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3 stars

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I’ve heard this film is essentially Taxi Driver meets a Christopher Nolan Batman, but its roots also lie in Martin Scorsese ‘s King of Comedy and even in Death Wish.  Not bad company and it shows. Todd Phillips’ vision is fully realized, there is a consistent and compelling narrative, and you can’t take your eyes off of Joaquin Phoenix.  The movie also alternates between Joker’s madness and his reality, which keeps you off balance without being gimmicky while expertly recalibrating the Joker-Batman origin story.

But the movie is also dull in stretches, thoroughly depressing, a little more politically elemental than it perhaps knows, and ultimately, chooses shock over sustenance.  Perhaps most problematic, it’s really hard to give a shit about a protagonist who, when all is said and done, is just a loon with a crazy giggle off his meds. How much fun is that?

Implicit in that last criticism is the presumption of an old fogie that even super hero villain stories should have some level of joy or whimsy. But if the future is Lex Luthor kicking a meth habit, Thanos having been molded by the cruelties of urban foster care, or Venom’s molestation at the hands of her uncle, so be it. The film has made over $1 billion globally and it leads all pictures in Oscar nominations.  Who am I to thwart progress?

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It’s fine. There is no need to see it in the theater, but this story of former driver and automobile designer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) and driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale) being subcontracted by Ford to take on Ferrari at LeMans is entertaining and fast-paced. Besides, Damon and Bale would be easy enough to watch grilling hot dogs, and Tracy Letts as Henry Ford II steals the picture in one scene.

That said, the movie is a tad too formulaic and cute and it has some thematic and structural problems. Bale’s overly precious relationship with his wife (Caitriona Balfe) is plagued by money woes and that seems to be the source of any dissension in theri union.  But then, all of a sudden, she goes bats because he apparently isn’t communicative enough, which comes out of nowhere (up until this point in the film, Bale is presented as aCockney loudmouth who can’t keep his trap shut about anything). Additionally, the relationship between Damon and Bale is unsupported, and we actually know little about either of them before their joint endeavor begins.  Some background, other than stoic and abrasive, respectively, would have helped.

But most problematic is the depiction of the Ford company, a corporate behemoth we are asked to loathe and root for at the same time.  The whiz kid who comes up with the idea of taking on Ferrari is Lee Iacocca, and as played by Jon Bernthal, he barely registers. Worse, as Ford’s no. 2, Josh Lucas is just this side of twirling a mustache. His treachery is over-the-top ridiculous.

The race footage is exciting and when you see this when it streams, you’ll be pleased, though Ron Howard’s Rush is a better racing film.

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Very, very long (6 hours in total for the two films), but not altogether terrible and without giving anything away, at least they put some bodies on the block, thus limiting later franchise movies solely to origin stories.  Quippy, and visually much more satisfying than a lot of these movies.  Also, Thor in a fat suit is pretty funny, and melding The Hulk and Bruce Banner (now, he can wear the right size pants all the time)?  Inspired.

Still, when all is said and done, the whole things turns on Superman reverse circling the earth to go back in time.  They just couldn’t use him because he’s not a Marvel character.  Also, the concept for the second film is the same as HBO’s The Leftovers.

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The first half of this Tarantinoesque Key Largo is pretty good.  Four strangers (Jon Hamm, Jeff Bridges, Cynthia Erivo and Dakota Johnson) show up at a past-its-prime, resort hotel in the Nevada/California mountains, the kind of place where Sammy, Judy and Frank might have swung back in the day.  They all have a story, which we learn in flashbacks, some of which are more compelling than others.  Their destinies collide explosively.

I was worried the film would be too kitschy and cool, too mannered, but it manages to keep a lid on it for long enough to be engaging.  Other problems keep it from being unequivocally good.  For one, Dakota Johnson barely even registers.  She’s undeniably attractive but as a shotgun-toting Alabaman on the run from her better looking Charles Manson (Chris Hemsworth), she’s as convincing as Melania Trump.   Worse, Hemsworth tries to chew scenery, but the best he can do is ape Val Kilmer in The Doors (I guess all Svengalis from the late 60s had that lizard lope).  To cement his powers of persuasion, we get a flashback to Hemsworth preaching to his hippie flock, and let’s just say, he’s more Jim Nabors than Jones or Morrison.

Erivo is very good, but she’s a singer as a character and in real life.  Writer-director Drew Goddard (The Cabin in the Woods) feels compelled to have her perpetually employing the pipes, an unnecessary distraction.

On HBO.  Fine if you got nothing else going on.

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The subject of free soloing (climbing sheer face of rock with no rope) is compelling, more so for me because I didn’t even know it was a thing until I saw this movie.  You travel with Alex Sonnold as he attempts the greatest climb of his life, the 900 meter El Capitan in Yellowstone, which seems particularly reckless in that he’s just weeks off a sprained ankle.

The climb is gripping. The psychological portrait of the climber less so. He appears to be a bit disassociative, almost numb, which lessens your investment in him.  For example, he has the cutest damn girlfriend you’ve ever seen, and she’s clearly crazy about him. As such, his risks in the face of such riches would seem casually cruel if he weren’t a bit of a deadened weirdo.

Indeed, the film is about Alex doing something that may well kill him (free soloists die pretty regularly) and voluntarily having it filmed.   The pre-bout navel-gazing (his family never hugged or used the word “love”) and awkward, searching exchanges with his documentarians feel like artificial injections to elicit empathy. They are only so effective.

Would this be tolerable if he was more human, more flesh and bone?  Should that matter?  Should I feel bad that the movie feels long when it has offered me a “he lives or he dies” finale?

My ethical quandaries aside,  watch this on the biggest TV you have.  The visuals are stunning and the achievement monumental.

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This is a confounding but worthwhile picture.  It tries to be many things.   A heist caper.  A feminist tract.  A racial observance.  A cynical statement on corruption.  A twist flick.  It fails to be complete in any of these pursuits, but that doesn’t make it unenjoyable, just vexing.

Steve McQueen (Shame, Twelve Years of Slave) brings his meditative touch to Chicago, where the widows of a group of professional criminals (think the gang in Heat; in fact, the widows pick up a driver on the fly just like in that flick) must pick up where their flawed husbands have left off.  Their pursuit is intertwined with romantic, political, and familial entanglements.

There’s a lot here, but eventually, the film falters because it takes on way too much.  This is a mini-series sized saga, and given how well McQueen does with various scenes, you’re eventually frustrated at the truncated resolutions.  Still, the performances are stellar.  In particular, Viola Davis, even saddled with an ever-present and ridiculous West Highland White Terrier, is penetrating, and as villains go, Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out) is a top ten.

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I assume this is based on a video game. If not, it has the haphazard feel of one and the banal dialogue sounds like what video characters might say. There are also times when you wish you could hit reset given its hackneyed aspects (stock Italian goomba rifleman, erudite and aristocratic Nazi officer heavy,  soldier revealing post-war plans right before . . .)

But this story of a WWII paratroop unit dropping behind enemy lines only to find that the Nazis are – can you believe it? – engaged in medical experimentation to create an uber soldier is competent with a fun B movie feel. And occasionally, it is even a little scary.  Entirely worth the $1.87 Redbox rental.

One other positive note. The lead and the tough guy sergeant are African-American, which, given that integration of the troops didn’t occur until after the war, is an anomaly. However, since race has absolutely nothing to do with this middling popcorn flick, it’s a welcome development. Sure, there are no black Nazis, but all in good time.