[Early Review] Stillwater (2021)

Director: Tom McCarthy
Cast: Matt Damon, Camille Cottin, Abigail Breslin
Screenplay: Tom McCarthy, Marcus Hinchey, Thomas Bidegain, Noé Debré
140 mins. Rated R for language.

I’ve been waiting on a follow-up to Spotlight for some time now. Tom McCarthy (The Cobbler) exploded as a director with his film about the Boston Globe uncovering the Catholic Church’s history of child molestation cover-ups. I’ve heard mostly solid things from my colleagues on McCarthy’s newest film, Stillwater, but I had no real intel on the film, and I didn’t know much going into it save for Matt Damon (Good Will Hunting, Jay and Silent Bob Reboot) being oddly cast as an oil rig worker. Surprisingly, Damon is among the better performances in this film that mostly succeeds even with a more muddled climax.

Bill Baker (Damon) has been back and forth between his small town of Stillwater and Marseille to visit his incarcerated daughter Alison (Abigail Breslin, Little Miss Sunshine, Zombieland: Double Tap), who is in prison for murder. When new information surfaces but the lawyers refuse to look into it, Bill takes it upon himself to investigate the info, and he gets the help of Virginie (Camille Cottin, Allied, TVs Call My Agent!) to assist him with navigating the legal system and the language barriers that exist with the differing cultures.

It’s hard to play a character that doesn’t seem to talk throughout the entire run time of the film, and yet Matt Damon tackles the role of Bill Baker in a surprisingly honest way. He doesn’t speak long emotional monologues, but he speaks in every gesture, displaying the wide array of emotions through a quiet and more subdued performance of visual tics and believable character building, and while I don’t agree with his choices throughout parts of the narrative, I can understand his reasoning, however flawed it can be. I can’t deny that even as I watch Bill lie to his daughter in the opening moments of the film, anger fueling me at the sheer stupidity of his false hope, I can still totally see why he would act that way.

There’s significant chemistry between Bill and his newfound friendship with Virginie as they play two entirely opposite people that have little in common other than the common decency of select humans. I was unaware of actress Camille Cottin before seeing here in Stillwater, and I was quite impressed with her turn as the actress aspiring to make ends meet for her child. The child, Maya, played by Lilou Siauvaud, is another standout performance here, specifically her scenes with Damon as he discovers a change to be a better father figure to her than he was with Alison.

Something else that struck me as quite powerful in Stillwater was the examination of culture, specifically in how it married the Oklahoman Bill Baker, full of Americana, burger-eating, and country-music-listening, to Marseille and the world that exists beyond our shores. The ways that McCarthy’s film examines the similarities and contrasts of the two worlds was quite effective and made for an interesting experience in viewing Stillwater.

Where the film falters is in its run time and its ending. For starters, this film is far too long, and to be fair, there’s a lot of film packed in here, but there’s simply no need for this movie to run 140 minutes. There’s an important plot adjustment in Act II that puts the film in a meandering state, where I felt that the character journeys took center stage at the detriment of plot. The character arcs are all quite interesting, but I was left wondering when we were getting back to what this movie was about. In fact, I had almost started wondering if the story would return at all before it did in a grand way. Unfortunately, the film’s main climax left me with too many questions about how events unfolded, what happened to certain characters, and the overall reality of the plot progression. I wouldn’t say any of this ruined the finished film, but my level of confusion and questioning caused me to try and make plot points fit together on the ride home from the theater. I’m not sure if some of this connections were in the script but excised in the editing bay or if they were never written in the film to begin with, but they pulled me out of the film.

With shades of Sean Penn’s The Pledge, Stillwater is full of pain, reckoning, and the forced acceptance of mistakes, and thankfully McCarthy injects a tiny bit of comedy in places where he can, or the film would be a drag of depression throughout. I really liked Matt Damon’s performance, and the think his character arc and the story are challenging and captivating, even if the ending drops off a bit. Stillwater is an interesting story, one we’ve seen before, but the infusion of cultural parallelism and a flawed but intriguing lead character make for an engaging film that I recommend.

3.5/5
-Kyle A. Goethe

Ford v Ferrari (2019)

Director: James Mangold

Cast: Matt Damon, Christian Bale, Jon Bernthal

Screenplay: Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth, Jason Keller

152 mins. Rated PG-13 for some language and peril.

 

It’s weird how much I love racing films and movies about cars because I really have no interest or knowledge of them in real life. It doesn’t matter to me if they are true stories, like the one we’re going to talk about today, or if they exist in varying degrees of over-the-top insanity, like the Fast and the Furious franchise or Speed Racer. I just love car and racing films, so I was very excited to see Ford v Ferrari. I heard a lot of festival buzz and award love coming from my colleagues, and now I’m ready to talk about it.

Ford Motors is looking for a way to boost their sales, and Vice President Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal, The Wolf of Wall Street, The Accountant) has an idea: purchase the financially-struggling Ferrari, but when their offer is declined and they are made fools of, Henry Ford II orders Iacocca to assemble a team capable of beating Ferrari at the difficult and dangerous 24 Hours of Le Mans. Iaccoca goes to Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon, Good Will Hunting, Jay and Silent Bob Reboot), who actually won Le Mans some years earlier, to help with this daunting task, and Shelby goes to the difficult-to-handle racer and mechanic Ken Miles (Christian Bale, The Dark Knight, Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle) to get behind the wheel. As race day nears, time is short and concerns run wild, and Shelby and Miles learn that the difficulties in winning the race may come from Ford itself.

Ford v Ferrari is damn good, and a lot of that comes from the performances of both Damon and Bale. Damon biggest reason in taking the role of Shelby was getting the chance to work with Bale, and the two have very strong chemistry as they go at the various problems of their quest from different angles. Damon’s performance is rather subdued and subtle, whereas Bale’s is more flashy and juicy, but that isn’t to knock either. They both play to exactly their strengths and exactly the character they need to, but neither is trying to steal the spotlight from the other.

The unspoken star of the film is Bernthal as Iacocca. He’s the unspoken star of just about everything he’s in, and he never gets the credit he deserves. His way of dancing between friend and for in an effort to complete the monumental task he is assigned is really interesting and strong, and it’s only because of Bernthal that the character is as memorable as he is.

Director James Mangold (Logan, Knight and Day) certainly understands how to direct action from his time on films like 3:10 to Yuma and the X-Men franchise, and he does not disappoint here. It’s tricky work making a race look cinematic, although Mangold’s handle on it makes it look easy. Remember this is a film about people driving in circles for 24 hours, and yet, I almost never noticed that realization.

My biggest faults with the film lie in the somewhat bloated run time and the way it orchestrates its final scenes. This film did not need 152 minutes. It could have easily chopped off 20 minutes or so. In fact, they could cut the last few minutes quite simply as well. There’s a few scenes at the end, after the race is over, that I feel are unneeded and don’t serve the narrative. You can say that the sequences shown are important information, but we must remember that this is a film and the characters need to serve the story. I don’t feel like the last few minutes of the film do that, but that’s just me.

James Mangold’s Ford v Ferrari is an excellent racing movie, and it’s an excellent story of friendship between two unlikely men with a shared passion. Both Matt Damon and Christian Bale are great together, and the film is supported by some impressive supporting players as well. I highly recommend this one.

 

4/5

-Kyle A. Goethe

 

 

For my review of James Mangold’s The Wolverine, click here.

For my review of James Mangold’s Logan, click here.

[#2016oscardeathrace] Cinderella (2015)

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Director: Kenneth Branagh

Cast: Lily James, Cate Blanchett, Richard Madden, Stellan Skarsgard, Holliday Grainger, Derek Jacobi, Helena Bonham Carter

Screenplay: Chris Weitz

105 mins. Rated PG for mild thematic elements.

  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Achievement in Costume Design

 

Disney has always been hit-or-miss on their live-action adaptations of their animated classics. I was less-than-enthused about 2014’s Maleficent, but with Cinderella, and a solid director in Shakespearian artist Kenneth Branagh (Frankenstein, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit), it seemed like they had a real chance.

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The new iteration of the classic tale presents more backstory on Ella (Lily James, Wrath of the Titans, Burnt), her wicked Stepmother (Cate Blanchett, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Carol), and the Prince (Richard Madden, TV’s Game of Thrones, A Promise) she falls for. With the help of her Fairy Godmother (Helena Bonham Carter, Fight Club, Suffragette), Ella becomes a beautiful princess for a night of magic and dancing with the Prince in his kingdom. When the night ends, the Prince must do anything to find the mysterious beauty he has fallen for.

From a storytelling perspective, the film reminded me a lot of the Halloween remake from some years back (I know, strange comparison), which chose to flesh out backstory to bulk up the characters and story. Both films do succeed in this dangerous endeavor, though Cinderella definitely doesn’t need all the build-up. Screenwriter Chris Weitz (About a Boy, The Golden Compass) elected to grab from other versions of the tale to add new layers to the film, and it works.

Lily James and Cate Blanchett absolutely own their performances here, fitting right into the narrative nicely, and they are aided by Madden and thespians like Stellan Skarsgard (Good Will Hunting, Avengers: Age of Ultron) and Derek Jacobi (Gladiator, Anonymous).

Often, Branagh uses his superior storytelling tactics from his time studying the plays of William Shakespeare to influence his filmmaking style. It worked well in Thor, and it continues to elevate his craft here.

I must point out the masterful costume design, though likely not to win the Oscar this year, still looks astounding, especially in the ball sequence. The set design aids it well.

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Cinderella is one of the better Disney live-action adaptations, and while the film’s pacing comes into question more than once (too much exposition boggs down the film quite a bit), it succeeds in a lot of other ways and is worthy of a viewing.

 

3.5/5

-Kyle A. Goethe

 

For my review of Kenneth Branagh’s Frankenstein, click here.

For my review of Kenneth Branagh’s Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, click here.

2 Fast 2 Furious (2003)

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Director: John Singleton

Cast: Paul Walker, Tyrese Gibson, Eva Mendes, Cole Hauser

Screenplay: Michael Brandt, Derek Haas

107 mins. Rated PG-13 for street racing, violence, language and some sensuality.

After Brian O’Connor (Paul Walker, Brick Mansions, Hours) walked away from his role as a cop, he was forced to betray everything he knew. Now, in Miami, he’s been caught by the feds and charged with catching the villainous Carter Verone (Cole Hauser, Good Will Hunting, Jarhead 2: Field of Fire) in return for his freedom. Brian recruits former friend and law-breaker Roman Pearce (Tyrese Gibson, Transformers, Black Nativity) to assist him in his quest.

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Paul Walker is very similar to Hugh Jackman in that he gets slightly better as the series progresses. His acting here isn’t what it will be and not as good as he could be, but still much better than anyone else here. Gibson and Hauser come off as spooflike in their cheese factor, as does Eva Mendes (Hitch, Lost River).

2 Fast 2 Furious comes off as the bastard son of the original film. There is just so much that goes wrong here. First off, the exclusion of Vin Diesel. If nothing else, it proves that Vin Diesel understands how to make a sequel because he gets the factors that work and the factors that don’t. The editing comes off as real choppy. There are freeze frames, dissolves, and all manner of dull piecework. Director John Singleton (Four Brothers, Abduction) can’t control his races. These are bland race sequences, providing nothing cool to the aesthetic of the series. In fact, did I see a green screen 15 minutes in? Seriously? In fact, Singleton doesn’t get much right here at all. He encouraged improv from a bunch of non-improv actors. Seriously.

There are some things that work here. Roman Pearce as a character has potential (though it wouldn’t be fully realized for some time). Tej, played by Chris “Lucacris” Bridges, is another character that works much better than it would have been had not been rewritten for him. It was originally written for Ja Rule to return, but he was “too big” for the role. Seeing as how the character evolved with Bridges, the audience won here and Ja Rule lost, and the music is better with Bridges. Luda!

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2 Fast 2 Furious wasn’t enough to kill this franchise, but it didn’t do much to keep it alive either. There are a plethora of problems with the action racing sequel, but it did some right. Not much, though. Not much at all.

2/5

-Kyle A. Goethe

For my review of Rob Cohen’s The Fast and the Furious, click here.

For my review of Philip G. Atwell’s Turbo Charged Prelude, click here.

For my review of Vin Diesel’s Los Bandoleros, click here.

For my review of Justin Lin’s Fast & Furious, click here.

For my review of James Wan’s Furious 7, click here.

For my review of John Singleton’s Shaft, click here.

Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian (2009)

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Director: Shawn Levy

Cast: Ben Stiller, Amy Adams, Owen Wilson, Hank Azaria, Christopher Guest, Alain Chabat, Robin Williams

Screenplay: Robert Ben Garant, Thomas Lennon

105 mins. Rated PG for mild action and brief language.

I avoided the sequel to Night at the Museum like the plague. I enjoyed the original film but thought to myself that a sequel can only harm that. There couldn’t be any possible way for the sequel to be anything new. Literally, the title says it all. It’s just another night at the museum, right?

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Not exactly.

Sure, Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian is more of the same, but it takes the original premise and expands immensely on it, providing a little of the repetition, but a lot of new fun that makes it comparable to the original.

Larry Daley (Ben Stiller, Zoolander, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty) has taken his inventing career to the next level, creating all manner of As Seen On TV that you see on the endcaps in stores across the nation. He has essentially put his past in the Museum of Natural History behind him, but that changes when he gets a call from Jedediah (Owen Wilson, Midnight in Paris, Inherent Vice) telling him that Dexter the Capuchin Monkey had stolen the Tablet that brings the exhibits to life at night and it has been moved to the Smithsonian Museum where all heck has run loose, and it’s now up to Larry and his cadre of walking talking exhibits including Teddy Roosevelt (Robin Williams, Good Will Hunting, Dead Poet’s Society) and Amelia Earhart (Amy Adams, Man of Steel, Big Eyes) to take on the evil and now alive again Kahmunrah (Hank Azaria, TV’s The Simpsons, The Smurfs 2) who thinks the Tablet belongs to him.

I loved all the ways that Battle of the Smithsonian expanded the universe created by the first film. From the talking bobbleheaded Einsteins in the gift shop to the paintings that Larry and Amelia get caught up in, this is a well-thought sequel with several new avenues for adventures. It does tread some of the same waters as the original, but does so with enough flair that it’s more forgivable. Director Shawn Levy (Real Steel, This is Where I Leave You) continues to stylishly supply action/comedy at full-tilt and it seems like the new characters like Ivan the Terrible (Christopher Guest, This is Spinal Tap, The Invention of Lying) have great chemistry with our returning players.

As always, the cinematography isn’t anything to sing to the mountaintops, and the film might run on a little too long for its own good, but Levy’s work behind the camera keep the film light-hearted and moving along.

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As far as sequels go, Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian could have been better (I’m still a little curious about where Carla Gugino went) but it stands up as a lot of fun that adds some new fun and sends up its predecessor nicely.

3.5/5

-Kyle A. Goethe

For my review of Night at the Museum, click here.

Night at the Museum (2006)

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Director: Shawn Levy

Cast: Ben Stiller, Carla Gugino, Dick Van Dyke, Mickey Rooney, Bill Cobbs, Robin Williams

Screenplay: Robert Ben Garant, Thomas Lennon

108 mins. Rated PG for mild action, language and brief rude humor.

 

As 2014 comes to a close, and the final film featuring Robin Williams is soon to be released, Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb. With that in mind, I decided to look back at the original film.

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Night at the Museum features Ben Stiller (Zoolander, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty) as Larry Daley, a failing inventor out of his luck and looking for a job. That is, until he gets a break in the form of a position as a night security guard at the Museum of Natural History. The only catch is, everything in the museum comes to life at night thanks to a mysterious tablet. Now, with the help of a wax Teddy Roosevelt (Robin Williams, Good Will Hunting, Dead Poet’s Society), Larry has to protect the natural order of the museum and defend it from the forces trying to get their hands on the tablet.

Ben Stiller is a lot of fun in this movie. It happens to be a comedy that is more focused than a lot of Stiller’s less-than-stellar work. He does get great help from Carla Gugino (Watchmen, Man of Steel) who is largely wasted on a bit role, as well as support from legends Dick Van Dyke (TV’s Diagnosis: Murder, Curious George), Mickey Rooney (The Fox and the Hound, Breakfast at Tiffany’s) and Bill Cobbs (Oz the Great and Powerful, The Muppets), but the film really rests of the shoulders of a strong screenplay and the masterful handling by director Shawn Levy (Real Steel, This is Where I Leave You).

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The CG effects are strong and still look pretty good some eight years later, and the films jokes largely continue to land (with the exception of a few noticeable improvs from Stiller). I just plain had a lot of fun watching this movie. It is zany and yet smart and makes great usage of an interesting plot device. All in all, Night at the Museum is a wonderful film for audiences of all ages and it has the thrills and laughs to keep it going the entire runtime.

 

4/5

-Kyle A. Goethe

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