If You Like ‘Ford v Ferrari,’ Check Out ‘Senna’

Senna movie poster

To call “Senna” a brilliant documentary is not enough. You will get sucked so deeply into the life of motor-racing champion Ayrton Senna to where you will not ever feel like you are watching his life from a distance. It also shows all sides of this man to where he is shown to be complex and unlike any other race car driver in Formula One. His death during a race in 1994 still saddens many after more than a decade, and after watching “Senna” you will clearly understand why.

Director Asif Kapadia really lucked out as he had access to so much footage from Senna’s life both in and out of cars. We have racing footage of course, but there is also home video footage showing him to be a sublime individual and a genuinely nice guy. Kapadia succeeds in making “Senna” feel like we are spending time with a friend and not just another racing superstar.

Compared to others in racing, Senna comes across as being surprisingly humble and shy. No matter how many championships he won, fame never seemed to go to his head, and this is saying a lot. His personality ends up getting contrasted sharply with his fellow racer Alain Prost, and their intense rivalry becomes a big focus here. Prost comes off at first as being very full of himself, particularly while he is being interviews by a female journalist, and we come to see how his biggest strength is also Senna’s chief weakness: mastering the politics of Formula One. It becomes hard not to be on Senna’s side as their rivalry becomes increasingly bitter. While Senna proves to be ruthless on the race track, he is deeply spiritual and not ignorant of the fact he is as mortal as anyone else.

The racing sequences are exhilarating as we watch Senna do things with a race car no one else could. His brilliance while driving in the rain made him especially unique in Formula One, and it is astonishing to learn he never got hurt while driving in this weather. His donations to improve the conditions in Brazil never feels like a publicity stunt, but instead proof of how fiercely loyal he was to his native country.

But the documentary’s most unnerving sequence occurs a day before Senna’s tragic death when fellow racer Roland Ratzenberger was killed on the exact same track at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix. Senna becomes deeply upset at what has happened and vows to improve safety on all race courses, something he sadly never got to live to carry out. Watching it feels very eerie as we know the fate which awaits him, and even then, we find ourselves hoping and praying for a different outcome.

What makes “Senna” unlike your average documentary is while most are far removed from their main subject, Kapadia brings you up close and personal. Throughout its running time, Ayrton Senna is alive and not just another dead racer forever relegated to the past. It does not matter in the slightest if you are a fan of car racing or not. “Senna” is as enthralling as the best racing movies ever made as you experience it more than watch it, and it gives us a great respect for this racer even as it leaves us very sad that he left us at such a young age (he was only 34). But seeing him here alive once again gives us a great opportunity to know a man many of us never got the chance to in real life.

So, if you liked “Ford v Ferrari,” be sure to give this one a look. And if you did not like “Ford v Ferrari,” see “Senna” anyway.

* * * * out of * * * *

WRITER’S NOTE: Another great documentary by Asif Kapadia, and it is as great as this one, is “Amy” which serves as a much needed eulogy to the late singer Amy Winehouse.

‘The Greatest Showman’ Reminds Audiences Hugh Jackman is the Real Deal

The Greatest Showman movie poster

When it comes to singing, I still consider it to the most challenging of all the performing arts. You can be a good singer technically by hitting all the notes just right, but none of it will matter if you don’t put your heart and soul into each of those notes. You can only hide behind technique for so long before the teacher makes you see that you have to be emotionally open and show the audience you are living the song and not just singing it.

I was strongly reminded of this while watching “The Greatest Showman,” the musical drama which stars Hugh Jackman as P.T. Barnum, the infinitely ambitious showman and entrepreneur who created the Barnum & Bailey Circus which ran for over 140 years before shutting down in 2017. Once Jackman sings his first note, it becomes abundantly clear there is no other actor who could inhabit a man who command an audience to where no one could dare take their eyes off him. The scene threatens to be overwhelmed by a rousing musical number, strong choreography and beautiful cinematography, but nothing can upstage the passion Jackman brings to the role as he dominates every filmmaking element to command the stage like no one else can.

For those of you expecting a complex look at P.T. Barnum, you will need to look elsewhere or, better yet, read a book on the man. Director Michael Gracey along with screenwriters Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon are not out to give us a multi-layered portrayal of a man whose success in life was beset by allegations of abuse of his circus animals among other things. Instead, they are more focused on him as a man eager to break out of the shackles of modern life so he can embrace a lifestyle some would say he is undeserving of. At the very least, you have to give the filmmakers credit for not saying this is “based on a true story,” a phrase you all know I abhor with a passion.

We watch as P.T. captures the heart and affection of Charity (Michelle Williams) from a young age even though they come from two different classes of people, P.T. from the poor and Charity from the rich. Nevertheless, their love for one another breaks through barriers, and they marry and bring two beautiful daughters into the world whom they share a powerful love of imagination and possibilities with.

The scene in which we watch P.T. Barnum work in an office and trying not to becoming completely numbed by a redundant work environment resembles the suffocating office Jonathan Pryce was an employee at in Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil,” and from there I was sucked into his quest to escape a life where, as Trent Reznor put it, every day is exactly the same. Of course, his mission in starting an adventurous life is stifled by struggles new beginnings bring about. Barnum ends up buying a museum, but it’s a constant struggle to get anyone to purchase a ticket. Then he employs a number of performers which so-called “normal” people quickly dismiss as freaks of nature. But by giving the public something different, Barnum finally succeeds in making his mark to where nothing he does can be easily ignored.

I found Barnum’s story as presented here fascinating as he tries to find acceptance in a society which pretty much banished him from the day he was born. Barnum even goes out of his way to entice famous Swedish singer Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson) to do a series of concerts in America in the hopes that critics who constantly bash his circus act will come to accept him as an upper-class citizen. The question is, will he leave his circus performers and business partners in the dust in the process?

The plot of “The Greatest Showman” is actually quite thin to where the narrative feels more rushed than you might expect in a movie with a running time of 105 minutes. The story of P.T. Barnum is one deserving of a complex and deeply researched screenplay, but the filmmakers here were instead determined to give us a story about a dreamer who defied the odds and led a life of adventure we all hope to live. If you can accept what they were attempting to do here, this movie will prove to be an enjoyable one, and I was willing to accept it for the movie it was trying to be.

The advertisements boast of how “The Greatest Showman” features music by the lyricists of “La La Land,” another movie dedicated to the risks dreamers take. The songs, which include “Come Alive” and “This is Me,” are rousing and will get you into a wonderfully invigorated state as you sit and take in the spectacle. Having said this, this is not the kind of musical which will remain in your mind long after you have watched it. Perhaps my standards for musicals are too high as “South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut” remains the best movie musical Hollywood has released in years (“La La Land” is not far behind).

Aside from Jackman, the other actors acquit themselves nicely. Michelle Williams remains one of the bravest actresses, let alone actors, working today as she never hesitates to lay herself emotionally bare in a scene. Just check out her heartbreaking scene from “Manchester by the Sea” (you’ll know it when it comes up). Williams shares the screen with Jackman to where it should be no surprise she can hold her own with Jackman as their characters’ love is threatened more often than not.

Zac Efron, while I sometimes hoped he would be livelier than he was, certainly has all the right moves as Phillip Carlyle, a playwright who becomes Barnum’s business partner. Zendaya plays Anne Wheeler, an acrobat whom Phillip quickly gains a strong affection for, and she makes her presence in this movie a memorable one. I also have to single out Keala Settle who portrays Lettie Lutz, a bearded lady, as her performance of the song “This is Me” proves to be a real show stopper as we root for her and her fellow freakish performers to come out of the shadows to where no one can ignore or easily dismiss them.

With “The Greatest Showman,” you have a movie musical which has flaws not hard to miss, but I was still enthralled with it even though I am not in a rush to buy the soundtrack. Much of this is due to the actors as there is no denying they put all their heart and soul into their roles. Jackman, who has already has had one heck of a year with his penultimate Wolverine performance in “Logan,” remains a powerful presence whether he is appearing on stage or screen, and even if you have issues with this motion picture, there’s no denying there are few actors like him working right now.

As I walked out of the theater, I was reminded of something Groucho Marx once said:

“I wouldn’t want to belong to a club that would have me as a member.”

Does Barnum believe the same before this movie’s end? I leave it to you to find this out.

* * * out of * * * *

 

‘The Emerald Forest’ Makes the Term ‘Based on a True Story’ Mean Something

The Emerald Forest poster

The Emerald Forest” is kind of a spiritual sequel to “Deliverance” as both were directed by John Boorman. Each film deals with man’s tearing apart of nature for their own needs, and of how nature has its own set of rules which forces outsiders to survive by any means. They also take place in a wilderness where the rules of law and justice cease to exist as its inhabitants live defend what is theirs and are not exactly open to strangers. Also, they contain characters who have never been exposed to civilization as we know it. The subject of man versus nature makes for a fascinating subject, and it’s entertaining to see Boorman take it on again.

“The Emerald Forest” is “based on a true story” and was released back in 1985, back when that term actually meant something. Powers Boothe stars as Bill Markham, an engineer who has moved to Brazil with his family to complete the construction of a large hydro-electric dam. This of course necessitates large areas of the Amazon forest be cleared to make room for agriculture and living space. While on a picnic with his family, his son Tommy suddenly gets abducted by an indigenous Indian tribe. Bill ends up spending the next ten years looking for Tommy just as the dam he’s working on nears completion. He ends up finding Tommy alive, and Tommy has long since become fully integrated with the tribe known as the “Invisible People.” But will Tommy end up going home with his real dad, or will he stay with this tribe which he considers family?

I remember seeing commercials for this movie on television, and the fact it was “based on a true story” made it seem all the more frightening at the time. To be stolen from your family is a terrible fate and a horrible burden for any parent to endure, and it’s the last thing anyone should go through. The interesting aspect of “The Emerald Forest,” however, is how Tommy seems to enjoy being part of this tribe which has given his life a meaning it wouldn’t necessarily have in the real world. This makes the conflict between Bill and the tribe especially fascinating; he’s entitled to be angry at these people for kidnapping his son, but it’s not like his son has been treated badly by the tribe. Issues like this are usually black and white, but in this movie, they come to inhabit a morally gray area.

In the process of looking for his son, Bill comes across a rival tribe known as the “Fierce People” whose leader shows his admiration for the hunting skills he shows off with his machine gun, a weapon they are unfamiliar with. As a result, they give him a head start to run for his life before they hunt him down. He is fortunate enough to run into Tommy who has long since become a warrior like the Indian family which “adopted” him, and he takes his father to safety where the “Invisible People” can take care of his wounds.

The scenes showing the tribe and the rituals they perform are among the most fascinating scenes in “The Emerald Forest.” Boorman really makes us feel like we are observing something we would not be likely to see in person as we watch Tommy becoming a man. These are not just a bunch of actors trying to recreate what tribes of Indians did before and after white men stole their land, they look like the real deal. Plus, their description of Bill and those like him as “Termite People” as, like those pesky creatures, they destroy the land they come in contact with gets at the universal truth of life: Man’s attempt to create a new way of life ends up laying waste to our past.

Actually, the one actor who deserves the most credit here is the director’s son, Charley Boorman, who plays Tommy. Much of the movie’s success really hinged on his performance as a stranger to the world he has been abducted to. If you didn’t believe how sincere Tommy was to win the tribe’s respect, then “The Emerald Forest” would never have worked as a movie. But Charley is utterly believable and sucks you into his character’s reality without a second thought. It’s one of those performances where the actor becomes his character as opposed to just playing them.

Boothe was one of those actors who are impossible to cast as a wimp. I mean you could, but would you believe him in such a role? He’s always played tough guys who never go down without a fight, and here he plays a good guy who is no different. It’s hard to think of another actor who could have embodied Bill Markham better than him. Perhaps Sylvester Stallone or Arnold Schwarzenegger could have, but casting either of them would make this become a completely different movie.

Boothe not only has to show the intense dedication this father has in finding his son, but he also has to believably portray a man who is more of a match with the wilderness elements than any other stranger to this environment. He succeeds on both fronts as the tribe accepts him despite their differences with one another, something which isn’t easy. The actor also has to convincingly portray a man who has to go against what he does for a living to protect his son and his way of living. Looking at this makes you realize just how underrated, or perhaps largely underappreciated, an actor Boothe was while he was alive.

Boorman, along with cinematographer Philippe Rousselot, provides the viewer with beautiful scenery throughout. Much of it was filmed in Brazil, and we get to see sights which, all these years later, may not even exist anymore. Just as with “Deliverance,” Boorman wants to explore this part of life before it vanishes forever, and he was lucky to get any of it on film.

Like any movie “based on a true story,” much of “The Emerald Forest” has been fictionalized for dramatic considerations. This results in it having a shootout in which Boothe has to team up with the tribe which took his son so they can rescue their women who have been stolen into slavery. In some ways, it feels like a cop out for the movie to reach its conclusion, but it does have the added bonus of them dealing with another Indian tribe whose ignorance of guns has been exploited to their benefit. It seems to imply how any person who encounters the real world is more likely to corrupt themselves than advance their way of life. This ends up saving “The Emerald Forest” from turning into any other action movie.

John Boorman’s career as a director has taken him all over the critical map from classics like “Deliverance” and “Hope and Glory” to duds like “Zardoz” and “The Exorcist II: The Heretic.” “The Emerald Forest” stands in the middle of all his movies as it’s really good if not quite great. I’m glad I finally got the opportunity to see it even though it took me almost 30 years after its release to do so. It’s also nice to watch a movie “based on a true story” which actually feels like it is. These days, the term is meaningless as it has been used once too often, but back when this movie came out, it meant a lot.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

 

Fast Five

Fast Five movie poster

This review was written in 2011.

With “Fast Five,” the fifth movie in “The Fast & The Furious” franchise, the filmmakers have seemingly run out of ways to include both “fast” and “furious” together in the same movie title. Does this mean this sequel is less furious than others? Granted, this franchise started a decade ago, but you’d think they would still find a way to put those two words together in such a clever fashion. What, “2 Fast 2 Furious” wasn’t clever enough? How about these?

“Fast & Furious Times 5”

“Faster & Even More Furious”

“Fast & Furious to The Fifth Power”

“Infinitely Fast & Furious”

“Ocean’s Fourteen”

Well, while only “fast” made it onto the marquee this time, this movie is most definitely not lacking in any fury. “Fast Five” is gloriously mindless entertainment, filled with one preposterous action sequence after another. It won’t be mistaken for any cinematic classic and much of what’s on display is very improbable, but it’s so much fun so who cares? This was to the Summer 2011 movie season what “The A-Team” was to the Summer 2010 movie season; an over the top blockbuster unapologetic in its quest to entertain action movie fans. You can complain about its flaws, but that would just be taking all the fun out of the proceedings.

Now I did put “Ocean’s Fourteen” on the list for a good reason. Whereas the previous movies dealt with car racing, “Fast Five” is more of a heist film as Vin Diesel, Paul Walker and company work out a plan to steal $100 million from a corrupt businessman. If they succeed with their destructive cleverness, they will be able to buy the freedom they can no longer afford.

This one starts where “Fast & Furious” ended as Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) is being hauled off to prison in a bus to serve a 20 plus year sentence, but his sister Mia (Jordana Brewster) and Brian O’Conner (Paul Walker) end up breaking him out after making the bus he’s on crash in such spectacular fashion. Seriously, the bus crash here puts the one from “Another 48 Hours” to shame, and it’s designed to let audiences know just how bad the car crashes are gonna hurt this time around.

From there, the story moves to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil where Dom and company choose to hide out from the law. But since being on the run sucks your wallet dry, they take a job to steal three very valuable cars from a moving train. This heist, however, goes awry when it turns out the cars are the seized property of the DEA, one of which has important information regarding this sequel’s main bad guy, businessman Hernan Reyes (Joaquim de Almeida) and all the cash he has saved and probably doesn’t pay taxes on. From there, the heist is on even as a relentless DSS agent, Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson), arrives to take Dom and his elusive team down for good.

Justin Lin returns for his third movie as director in this series. I still haven’t gotten around to checking out “The Fast & The Furious: Tokyo Drift,” but I felt he did good work with the previous entry. But this time he really outdoes himself with stunts which, while highly improbable, have us feeling their dramatically LOUD impact to where we’re saying to ourselves:

“WHOA!”

“DAMN!”

“OUCH!”

“MAN!”

If Lin made any mistakes in the last two sequels, he has certainly learned his lessons from them. Even if its characters are stealing cars from a train which is moving as fast a bullet, he’s got the audience enthralled as he moves the story along at a rapid pace, preventing us from examining the logistics of what we’re seeing. Many will look at “Fast Five” as your basic guilty pleasure, but something this entertaining should not make you feel guilty about enjoying it at all. “Troll 2” on the other hand…

I’m also glad to see Brian Tyler back as “Fast Five’s” music composer. His combination of symphonic music and electronic elements matches the maximum propulsion of what’s speeding past us onscreen. However fast the cars are traveling, Tyler’s film score matches their velocity and gives those OUCH moments some extra oomph.

It’s great to see the gang back once again, especially Vin Diesel who made a welcome and much-needed return to this franchise in “Fast & Furious.” While his style of acting hasn’t changed much, he owns his role as Dom like no other can. Trying to substitute another actor in his place has already proven to be a mistake, and his presence alone infuses Dom with a “don’t mess with me” attitude which is irreplaceable.

Even Paul Walker is a welcome presence here, long after many called him bland and unconvincing as undercover cop Brian O’Conner. I don’t know, maybe it’s all the stubble on his chiseled face, but he has long since grown into the role whether critics like him or not. If his presence ever bothered me in previous installments, it didn’t this time around.

I was also glad to see Jordana Brewster get more to do this time around as Mia Toretto. While her character was underused the last time, she has a much more central part to this movie in ways I’d rather not get into, but which will become obvious to the audience in no time. She gets to drive a little more in this one, and she looks out for everyone whether or not they are behind the wheel.

“Fast Five” acts as a greatest hits collection as it brings together characters from the other films. Joining this crazy heist film are Roman Pearce (Tyrese Gibson) from “2 Fast 2 Furious,” Vince (Matt Schulze) from “The Fast & The Furious,” Han Lue (Sung Kang) from “Tokyo Drift,” Gisele Harabo (Gal Gadot) from “Fast & Furious,” and Tej Parker (Ludacris) from “2 Fast 2 Furious.” Seeing them interact with each other is a kick, especially when Gibson and Ludacris keep busting each other’s’ balls over who is better at what. With these two, it’s like they’re in one rap battle after another without the mics in their hands while the audience cheers them on.

But the big addition this time around is Dwayne Johnson as DSS agent Luke Hobbs. With his bulging muscles and pronounced tattoos, Johnson hasn’t looked this badass since “The Rundown.” Watching him drowning in all those dopey family movies like “The Tooth Fairy” got increasingly depressing over time. While he still ain’t no Laurence Olivier, his relentless presence in “Fast Five” gives Dom and company one of their toughest adversaries yet.

The series overall (specifically Parts 1, 4 and 5) has kept a solid longevity not just because of the spectacular action, but also with strong characters who, despite their law-breaking ways, make you want to root for them even after they pass the finish line. Even while we may not buy two muscle cars driving at high speed while towing an enormous metallic bank safe through the busy streets of Brazil, we care about them enough to see them get away with it.

Having watched “Fast Five,” it feels like it’s been forever since I have seen so many cars get gleefully destroyed. Is this the end of this franchise? Well, all I can tell you is to make sure you stay through the end credits as it should easily answer your question. Of course, they need to come up with yet another clever title. Somehow “6 Fast & 6 Furious” doesn’t make much sense, but how about these?

“Fast & Furious to the 6”

“6 Times as Fast, 6 Times as Furious”

“Still So Damn Fast & Furious”

“Beyond Fast & Furious”

“The Furious Six”

“Faster Than 6”

“Faster and More Furious Than 60”

“Sexy Six” (a guy sitting next to me in the movie theater suggested this one).

Or how about “The Toretto Brothers?” Jake and Elwood Blues may outdo these guys in the music business, but not in racing a quarter mile at a time!

* * * ½ out of * * * *