Throwback Review: Bad Boys and the Art of Blowing Shit Up

When Michael Bay’s 6 Underground came out a few weeks back, I had two main takeaways. The first: 6 Underground is the most audacious, mind exploding composition of action filmmaking I had ever seen. The second: 6 Underground is an idiotic piece of trash with a fetishistic take on militant violence and a child’s understanding of diplomacy. It was, in essence, the most Michael Bay creation ever put to screen. 6 Underground comes very much to mind when rewatching Bay’s 1995 cop film Bad BoysBad Boys is the same kind of action adventure excitement, with the same violent glorification of police brutality and a shoot-first ask-questions-later ethos. For Bay, the more things change the more things stay the same, exploding into a fiery storm of cocaine, money, and jet fuel. 

Bad Boys, Bay’s film debut, follows two Miami narcotics detectives, Mike Lowery (Will Smith) and Marcus Burnett (Martin Lawrence) as they attempt to protect murder witness Julie Mott (Tea Leoni) and track down stolen cocaine. With a third film coming out this week and over 20 years of countless showings on cable, Bad Boys is now engrained in the culture itself. The film is almost a rite of passage for teenage action junkies, discovering the excess of Bay’s work and Smith’s historic 90s rise to stardom.

With all of that said, one take away from Bad Boys is how tame the film feels now. Certainly, with its juvenile views on sex, gender, race, and violence, Bad Boys makes no attempt to censor itself, but the plot and ideas the film presents feel more like a random Tuesday night cop procedural on NBC than an outrageous action romp. Bad Boys doesn’t have the globe-trotting, explosion-every-second speed of 6 Underground, the computer-generated confusion of Transformers, or the drug-fueled incoherence of Pain and Gain. Rather, Bad Boys feels much closer to something like Beverly Hills Cop only if Axel Foley’s innate charisma was spread across two characters. Given that, Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson produced both Beverly Hills Cop and Bad Boys, the connection is not exactly groundbreaking.

The major revelation in revisiting Bad Boys is the sheer brilliance and charm of Will Smith as the womanizing, potentially sociopathic super cop Mike Lowery. In lesser hands, Lowery could easily come across as repulsive, with his implied misogyny and penchant for violence, but Smith knows exactly how to reign the character in, playing Lowery with a sense of compassion and understanding rather than hubris or rage. For a character whose biggest flaw is his penchant for murdering people, Smith manages to capture the larger than life energy made him one of Hollywood’s biggest stars for over two decades. Given that Smith was still working on his sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air at the time makes the performance even more astonishing, partially for his evident movie star chops and partially for his intimidatingly muscular frame.

In perhaps his most famous role, Martin Lawrence acts opposite Smith as detective Marcus Burnett, a more fumbling, family focused police officer. Lawrence’s performance struggles a bit when he has to carry the comedic load, particularly while sharing the screen with Tea Leoni’s poorly drawn character, but when he and Smith are on screen together, the film is truly electric. Both actors developed a knack through their endless sitcom years of elevating lesser material, and Bad Boys is their master’s thesis in selling bad jokes through charisma and force of will. Their chemistry and ability to both find common ground while simultaneously antagonizing each other is clearly the reason the film has spawned two sequels.

For Bay, Lawrence, and Smith, the film is a clear launching point for three exceptionally profitable Hollywood careers that have all recently found themselves at a crossroads. In 1995, when Bad Boys was released, Smith and Lawrence were still sitcom stars and Bay was just a flashy music video director. By 1999, Lawrence was a household name, Smith was the biggest movie star on the planet, and Bay had directed some of the biggest blockbusters in movie history. Now, Lawrence and Smith in this more mature phase of their career will have to navigate through a sequel without Bay’s vulgar auteur sense for destruction. 

One can’t expect Bad Boys For Life to be any kind of cinematic achievement, but that isn’t really what these films are about. If one were to do a legitimate analysis of Bad Boys, they would clearly find issues with any number of the film’s immature, potentially dangerous transgressions, but really, who cares? Film is such a fascinating medium because there is space for introspection, drama, existentialism and discovery, but there is also space for Will Smith shooting at an exploding car while Martin Lawrence flips a middle finger to a news helicopter. Sure the former is more rewarding than the latter, but if we can have both, then why not?

Remembering Midsommar, 2019’s Strangest Masterpiece

Sometimes the scariest thing in the world is an unanswered email. In a world of constant communication, response is expected and normal, so when we can’t find that affirmation, the fear of possibility sets in. Midsommar understands, as well if not better than any movie in recent memory, that mesh point between culturally accepted practices and all-encompassing terror. In our everyday actions we now find mundane, the unknown hangs over everything we do.

From Director Ari Aster, Midsommar is the story of dysfunctional couple Dani (Florence Pugh) and Christian (Jack Reynor), who embark on a trip to a Swedish commune with a group of friends in order to write a graduate thesis on local customs. Saying anything more about the plot may spoil the genuine excitement and horror of the film’s many twists and turns, but in a way, plot is secondary to Midsommar’s atmospheric appeal. Ultimately the film is less a traditional thriller and more a downward spiraling fever dream, loaded with anxiety, beauty, family and violence.

Aster goes to great lengths to create one of the most visually original films of the decade, conveying the beautiful tension of the ever-bright commune setting. At times overzealous in his reach, Aster’s knack for creating visuals excels when he allows his camera to be still, slowly capturing elegant landscape and its dread inducing inhabitants. In creating this isolated community, a viewer marvels at Aster’s attention to detail, as every symbol has a meaning and all of the geography matters.

As far as the performances are concerned, Florence Pugh as Dani is easily one of the best of 2019, cycling through moments of despairing grief, withholding combativeness and drug-fueled euphoria. Her steadiness and ability to ground Midsommar’s inherent absurdity is truly virtuosic, and with an Oscar nomination for her performance in Little Women, Pugh has already established herself as one of the most exciting young actresses on the planet.

On the other end of the acting spectrum is Jack Reynor as Christian. Reynor is often overmatched in the role, having to walk a delicate balance between a distracted, apathetic boyfriend archetype and a domineering horror protagonist. In a way, this feels purposeful; Christian’s own anxiety has to always be in service to Dani’s tragic story, as she navigates moments of intense trauma and loss. As a result, Reynor has no choice but to downplay Christian as a dimmer, distracted character.

For the supporting cast, Aster relies on established talents William Jackson Harper and Will Poulter to play Dani and Christian’s fish out of water companions. While Harper opts for a steady, curiously questioning performance, Poulter fully leans into his character’s innate cartoonish quality, adding to Midsommar’s sense of grim, anxious comedy. In addition to the Americans, the cast is rounded out by members of the commune, plentiful in number, with one or two constantly lurking on the edge of every frame once the group arrives in Sweden. Their natural pale stillness haunts the film, begging the question of what this community has in store.

As Aster’s follow-up to the acclaimed 2018 film, Hereditary, he has now clearly established himself as a premiere voice in demented horror filmmaking. Rather than relying on cheap scares or sheer gruesomeness, Aster fully exploits an audience’s unease and anxiety. By having the film take place in constant daylight, Aster has found a way to disorient an audience, giving them a similar hallucinogenic sensation as the imperiled protagonist, using nature to create existential dread. 

With all of that said, what really drives Midsommar is Dani and Christian’s decaying relationship. While still terrifying, the movie might have more in common with Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir than with classic horror fare. Hogg’s film obviously opts for a much more tactile approach, but both search for answers as to why relationships fail, and what their value is to begin with.

Midsommar isn’t exactly about horror or systems of belief or pagan ritual; Midsommar is really interested in the lengths humans go to in order to establish legitimate emotional connection. In the effort to connect, relationships form and disintegrate, lives are created and ended, fear is encountered and ignored. Aster understands that regardless of community, ritual, or circumstance, that desire for belonging underscores all action humans partake in. Midsommar doesn’t want to be a slasher film set in Sweden; it wants to explain what we do and why we do it.

My Best of the 2010s

With the decade drawing to a close, it’s time to look back on a transformative 10 years in film. This decade has been marked by the dominance of franchise tent poles, while new voices have emerged in more independent mediums. With the addition of new streaming services and changes in the way films are made and distributed, this decade is an interesting snapshot on where film has gone and where it could be going. Here are the 10 best movies of the 2010s.

10. “O.J.: Made in America” (2016)

While it can be argued that “OJ: Made in America” isn’t actually a feature film, it’s impossible to argue against its overwhelming power. At seven hours and 47 minutes, the film is a jaw-dropping exploration of race, celebrity, violence and the American judiciary system. Given the film’s 2017 Oscar win for Best Documentary Feature, “O.J.: Made in America” is a beautiful, heartbreaking portrait of who OJ Simpson was, what he meant to America and how his case captivated millions.

9. “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood” (2019)

Premiering this past May, “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood” certainly feels like the movie of the year. As a love letter to Hollywood, this film acts as a fitting end to the decade for Quentin Tarantino. Rather than being a genre-bending experiment or an exploitation romp like Tarantino’s other work, “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood” is an exploration of life and the dark violence lurking on the edge of society. With remarkable performances from Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt and Margot Robbie, the film certainly deserves revisiting as the decade ends and the Academy Awards approach.

8. “Gone Girl” (2014)

While controversial in its time, David Fincher’s 2014 film “Gone Girl” has aged beautifully as a modern, thrilling classic. The film follows Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck), a man who comes under intense scrutiny after the disappearance of his wife, Amy (Rosamund Pike). “Gone Girl” is a remarkable depiction of American media, relationship dysfunction and how perception conflicts with reality. Fincher is famous for his attention to detail and creation of tension, and “Gone Girl” lives up to those expectations with an outstanding cast and thrills at every twist and turn.

7. “Before Midnight” (2013)

As the only sequel on the list, “Before Midnight” is Richard Linklater’s third film of his “Before” trilogy, which follows the relationship between leads Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) over the span of decades. The “Before” trilogy has been a linchpin of film culture since “Before Sunrise” in 1995, and the most recent chapter is a heartbreaking conclusion to Jesse and Celine’s emotional odyssey. With its idiosyncratic arc and emotional depth, “Before Midnight” feels like Linklater is coming to terms with his own view on love over time, delivering one of the most emotional films in recent memory.

6. “Whiplash” (2014)

As Damien Chazelle’s directorial debut, “Whiplash” is a triumphant exploration of obsession and the pursuit of excellence to the brink of insanity. With Miles Teller delivering a career best performance as an aspiring jazz drummer and JK Simmons in his Oscar-winning role as a ruthless instructor, the film asks powerful questions about abusive relationships, the price of greatness and the role music plays in life. Chazelle has established himself as one of the preeminent directing talents of the decade, and for proof of his mastery, look no further than this intense drama.

5. “The Wolf of Wall Street” (2013)

Often misunderstood during its release, “The Wolf of Wall Street” is likely the most ambitious portrait of excess and decadence ever put to screen. With a possible career best performance from Leonardo DiCaprio and masterful work by Jonah Hill and Margot Robbie, Martin Scorsese’s film eschews any kind of convention, instead opting for a drug-fueled bender yielding equal parts delight and disgust for viewers. At three hours long, the film moves with fascinating momentum, asking what happens in a world devoid of conscience and solely occupied with greed and power. By the film’s end, the audience experiences the cinematic equivalent of a hangover only to find an audience staring back at them, attempting to learn the tricks of dishonesty, self-aggrandizement and narcissism that made Jordan Belfort so powerful.

4. “Get Out” (2017)

As a solely original achievement, “Get Out” is a clear work of art, establishing Jordan Peele as more of a mind-bending auteur than sketch comedian. Daniel Kalyuaa gives an awe-inspiring performance as Chris, a young black man visiting his white girlfriend’s parents, grounding the film’s more absurdist moments with such despair and dread that Peele’s vision is fully realized. “Get Out” is possibly the most innovative exploration of race in American society of the decade, and it manages to deliver on its social commentary and produce a transcendent genre thriller in the process. No film infiltrated the American consciousness this decade quite like “Get Out,” making it clearly one of the best cinematic achievements of the last 10 years.

3. “Lady Bird” (2017)

Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut, “Lady Bird,” paints possibly the warmest, most sentimentally successful film in recent memory. The story of Lady Bird, a teenager undergoing her senior year of high school in Sacramento, California, works on every single level, pondering ideas like parental relationships, sexuality, friendship, economic anxiety, depression, faith and identity all through a wonderfully idiosyncratic adolescent frame. Gerwig’s talent as a director shines through the film, exhibiting a mastery of detail and tone that only elevates the tremendous performances from Saorsie Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Beanie Feldstein, Timothée Chalamet and Lucas Hedges. “Lady Bird” has a profound understanding of the high school experience and creates a perfect picture for an audience of all  the anxiety and optimism of everyday life.

2. “The Master” (2012)

Another film which garnered controversy during its release, “The Master” may be the greatest film writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson has ever made. Following a story resembling the founding of Scientology, Anderson’s film is a singular work of art with Joaquin Phoenix and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman dialing up two of the greatest performances of the decade. Anderson has always forced the viewer to question their own moral truths in application to warmly articulated characters, and with “The Master,” he invokes specific ideas about systems of belief and masculinity, creating a film that feels entirely unique. “The Master” doesn’t attempt to preach or explain, but instead allows the viewer to live with its characters, following the film’s own rhythm and forcing the viewer to look inward.

1. “The Social Network” (2010)

When thinking about “The Social Network,” the word that comes to mind is revolutionary. Whether it be David Fincher’s momentous directing style, Aaron Sorkin’s masterful screenwriting, Jesse Eisnberg and Andrew Garfield’s pitch-perfect performances or Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ propulsive score, everything about the film feels beyond innovative. Telling the story of Facebook’s founding, “The Social Network” manages to dramatize court depositions and computer programming into a thrilling contemplation on social interaction, the pitfalls of success and how social media has revolutionized modern life. “The Social Network” is a perfect collection of people telling a story at the perfect moment and producing the best possible outcome: a film that asks what happens when the antisocial dictate the terms of social interaction and what price is paid for that power.

Breeze Reviews: Uncut Gems

For a four-minute sequence in the new film “Uncut Gems,” Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler) can’t open a door. He tries pressing buttons, using hammers and pouring metal shavings into a lock until he finally manages to pry it open and allow his customers entry to his jewelry store. 

Throughout the sequence, characters shout over each other on- and off-screen, a drill wears away at a Rolex watch and music pulsates under Ratner’s movements. “Uncut Gems” is built on this meeting place between anxiety and chaos, showing how constant action and excess leads to destruction.

“Uncut Gems” tells the story of Ratner, a gambling-addicted jewelry store owner whose life changes when he becomes embroiled in a business deal with Kevin Garnett and is confronted for his previous debts. Howard deals with a life on the pinnacle of collapse, facing his disintegrating marriage and an ensuing affair while attempting to balance his business’ finances with his own financially harmful vice.

Ratner is an American archetype, a businessman with an absent conscience and a never-ending appetite for excess. He manages to own two homes, a thriving business, multiple cars and expensive pieces of jewelry, yet he never has any money on hand, always spending without considering saving. 

Sandler shines as Ratner, turning in a career-best performance that uses his tension between comedic farce and sociopathic anger for maximum effect. Sandler maintains an energy of pure, unvarnished mania while simultaneously grounding the audience with his sense of gravitas. As a near-perfect match of character and role, it feels almost impossible to imagine any other actor playing Ratner with such outsized bravado, unpleasantness and charm.

Similarly, Garnett delivers a mesmerizing performance as himself circa 2012. The film uses archival game footage from the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals, and seven years later, Garnett still displays the physical prowess and intense menace that characterized him as a player.

When Garnett and Sandler share the screen, the film hits an almost uncanny level as the two cultural icons channel exactly what makes them so successful. For Sandler, that means endless charisma matched with thinly veiled sociopathy. For Garnett, it’s hyper-competitive intimidation combined with defiant confidence.

Rounding out the cast is a startling group of supporting actors who each do great, occasionally transcendent, work. LaKeith Stanfield continues his recent run as a masterful character actor in playing Demany, the go-between for Ratner and Garnett. Demany presents himself as an almost updated version of Ratner, hustling others on a smaller scale while simultaneously embracing the trappings of celebrity culture. Stanfield understands this character perfectly, toning back a role similar to Darius from the television show “Atlanta,” another figure on the peripheral of stardom.

Two other notable performances are the feature film debuts of Julia Fox and Kenneth Williams Richards. Fox plays Ratner’s girlfriend, Julia, a seductive, somewhat naive jewelry store clerk drawn in by Ratner’s indelible charm. Fox feels like an actress on the precipice of stardom in her scenes, capably manipulating those around her while also delivering occasional comedic relief.

Richards uses an almost exact opposite skill set as Phil, a menacing criminal figure attempting to collect Howard’s debts. Phil is a force of nature, physically intimidating everyone on screen and acting as the embodiment of Ratner’s impending doom. Richards’ untrained background lends itself to the raw nature of his performance, making it one of the most haunting in recent memory.

For writer-directors Josh and Benny Safdie, “Uncut Gems” feels like an exclamation point on this phase of their young career. Ten years in development, this film delivers the same thrilling momentum of 2017’s “Good Time” but adds a more heartfelt, personal narrative to the characters. In “Good Time,” the protagonist was more of a conniving plot machine, while “Uncut Gems” makes Ratner a fully realized character. Given that the film draws on the two brothers’ childhood in the diamond district, this personal connection seems readily apparent.

Ultimately, “Uncut Gems” is the kind of film that feels like it could only be made by directors with the Safdies’ background and knowledge of source material. The film’s pure chaos needs the kind of ringleader comfortable in this world, and nowhere is that more apparent than in the film’s gambling sequences. While sports gambling has often been portrayed in films like “Focus,” “The Gambler” or “Lay the Favorite,” the end result usually creates something either confusing or overly simplistic.

In “Uncut Gems,” the gambling feels deeply realized and consequential, as the viewer lives and dies with every bounce of a basketball just as Ratner does. “Uncut Gems” understands its world by reckoning with the fact that gambling, whether in sports, business or personal life, is not dependent on luck; it’s dependent on chaos. For Ratner, chaos is a vocation.

Breeze Reviews: Marriage Story

During a scene in Noah Baumbach’s newest film, “Marriage Story,” an attorney tells Adam Driver’s character, Charlie Barber, “Criminal lawyers see bad people at their best; divorce lawyers see good people at their worst.” Over his career, Baumbach has made a living off portraying film characters at their worst, most dysfunctional or most insecure.

This line presents the possibility that Baumbach will go back to the same well of productivity, mining awkwardness for comedy and framing misanthropy as inevitable. Instead, he created the most heart-wrenching film of the year, delivering more emotional weight and reality to an audience in 147 minutes than some directors do in a career.

“Marriage Story” follows the lengthy divorce of Charlie and Nicole Barber as they battle for custody of their son, despite residences on different sides of the country. Charlie is a demanding, genius theater director with a tendency to overlook others’ emotions. Nicole is his muse — a former child actress turned theater performer who feels forgotten in her own home. 

Their relationship clearly draws a parallel to Baumbach’s own divorce from Jenniffer Jason Leigh. Baumbach goes so far as to create a fictionalized “Fast Times At Ridgemont High”-style film that jumpstarts Nicole’s career. But those machinations only add to the weight of the film and create something both uplifting and devastating.

Driver gives the performance of the year as Charlie, bringing an emotional depth and artifice-shattering realism to the character. Driver is arguably the greatest actor of his generation, delivering consistently evolving characters in movies by the greatest working filmmakers, and “Marriage Story” is his crowning achievement, allowing him the opportunity to take the idiosyncratic approach he brings to every performance and channel it through a film worthy of his talents as a leading man. Driver may be the only actor who can carry a “Star Wars” movie, a Baumbach movie, a zombie comedy and a political docudrama all in the same year, and his performance in “Marriage Story” is certainly worthy of Academy Award recognition.

On the other side of the divorce battle, Scarlett Johansson delivers arguably the best performance of her career as Nicole. Whereas Charlie is constantly withholding, incapable of recognizing their relationship’s flaws, Nicole communicates her isolation and anger subtly, creating a challenge that Johansson handles beautifully. Her role in the film is to act as a ship without a sail, always at the whims of either Charlie, her mother (Julie Hagerty), her son, Henry (Azhy Robertson,) or her divorce attorney, Nora (Laura Dern).

Johansson and Dern’s scenes particularly stand out as Dern gives yet another laudatory performance in the film. Nora acts with a constant artifice of kindness, covering a ruthless interior she uses to brutal effect. In each of her scenes, Dern navigates around every other character like an animal stalking her prey with coldblooded intensity, all masked by her calming charm.

Also of note in the cast are Alan Arkin and Ray Liotta as Charlie’s divorce attorneys, both lending an enhanced sense of paternal professionalism to Charlie’s life. Arkin and Liotta are a perfect combination of Charlie’s dueling personalities: Arkin with a world-weary exterior covering up a softer heart, and Liotta embodying competitive anger and knowledgeable sarcasm.

With all that said, Baumbach may be the film’s true star by creating a drama almost unlike any in recent memory. Baumbach has previously explored the topic of divorce in a prior film, “The Squid and the Whale,” yet this effort feels wholeheartedly different, primarily because of his own experiences informing the text. “The Squid and the Whale” is another semi-autobiographical tale, but this time, it’s about Baumbach’s own parents’ divorce.

The main difference between the two films is the sheer amount of vitriol in “The Squid and the Whale.” While an incredible achievement, the film is always confined to an adolescent’s point of view, expressing pure rage without any sense of understanding. “Marriage Story,” on the other hand, is comprised of understanding, telling the story of two people who can’t help but love each other.

“Marriage Story” is the kind of film that will interrupt an intense argument about custody rights for the characters to order lunch; in the lead up to one particularly hostile moment, two characters can be overhead discussing John Legend concert tickets. All of these facts lead the viewer back to the idea that while these two characters’ lives have come to a crossroads, the outside world continues without any care for their own grief. The only person capable of feeling Charlie’s pain is Nicole and vice versa. That’s the key to the film.

In that sense, the “Marriage Story” would make a remarkable double feature with 2013’s “Before Midnight.” Both films are portraits of characters incapable of feeling happiness together despite love for each other, but they tackle the subject in vastly different ways. While “Before Midnight” theorizes that discontent is inevitable and all things end, “Marriage Story” pivots to create an argument for love in the midst of the disaster that Nicole and Charlie’s relationship has caused.

Over its last hour, Baumbach mines their relationship for all that its worth, delivering scene after scene of brilliant performance coupled with feelings of anger, pain, love and regret. In one scene, Charlie stands isolated, publicly confronting his regret, while Baumbach subtly moves the camera to show Charlie’s loneliness in what might be the best moment of Driver’s career.

Baumbach’s filmography has always felt expertly derivative, drawing consistent comparisons to Woody Allen or Albert Brooks. From “Kicking and Screaming” to “Frances Ha” to “Meyerowitz Stories,” Baumbach’s work has always wondered about the hypocrisies of adulthood, parenthood and self-sufficiency. A Baumbach film always asks how expectations and reality contradict one another. With “Marriage Story,” he’s found the perfect evocation of that theme: a love story about the minutiae of divorce. Given that dichotomy, he created his ultimate masterpiece giving audiences the most heartwarming and heartbreaking film of 2019.

Breeze Reviews: Knives Out

One of the most overused phrases in film commentary is, “They don’t make movies like this anymore.” It’s become shorthand in a time where Disney and Marvel control the box office and intellectual property is king. Usually, this disclaimer feels a bit exaggerated, yearning for a nostalgic past that never quite existed.

But in the case of “Knives Out,” it’s safe to say this is the kind of movie that “they” don’t make anymore — an original, high budget, high concept, politically active, movie star-filled, ultra-entertaining film for adults.

“Knives Out” tells the story of the Thrombey family, a group of privileged, bickering siblings who come under investigation after the apparent suicide of their father, Harlan. The film wears its genre influences on its sleeve, heading into the eccentric, Agatha Christie-style hijinx with the clear-eyed approach that writer-director Rian Johnson is known for.

Johnson has made his name working within genre conventions, subverting expectations while also adhering to their genuine appeal. The film feels most similar to “Brick,” Johnson’s 2005 noir set in a suburban high school. In both films, Johnson examines genre while never parodying it. Instead, he creates films that can be seen as either contemplations on previous work or outstanding examples of the genre he’s chosen to participate in.

Daniel Craig plays private investigator Benoit Blanc, an eccentric, Southern-accented genius hired to investigate Harlan’s death. With this device, detective Blanc serves as a point-of-view character investigating the Thrombeys’ dysfunctional family dynamics and class anxieties. The main draw of “Knives Out” is the sheer talent of its cast, making it almost unfair to single out any performance in particular. Each of the Thrombeys is perfectly cast, whether it be Michael Shannon as a domineering failed executive, Toni Collette as an obscure social media influencer or Don Johnson as a swaggering, angry and controlling husband.

With that in mind, the two performances that clearly stand out are Chris Evans’ as Harlan’s grandson, Ransom Drysdale, and Ana De Armas’ as Harlan’s nurse, Marta Cabrerra. For Evans, the film serves as a pleasant departure from his work as the rigidly moral Captain America. Instead, Ransom gives Evans the opportunity to lean into his inherent charisma, delivering each line with an arch deviance that truly sets him apart. Considering that Ransom is clearly the family’s black sheep, Evans uses his isolation as a way for his character to command attention, constantly undercutting his relatives’ clear hypocrisies.

For Ana De Armas, “Knives Out” is a revelation, granting her the opportunity to hopefully continue her pursuit of more serious roles. Marta finds herself at the center of the Thrombeys’ conflicts throughout the film, and De Armas uses her outsider status brilliantly. In most scenes, De Armas walks a subtle line between meek and overwhelmed while maintaining a sense of control and aggression.

Marta also serves as a window through which the film explores its political ideas. As the child of undocumented immigrant parents, Marta’s family’s citizenship status and her economic anxieties allow Johnson to flesh out each of the Thrombeys’ thoughts on America. While at times awkward and too overt, “Knives Out” certainly has something to say about American politics and the artificiality of the American Dream.

The film’s conclusion on these subjects may ultimately be somewhat incomplete, lazily indicating that having political beliefs is grounds for inevitable hypocrisy. The fact that “Knives Out” has the courage to approach hot button political issues at all warrants acclaim.

Politics aside, “Knives Out” clearly succeeds as an entertaining triumph of commercial filmmaking. Arguably the most fun movie of the year, it delivers something all too rare in popular culture: intelligent entertainment geared toward adults. Rather than servicing the lowest common denominator and underestimating audience intelligence, the film is ultra-specific, paying homage to genre conventions filmgoers may not be aware of while simultaneously delivering comedy and suspense.

“Knives Out” is the kind of film “they” don’t make anymore, and for rather obvious reasons. The film has a cast known for its performances in massive franchises like “Captain America” and “James Bond.” Those films, while each enjoyable in their own way, are geared toward mass entertainment, often weakening their ideas in the hope of broad appeal. “Knives Out” refuses to abide by that same standard and instead reaches for something original and current while still gesturing toward the past. Johnson has created a concise standalone film that does everything in its power to entertain an audience. Hopefully, studios will allow him to do the same for years to come.

Breeze Reviews: The Irishman

Martin Scorsese’s American crime epic, “The Irishman,” won’t be available to stream on Netflix until Nov. 27. Yet in order to qualify for Academy Awards consideration, the film must screen in theaters for a minimum of 14 days. As a result, Netflix has put the film in as many theaters as possible, although most theater chains are reluctant to participate because of an ongoing dispute between theaters and streaming services over modes of distribution.

Currently, “The Irishman” is being shown in Washington D.C., Charlottesville, Richmond and even Harrisonburg, at the Court Square Theater, for anyone who may be interested in viewing the film on the largest screens possible. And with a film as expansive, electrifying and emotionally resonant as “The Irishman,” it certainly warrants the experience of seeing it in a theater.

“The Irishman” reunites the cinematic dream team of Scorsese, Robert DeNiro and Joe Pesci, while adding to the fold Al Pacino, Anna Pacquin, Stephen Graham, Ray Romano and Jesse Plemmons. The film follows World War II veteran Frank Sheeran (De Niro) over 50 years as he becomes embroiled in organized crime and interacts with some of the most famous events in American history. This includes the Bay of Pigs invasion, the Kennedy Assassination and the disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa.

While “The Irishman” is a return to the gangster movie genre, Scorsese, De Niro, Pacino and Pesci have created something completely apart from the cocaine-fueled energy of “Goodfellas” or the overblown decadence of “Casino.” Instead, “The Irishman” is a film filled with reflection, regret and a sense of wonder around the characters’ interaction with time. By using CGI to make a film that spans 50 years, Scorsese decided to tell the story of Sheeran’s entire adult life, and along the way, he communicatesthe joy, pain and inevitability of his decisions.

Sheeran is an interesting protagonist through which Scorsese explores this feeling of regret. While Sheeran’s story is certainly expansive, what makes him so strange is his inability to examine his own decisions or mortality. Sheeran’s consistently unable to express his emotions or thoughts, floating through his life in an unexamined state and becoming a kind of malignant, “Forrest Gump” type figure, following orders and remaining in the background of the most historically significant events of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s.

De Niro gives his greatest performance in decades as Sheeran, communicating this low, simmering pain and deflection perfectly. At 76, De Niro gives an astonishing physical performance as his body breaks down over time, going from a quick-footed enforcer to an elderly man almost imperceptibly over the 210-minute runtime.

In the supporting performances, Pesci as Sheeran’s mentor Russell Bufalino channels something so unexpected and masterful that he’s certainly established himself as an Oscar frontrunner. Unlike his high-pitched, loud performances in previous Scorsese films like “Goodfellas,” “Casino” and “Raging Bull,” Pesci emanates a quiet inevitably in all of his actions. While still and weathered in each of his scenes, his sense of power and nuance silently overpowers everyone else on screen.

On the other end of the spectrum is Pacino as the domineering Jimmy Hoffa. Pacino does something entirely different, harkening back to his performances in “Any Given Sunday,” “Heat” and “Scent of a Woman,” shouting down anyone who stands in his way and providing  needed energy in the films’ quieter moments. Given that Pacino’s playing a historic American figure known for being brash and unyielding, he leans into the character’s innate charm, playing Hoffa as an endearing con man with fiery charisma. In his scenes with De Niro in particular, the two communicate a bond that goes beyond performances and becomes something much more meta as two of the greatest film actors of all time funnel their own respect and friendship into remarkable on-screen chemistry.

Leading up to the release of “The Irishman,” two stories have dominated the discussion around the film. The first is the film’s use of CGI de-aging techniques, to allow De Niro, Pacino and Pesci to play these characters over a 50-year timeline. While certainly noticeable, the CGI never crosses over into distraction. In a recent interview with Spike Lee, Scorsese referred to his use of CGI as “the evolution of makeup,” and having seen the film, this certainly feels like an apt description.

The second, and more unfortunate, story is Scorsese’s critique of Marvel movies as “theme parks.” While sparking countless debates and internet conversations, “The Irishman” certainly feels like the evocation of Scorsese’s idea. “The Irishman” is a film about the inevitability of age as the years fly by, giving the film a strange momentum despite its bloated runtime. Ultimately, Sheeran reflects on his life, contemplating the impact of it and wondering if his actions had any meaning.

“The Irishman” doesn’t qualify as escapist cinema and doesn’t deliver the same thrills of a Marvel film, but what it does provide is something much darker and more emotionally resonant. Viewers feel Sheeran’s pain. They experience time hurtling past them at lightning speed. And eventually, at the film’s conclusion, they understand why Scorsese would make a film about Sheeran and what this director feels about the possibility of old age and death. While that may not deliver Marvel’s patented excitement, it does deliver something more valuable and worthy of exploring.

Breeze Reviews: Ford vs. Ferrari

In “Ford v. Ferrari,” famed sports car designer Carroll Shelby takes his boss, Henry Ford II, for a drive in his newly built race car. As the drive begins, Ford II attempts to lean into the macho image that made his grandfather an American icon. He mumbles reassurances to himself. He shifts in his seat. All the while, Shelby weaves the car at 200 mph through obstacles and around turns.

Eventually, Shelby puts the car in park and notices that Ford has started crying. “I had no idea,” the inconsolable Ford says to himself. In a film obsessed with the idea that corporations often bare down on individual creativity, this scene serves as a thesis statement for James Mangold’s view on American idealism.

“Ford v. Ferrari” is the story of famed American sports car designer Shelby (Matt Damon) and his driver, Kent Miles (Christian Bale), as they attempt to help Ford become the first American car company to win the 24-hour race at Le Mans. Based on a true story, the film feels a bit too held to its source material at times, especially in scenes with Josh Lucas as the conniving corporate overlord Leo Beebe. Beebe is a placeholder for the engrained American hatred of corporate bureaucracy stifling creativity and ingenuity, yet his scenes grind the film to a halt. One gets the sense that Mangold views himself as a Shelby-esque maverick with studio executives serving as the Beebe figure holding him back, leading to a fairly hostile portrayal that stunts the film.

Yet, the film still soars to rare heights, particularly because of Damon and Bale. Damon arguably gives his best performance of the decade playing Shelby, channeling an overconfident persona through an All-American kind of ingenuity and grit. Since his appearance in 2015’s “The Martian,” Damon’s films have been largely maligned, whether it be the failed “Jason Bourne” installment, the 1950s dramedy “Suburbicon” or the Sci-Fi epic “The Great Wall.”

In “Ford v. Ferrari,” Bale’s character does the majority of the heavy lifting and plot work, allowing Damon to give a freer, more fun performance. Bale, however, is outstanding in his own right, playing Miles as a hotheaded savant attempting to keep his family above water. The greatest moments in the film are when Mangold allows the two figures to interact as flip sides to a hyper-competitive coin questing for the greatest race car imaginable.

Mangold’s career is also at an interesting point. His career has been largely built around his ability to create purposeful star vehicles within the studio system. After “Logan” in 2017, people might have assumed Mangold would stay in the commercial blockbuster realm rather than return to the biopic style that made him famous. “Ford v. Ferrari” is certainly not “Walk The Line,” but both films succeed when Mangold allows his stars to interact, and both are often weakened by Mangold’s attempts for historical accuracy by getting bogged down in plot mechanics. 

“Ford v. Ferrari” would make an interesting double feature with another 2019 film: “Once Upon A Time In Hollywood.” Both are stories of two men of the late 1960s reflecting on their lives while fighting the inevitability of time. For Quentin Tarantino, that meant creating an Elmore Leonard style, highly talkative alternate history of Los Angeles. For Mangold, that meant crafting a testosterone-fueled romp about innovation in the face of corporatization. Another thing both movies have in common is that they’re far lighter and more fun than those descriptions would suggest.

The scenes of Miles racing down Le Mans or Daytona, or even the minor sequences of testing the cars, are miraculous and give Bale an opportunity to use his physicality and channel the sense of inherent danger in racing. Damon’s hijinx and deep-south inflection give his scenes a sense of momentum, allowing him to play off Ford II, Beebe and Advertising Executive Lee Iacocca with ease. And when Damon and Bale go back and forth, it creates for an iconic dynamism between the two, drawing comparison to Paul Newman and Robert Redford as an on-screen duo.

The film certainly isn’t flawless, as Beebe’s storyline would suggest, and the 152-minute runtime may wear on some viewers. But the film has certainly established itself with “Moneyball” and “Creed” as one of the greatest sports films this decade. As large budget films unattached to superhero mythology or previously existing intellectual property fade into the rearview, “Ford v. Ferrari” is a remarkable argument for studio empowerment of original ideas. 

Damon, Bale and Mangold have all certainly used their appeal in franchises — usually to great success — resulting in the “Bourne” trilogy, the “Dark Knight” trilogy and “Logan.” The existence of a film as great as “Ford v. Ferrari” isn’t an argument against their roles in franchise films. It’s just proof that, when they’re allowed, they’re capable of creating something remarkably different and exciting.

Breeze Reviews: El Camino

During the series finale of “Breaking Bad,” a trailer ran for a widely forgotten movie based on a video game. That movie was “Need for Speed,” starring none other than Jesse Pinkman himself, Aaron Paul. The trailer’s placement and Paul’s career future looked bright as ever, yet, as happens far too often with iconic television personalities, he could never quite outrun his meth cooking, “yeah bitch” persona.

Now, Paul returns to the character that made him famous and the writer who understands his frequency like no one else.

“El Camino” takes place in the immediate aftermath of the “Breaking Bad” finale. With every law enforcement officer in the area after Pinkman, he turns to a group of old acquaintances and tries to get out of Albuquerque. While that’s the substance of “El Camino,” much of the story is told via flashback. After months of torment and imprisonment, the Pinkman of “El Camino” isn’t the same character who served as the heart of “Breaking Bad,” and writer-director Vince Gilligan seems most interested in understanding how Jesse arrived at this moment of self-reflection.

“El Camino” may not be as perfect of an entry into the “Breaking Bad” canon as another spinoff, “Better Call Saul,” but it is a high-tension crime drama loaded with talented actors. Gilligan understands that given 62 episodes of back story, “El Camino” can dispense with all exposition and instead act as a mix of a meditative character study, a high-octane thriller and perfectly pitched fan service.

With the flashbacks serving as a framework, Gilligan allows former “Breaking Bad” cast members to return, and none are as imposing or mesmerizing as Jesse Plemons’s Todd. Plemons plays the character perfectly, with a blank, unexamined mania that acts as the best part of the film. Plemons may very well be the best character actor of his generation, and this performance goes to show that with the proper role, he can steal the screen from anyone.

Paul’s performance as Pinkman is a bit more complicated. Because Pinkman has changed so fundamentally throughout the show, the character in the present timeline feels almost unrecognizable, especially when contrasted with the Pinkman who appears in flashback sequences. Pinkman has obviously stockpiled trauma and emotional abuse over the show’s run, and Paul appears to be reckoning with how a character can regain their humanity after so much pain.

Paul is at his best when he has a foil to play off — that goes for Todd, Badger, Skinny Pete and Ed, the human smuggling vacuum cleaner salesman played by Robert Forster. An Academy Award-nominated actor, Forster passed away on Friday following the release of “El Camino.” His performance, and the back and forth nature of Pinkman and Ed’s relationship, give Paul the most room to maneuver, allowing life to creep back into the performance. Ed is a calculated update of Forster’s most iconic role, bail bondsman Max Cherry in “Jackie Brown.” Forster plays the character with the same steady delivery and street-wise intelligence, always a few steps ahead of everyone else onscreen.

The most common critique of “El Camino” is its existence. “Breaking Bad” arguably had the greatest ending of any show in television history, and any attempt to return to the main storyline would be met with fan skepticism. But after spending the last season of the show being imprisoned and tortured, maybe closure is all fans could wish for Pinkman. 

Gilligan still operates “El Camino” with the same clockwork precision of the series but now appears to have sympathy for who this character is and everything that’s been done to him over the last 11 years. As Skinny Pete tells Pinkman, “You’re, like, my hero and shit.” Even though Pinkman hasn’t always been the moral guideline that fans hoped he could be, he always deserved better. With “El Camino,” he finally has it, and just like Skinny Pete says, he’s our hero, too.

Breeze Reviews: Joker

After one of the most controversial prerelease press receptions in modern movie history, Todd Phillips’ “Joker” has finally premiered. “Joker” follows the story of Arthur Fleck, a clown living in New York City who has from severe mental illness. As he struggles to cope with a society that he finds cold and wealth-obsessed, while also trying to come to grips with his illness, Arthur descends into nihilistic criminal behavior.

It’s truly surprising how formulaic “Joker” feels. The film itself is steeped in reference, primarily to Martin Scorsese’s films “Taxi Driver” and “The King of Comedy.” Reference may not even be a strong enough word given how directly in conversation this film feels with its predecessors. “Joker” casts Robert De Niro in practically the same exact role played by Jerry Lewis in “King of Comedy.” Fleck’s speeches about his dismay with Gotham are nearly identical to Travis Bickle’s ramblings about New York City in “Taxi Driver,” and the film’s climax looks like Phillips designed it after his 100th screening of “Network.” Yet with all this plagiarism masquerading as homage, the film does, for the most part, work.

In the conversation surrounding the movie, two sides have developed. One states this film is a modern masterpiece worthy of its title of the Golden Lion from the Venice Film Festival. The other faction dictates that the film is a nihilistic disaster that glorifies mental illness while leaving viewers with a sense of emptiness. While neither of these statements is true, the claim that this film glorifies mental illness feels absurd. 

“Joker” clearly wants the audience to empathize with Fleck’s condition while never asking the viewer to admire him for it. Fleck commits heinous acts; Phillips doesn’t glorify them, but he also doesn’t shy away from showing their violence. Instead, he makes the viewer uncomfortable by asking them to reckon with the reality of his actions. The sheer amount of pain and destruction Fleck causes is, in the scope of comic book movies, minimal. Yet with the fact that this setting feels so tangible, and with how plausible Phoenix’s character is, the audience will most likely feel more scared of him than of Thanos in “Avengers: Endgame” or even Jack Nicholson in “Batman.”

The reason “Joker” succeeds is the cast. Joaquin Phoenix as the titular “Joker” will draw comparisons to the mythmaking portrayals by Heath Ledger and Jack Nicholson, and while Ledger is a reference point for this character, there are clearly distinctions. This is the first time the Joker has been portrayed as a character with mental illness. While Ledger and Nicholson in their portrayals both embodied the character’s psychosis, Phoenix channels something much more broken. Fleck can’t communicate socially, he’s incapable of simple tasks like spelling or holding down a job and he consistently hallucinates, often imagining himself in fictionalized situations and accepting those situations as reality.

In all of this, Phoenix finds something to connect to, bringing Fleck to life. While his performance improves as the film goes along, he truly may be worthy of the Oscar consideration he’s receiving even if the performance borders on overacting. His physical transformation and ability to contort his body as he manages to find the character merit credit. Also, his laugh transcends the film, truly haunting the viewer and forcing the audience to understand his psychosis.

The supporting cast is also remarkably talented. De Niro appears to enjoy his turn as Murray Franklin, a popular late-night talk show host with a penchant for insults. In particular, his scenes with Phoenix are the best of the film, echoing “King of Comedy,” “Network” and Phoenix’s own visible discomfort in the talk show setting as a celebrity. Consistent veteran actors also appear like Brett Cullen, Shea Wigham, Bill Camp, Glen Fleshler and awe-inspiring newcomers Zazie Beets and Brian Tyree Henry. Both Beets and Henry have shined on FX’s “Atlanta” in recent years and Henry, in particular, uses his highly limited screen time to maximum effect.

“Joker” is still far from perfect. While its strongest moments rely on homage to ’70s films, its weakest rely on connecting to the greater Batman mythology. Every time a character mentions the fact the film takes place in Gotham rather than New York, or a scene takes place at Wayne Manor or Arkham Mental Hospital, the film takes a step back. Cullen’s performance as Thomas Wayne, a wealthy, establishment mayoral candidate, does feel credible, but whenever he or a young Bruce Wayne is mentioned, it feels as if Phillips and screenwriter Scott Silver are stretching to accommodate Batman fans rather than making a decision they embrace.

“Joker” also feels a bit uneven, weighed down by rather consistent mixed messaging. This isn’t uncommon for a Phillips film, given that even his comedy work — “Old School” and “The Hangover” trilogy — has all suffered from similar flaws. “Joker” could make an interesting double feature with Phillips’s previous dramatic endeavor, “War Dogs.” Both films focus on hapless characters turning to crime in order to take their lives in their own hands, and both slightly succeed while coasting on blanket reference to other, better films.

As for the political controversy surrounding the film, there’s slight merit for it even if the sheer amount of conversation around the film feels exhausting. The movie even has an answer for it. In a scene where another character asks Fleck about his politics, he replies, “I don’t believe in anything. I just thought it would be good for my act.” While debate swirls about what the film says about either side of the aisle, “Joker” seems to be more interested in nihilism as a political revolution. After having a record-breaking release and outperforming box office expectations, it’s safe to say “Joker” doesn’t exactly believe in anything. While that may not make for interesting art, it certainly made for a successful act.