social media revenge he took on someone who bullied his daughter. Sadly, though, these moments are all too brief and the film spends much more time with school psychologist Israel ‘Izzy’ Kalman who’s using martial arts to teach kids to stand up to bullies, and whose interviews with Cole stray into what becomes a kind of public therapy session. And this is where the film is at its weakest. The English playwright Arnold Wesker once said that “...all art provides a degree of therapeutic benefit for the artist... (but) the trap is to not be seduced into thinking that what engaged us in reality is automatically engaging on the stage...” The same applies to the screen and for some of #No Joke it is more like we are witnesses rather than audience for this public record of Cole’s very personal journey.
As such, the film is stronger in its concept than in its realisation. It may well have been a more compelling 30 minute episode than a feature documentary but, this aside, those elements that do work are well worth our time, and the individual achievement of one man with a mission is to be applauded.
I side with many people when saying that Kubrick's film is a masterpiece. It is a horror unlike any other and it created one of the most haunting and overwhelming cinemascapes of all time. And yet King's destain for Kubrick's creative licence is understandable. The heart of his story was ripped out and oblivious moviegoers were none the wiser. King would later create a faithful adaptation with his well-received miniseries directed by Mick Garris.
The one Kubrick revision of the story that most affects the film adaptation of DOCTOR SLEEP is the finale. Kings version of The Shining ended with the majestic overlook hotel being destroyed in a big explosion, whereas Kubrick's hotel remained standing as Jack perished in the snow outside. Naturally King's sequel was without a hotel and the vacant land on which it stood plays a key role in the Doctor Sleep novel. Yet Mike Flanagan's new adaptation aligns itself with Kubrick's universe, and by placing the entire final act inside the Overlook and disregarding King's original intensions (shafted again) he offers a fan service to lovers of the original film and a kick in the guts to those who love the book. In simple terms; Stephen King's attempt to reclaim his story was pissed upon with more Kubrickism.
Ewan McGregor plays an adult Danny Torrence (the 5 year old trike-rider from the original story) whose experience at the Overlook hotel has lead to a life of alcoholism and depression. When he moves to a small town for a new start, he finds himself telepathically tuned-in with a young girl, Abra (Kyleigh Curran), who has also connected and seen visions of a murderous cult who feed upon the shine that emits from those with the shining. With the cult feeling their presence the merciless leader, Rose The Hat (Rebecca Ferguson), seizes the opportunity to feed upon Danny and Abra, whose shining is stronger than she has ever encountered. With the cult on their trail, Danny and Abra must use their abilities to hoodwink the band of killers and find a way to destroy them.
Fans of King's original themes will be thrilled to know that Flanagan has reinstated the concepts of alcoholism, however they will be disappointed to know that Danny's trauma is the product of ghouls and ghosts rather than abuse at the hands of his alcoholic father... one step forward and two steps back, right?
Nevertheless Flanagan's world of DOCTOR SLEEP is a tasty treat and the fan-service component of his film is wonderfully realised. He has recreated Kubrick's atmosphere with incredible attention to detail and even recasts the original characters to good effect. Yet as I was immersed in this clever reenactment, I was constantly reminding myself that the story isn't supposed to be this way. There is a clear clunkiness that comes from binding an original vision with an amended one, and the entire final act feels unhinged.
The first and second acts are much stronger with all emphasis placed on new concepts and a drastic tonal shift from the original story. The world that Danny occupies is urban and unfamiliar to the mountainous terrains of Colorado. The nomadic villains of the story are classic King characters, yet are impossible to imagine in Kubrick's universe. Baring a striking similarity to the tribe from Katherine Bigelow's Near Dark, these hungry creatures come from King's pages with a familiarity and comfort to fans who understand the depths of his united worlds. These are wonderful characters with Ferguson's sorceress-like leadership being a delicious addition to the story, yet with DOCTOR SLEEP's alignment with Kubrick, their place feels disingenuous and hokey (they deserve better).
The performances are all good, particularly Curran who makes her debut as Abra, as well as a chilling appearance from Jacob Tremblay (Room, Good Boys). McGregor makes for a believable Danny Torrance and taps into the inner-torment effectively. It is a shame, however, that he's never given the opportunity to tap into the drama to full effect, which highlights the other conundrum of the Kubrick/King compromise. Kubrick's film meandered and took its time, with the horror seeping onto the screen gradually. The drama was palpable and facilitated the horror, whereas DOCTOR SLEEP panders to the short attention spans of modern audiences and fears losing the viewer. At any given point where dramatic depth threatens to prevail, the focus is yanked towards the horror without any finessed context.
DOCTOR SLEEP is the film that was doomed from the get go. Had it built upon King's novel it would have confused a greater audience who know only Kubrick's vision. And that makes sense. It is an affectionate trip down memory lane and sacrifices substance for nostalgia. Whereas had it adhered to the books, it would have been a layered and compelling dramatic horror film which – in turn – wouldn't have connected with the greater audience. A classic Catch-22 situation.
See DOCTOR SLEEP for the performances and lap up the fan-service... you may as well, otherwise there isn't much point seeing the film at all.
BATS was made at a time when such films were proudly shown on a theatrical scale. It enjoyed a cheeky television marketing campaign and hit our screens with the promise of cheap thrills. With films like The Blob and Arachnophobia before it, the structure was familiar and the outcome was predictable, and eager moviegoers lapped that shit up like Kool-Aid. They say that once you have a winning formula you should stick to it, but Morneau got greedy and wanted more... and more... he could have kept the winged creatures at a distance, allowing their sheer volume to terrify, but he chose to put them in full framed close ups. His kills could have been gratuitously violent point-of-view shots, but he chose to put the bats at the centre of frame. Actually, to save you the time I will just state that he could have done a lot of things a certain way but chose abundance over discretion.
Lou Diamond Phillips leads the cast, which includes Dina Meyer, Leon and Bob Gunton... and you guessed right... yes, Gunton is the villain. Phillips is a small town sheriff who finds himself pitted against the vicious creatures and with the help of a zoologist he races against time to kill the bats and save his town from a military strike.
The inconsistency of BATS means that I shouldn't like it at all, and yet with the benefit of time it seems to have found itself a certain charm that it once lacked. Those clever Hickcockian special effects do still elude to a missed opportunity, yet now those tacky puppet effects and awful camera distortions (which once ruined it) have become appealing and nostalgic. There's a gleefulness to watching these rubbery creatures take over the town. Their twisted faces with their pull-string operation and animatronic stiltedness recall the films of Joe Dante, and although the film descends into the realms of incomprehensible absurdity, it has become a thing of frivolity.
Morneau's aptitude is highlighted by a strong production design and strategic camera direction, and with all silliness aside, his film looks amazing. Perhaps the greatest attribute to BATS is screenwriter John Logan, who would go on to become a go-to guy for Martin Scorsese, Ridley Scott and Sam Mendes. His writing credits include Gladiator, The Aviator, Hugo, Alien Covenant and Sweeney Todd amongst others, and he has even penned two James Bond films; Skyfall and Spectre. And to think that it all began with BATS... lets call that the John Sayles effect (I'll let you research that reference).
There's all kinds of rollercoasters and they're not always maintained to a standard we expect. You might gain a few bumps and bruises along the way and even though you sprained your neck as the ride ground to a halt, it was pretty fun regardless. That's BATS!
Here, he is reunited with both Almodóvar and their other frequent collaborator, Penélope Cruz, even though the two actors occupy different timeframes in this story about Salvador Mallo (Banderas) an ageing film director (fictitious, of course) who is prompted to revisit the key events and relationships in his life when Sabor, his earliest film success is restored for a special 30th anniversary screening. In the lead up to the event, he seeks out his old friend and actor Alberto (Asier Etxeandia) to whom he hasn’t spoken since their disagreement over the way Alberto played the central character Salvador wrote for Sabor. As is often the case, time has softened the sharp edges of their creative disagreement, leaving only the grudge with a life of its own. In fact, upon revisiting his old film, the older Salvador can now see what his younger self could not appreciate in the performance all those years ago. Nevertheless, their reunion is awkward and difficult (and funny!), but slowly begins to heal the rift between them. The actor has a heroin habit and Salvador convinces Alberto to let him try it and soon he becomes a regular user. Along the way, Alberto discovers some of Salvador’s personal writings and convinces the old man to allow him to perform them in a local theatre. As complex and volatile as their rekindled relationship is, it slowly opens Salvador’s eyes to what he has become and what he has lost of his younger self.
And speaking of his younger self, this reflective state of mind Salvador finds himself in, casts us back to his life as a boy (Asier Flores) and his relationship with his mother, Jacinta (Cruz) who is doing her best to raise the boy despite their poor circumstances. It’s here that he is first exposed to the glory of the cinema that he is sure will become his lifelong passion and it does, but when the older Salvador finds he can no longer make movies, the passion becomes a depression and he withdraws to his apartment – a kind of museum-cum-memorial to his glory days full of posters and costumes and set pieces – where he nurses his migraines and back trouble and strange choking affliction. Without his creative outlet, his life, or what he has let it become, is suffocating him.
Almodóvar handles material like this with ease and brings us what feels like a very personal story that doesn’t need some of the energetic and exaggerated characters that we sometimes see in his films. Here, restraint is the key to what is a compelling and moving story that looks at the power of love and loss, of creativity and passion and the importance of recollection and memory in how we make sense of our lives as we grow older. It’s not maudlin, even though it is a serious drama, and it has great wit and humour, even though it is not a comedy. It’s a life story with all the bumps and grinds and triumphs and regrets.
The performances are authentic and effortless in the way they reveal the characters to us with all their vanities, faults, aspirations and longings. It is beautifully shot by Almodóvar’s long time cinematographer, José Luis Alcaine who moves seamlessly between the sunny, visual palette of Salvador’s boyhood and the more sombre mood of his older present day. Likewise, the music by regular composer Alberto Iglesias subtly underscores the emotional arcs of the intertwined stories of past and present that cleverly come together in a slightly unexpected but highly satisfying final scene.
PAIN AND GLORY is a film to immerse yourself in and for those who come to the cinema with enough life experience, it offers us many moments that invite us to reflect on our own stories, our pains and our glories and the things we gain and lose as our own personal narratives unfold. It’s a cinematic gem that is engaging, moving, entertaining and cathartic in equal parts.
There’s a lot to like about this movie but before I get to the good stuff, I’ve got a bone or two to pick with it. The premise of a haunted bed that will cause the death of any occupant who tries to leave is a good one. Films that place a seemingly impossibly restrictive limitation on where their action can or cannot go often rise to the challenge by the use of inventive camera work, smart editing and clever narrative devices. Films such as Joel Schumacher’s Phone Booth (2003), Rodrigo Cortés’ Buried (2010) or Steven Knight’s Locke (2014) come to mind and whilst THE DWELLING might not reach the calibre of those movies, director Jeff Mahey does a good job of sustaining the tension with how he solves this self-imposed limitation. But that’s not the bone I want pick. My issue is with how much we need to join the dots in order to explain how this haunted bed (aka the bed of the dead) got be what it is and where it is in the first place.
In an effort to explain its origins, the film starts with a group of seemingly medieval monks dragging some poor, desperate guy across a field towards a creepy looking tree where bodies are strung up and left to die. We know this because we see the gruesome, mutilated remains of the desperate guy’s predecessor swinging in the breeze. What we don’t know is whether the tree is there as an instrument of torture, as a means of punishment or as a place of sacrifice. Are the monks goodies or baddies? It’s not clear. Some time later (although it’s uncertain how much later) we meet a massive, lumbering woodcutter draped in chains. Why the chains? Not clear. What is clear is that he cuts down the tree and fashions the timber into something that looks like a Celtic knot that forms the image of the tree... and the next thing we know that wooden image is embedded in the headboard of an enormous four poster bed (that’s described by one character as an ‘Emperor-sized bed’) that, inexplicably, is in a city sex-club, the kind of place where cashed-up twenty-somethings go to indulge themselves in fantasy sex. Obviously, there’s meant to be a through-line here that explains to us why this bed is evil and where its power comes from, but the links are tenuous and vague and the location of the bed in a sex club seems more about titillation than it is about the origin story.
What’s not vague, though, is that this bed is bad. Once you’re tucked up in it you’re its prisoner and it plays hallucinatory tricks on you, exploiting any guilt you feel for things you have or haven’t done in your life, and using that to lure you off the bed where you are sure to die a horrible, bloody death before you can cross the floor and reach the door. Now I don’t mean to be picky with my bone picking, but these kinds of horror stories rely on setting up the ‘rules’ of the evilness that permeates the situation in order for us to know whether our heroes are in peril or not and what they need to do to get to safety. So when our four heroes, Sandy (Alysa King), Nancy (Gwenlyn Cumyn), Ren (Dennis Andres) and Fred (George Krissa) find themselves trapped on the bed, we’re pretty sure that if only they could get out of the room, they’d be fine (mainly because we saw that they and a whole bunch of other people were quite safely out there before) but that ‘rule’ gets broken about half way through the film when whatever this evil entity is extends its reach beyond the room and into the corridor. Add to that a flashback scene where we see the sex club owner Brass (Alex Loubert) frolicking on the evil bed with a couple of belles du jour and he obviously lives to tell the tale, so clearly the rules that define this evil are somewhat rubbery.
Okay, having got all that off my chest, let’s focus on what really works in this film. The story unfolds in two timeframes – one that is told through the eyes of Virgil (Colin Price) a burnt-out cop who is investigating the aftermath of what happens to our heroes in the club (no spoilers, but you can guess that it’s bad). The second timeframe is several hours before when we follow the fates of Sandy, Nancy, Ren and Fred as they each succumb in one way or the other to the dark powers of the bed. The really clever element here is that through some spooky phone network glitch, Sandy can talk to Virgil on her mobile and the two realities are suddenly linked.
This also gives us the ticking timebomb, given Virgil not only knows what happens but when it happens, and his mission now is to save Sandy (and her friends if he can) in an effort to redeem himself for the transgression that has set him on the path to ruin. It’s a good idea and it plays out well with a nice surprise ending.
The other element of this film that is really strong is that for what seems like a relatively low budget affair, it has pretty high production values, with plenty of extras to fill out the scenes where you need more than just the main characters, good production design (from Justin Reu) and some pretty good special effects (from Carlos Henrique and his team) that elevate the work from a low-brow, schlock horror to a pretty tight and satisfyingly gruesome thriller. Plus, the cast is strong and, in particular, Price and King, on whose shoulders the story really rests, give very believable performances in a very unbelievable situation and, in the end, isn’t that what makes horror work; when the story and the characters convince us that what’s happening is something we should take very seriously.
In the end, though, the strength of the story is let down by the inexplicably convenient conclusions that Virgil jumps to in the way he works out what’s happening with the bed, why it’s able to do what it does and what you need to do to avoid the terrible consequences of leaping off the mattress and running for the door. He seems to work things out off the back of some pretty thin clues and just as we needed to join the dots to make sense of the opening, he seems to have joined the dots to facilitate the end. It’s a shame, because the bulk of the screenplay by Maher and Cody Calahan is really good. With just a bit more cleverness and a more solid backstory it could have been great.