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TIFF 2018: ‘The Sisters Brothers’ Brings New Life to the Western

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It’s fashionable to refer to most modern Westerns as “revisionist,” which usually ends up being a lazy shorthand for “not old,” and by that more accurate definition, Jacques Audiard’s The Sisters Brothers is most definitely a revisionist Western. From the opening moments, it’s clear that the movie is shot digitally rather than on film, and its stars speak in a crude vernacular far from the folksy clichés of classic Westerns. But these touches are fairly superficial; in the aspects that count, The Sisters Brothers traces its lineage directly back to films like Rio Bravo, Red River, and the Godfather trilogy. It’s a film of great warmth and occasional comedy that injects some greatly needed lifeblood into the genre.

The eponymous Sisters brothers, Eli (John C. Reilly) and Charlie Sisters (Joaquin Phoenix), are a pair of hired muscle. They torture and kidnap when necessary, more often than not murdering their captives afterward, all in the service of The Commodore (a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him Rutger Hauer), one of the wealthy few battling to vacuum up as much of the West’s dust and gold as possible while it’s still for the taking. After a disastrous nighttime raid in which they kill multiple men but see their horses go up in flames in a barn fire, the brothers limp back to home base.

The Commodore’s next assignment is seemingly smaller-scale: they’re to track down Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed), initially portrayed as someone who has absconded with one of the Commodore’s possessions. John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal), a detective with connections to East Coast money, is already on the trail. The plan is for him to capture Warm, at which point the Sisters brothers will catch up and torture him until they get what he has taken. However, in the course of befriending Warm, Morris learns that he hasn’t stolen anything; rather, he’s discovered a chemical that makes gold visible in streams, which could make him a wealthy man.

The ending of The Sisters Brothers, which shouldn’t be revealed, flirts with tragedy before finding an utterly sublime way to close its story.

It’s called The Sisters Brothers, but the film treats Gyllenhaal and Ahmed as if they were bonus leads. The two, who had such a fascinatingly malign energy in Nightcrawler (2014), have an effortless charisma. Their friendship, at first a ruse and then something more real, is oddly touching to watch develop. The Sisters brothers whore around at every stop along the trail, but the film hints at something queerer for Warm and Morris.

The Sisters Brothers

As for the brothers, it’s not particularly surprising that Phoenix plays the loose cannon of the two. He’s impulsive and impetuous, two qualities that Phoenix can portray better than any actor alive. Reilly is the older — and somewhat wiser — of the two; guns for hire aren’t known for their deliberation, but Eli is still more cautious than Charlie. As the film progresses, a miraculous transformation occurs. In a moment of weakness brought on by a venomous spider, Charlie is forced to care for a decommissioned Eli. Up to that point, the film has operated as a black comedy (though there really isn’t a ton of comedy), yet it takes on a tender tone that’s far more refreshing than anything we’ve seen to date.

The goal of most revisionist Westerns, beyond exploring the political implications of westward expansion, tends to be to give us characters who are closer to life. That’s often achieved by making them more brutal than was allowed by the production code in the era of classic Westerns, but Audiard and his co-writer, Thomas Bidegain, take a more interesting approach by showing us the souls and affections of otherwise terrible men. It seems fresh compared to other revisionist Westerns, but it’s actually a direct link to the great works of the past. It’s hard not to think of the camaraderie and friendship that suffuses Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo, or the father-son dynamics of Red River. Makers of contemporary Westerns so often search for ways to shock audiences, but Audiard does it by simply suggesting that these characters could actually love each other.

Audiard and Bidegain’s tone is matched throughout by the visuals, shot by Benoît Debie. Their version of the West (this is one of the few Pacific Northwest Westerns) is dappled with a golden, energizing sun instead of the oppressive one that’s so familiar. The movie was shot in Spain, but its desert and chaparral are how we imagine the Old West must have looked. Audiard also works in a bit of symbolism and foreshadowing around the color red that seems poetic rather than forced.

The ending of The Sisters Brothers, which shouldn’t be revealed, flirts with tragedy before finding an utterly sublime way to close its story. It’s the kind of conclusion that can leave you with a soft smile on your face, basking in the fact that the filmmakers have found a way to end their tale that you wouldn’t have imagined possible. If you’re fortunate enough to see the film in a theater, you might just want to turn around to catch the next screening.

The Toronto International Film Festival runs September 6 – September 16. Visit the official website for more information.

Brian Marks is Sordid Cinema's Lead Film Critic. His writing has appeared in The Village Voice, LA Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, and Ampersand. He's a graduate of USC's master's program in Specialized Arts Journalism. You can find more of his writing at InPraiseofCinema.com. Best film experience: driving halfway across the the country for a screening of Jean-Luc Godard's "King Lear." Totally worth it.

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TIFF

‘Ford v Ferrari’ Drives Fast with Little Under the Hood

A classic Hollywood drama with fast cars and a stellar Christian Bale performance that feels great despite a lack of emotional substance.

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Ford v Ferrari

Many directors always struggle with producers and other businessmen to retain their vision. What might work most for that vision may not be what focus tests and audiences have proven to enjoy, so the film gets reworked and reworked until it becomes a box office hit, and potentially retains a director’s intent. Ford v Ferrari doesn’t necessarily feel like that — this is a James Mangold film in many regards — but by the end of its story of vision and skill versus marketing and business agendas, Mangold’s latest wrestles with placing trust in an individual against an entire body of suits.

When Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) is approached by Ford Motors to create a car fast enough to beat Ferrari at the 24 Hours of Le Mans (an annual racing event where drivers go all day and night around the same track), he is forced to fight tooth-and-nail to get the best driver for the job: Ken Miles (Christian Bale). Shelby’s fight is singular; he wants to win the Le Mans, and knows that Miles is the only one who can do it. Yet, Ford Motors is still a company with many eyes on them, and employing the hot-headed Miles as a driver could be disastrous. So begins a struggle for Shelby and Miles to have their desires met by a company looking at the bottom line. That struggle — one that underscores every decision made by the characters in the film — is what sits at the core of Ford v Ferrari, and keeps things interesting. Set that aside, however, and the film loses a lot of momentum.

Ford v Ferrari

Still, the racing will grip audiences throughout. The final Le Mans challenge runs for a decent portion of Ford v Ferrari and is engaging throughout, but there are several other races and practices where Mangold’s craftsmanship as a filmmaker shines bright. Miles sits in the driver’s seat of all of these moments, and Bale’s performance is never stronger than when his character has that need for speed. Miles is a passionate driver with pure intentions, and Bale gives him a lot of wit and heart in between huge swings of emotion. It’s a performance that stands tall but doesn’t distract, instead meshing extremely well with the action.

Meanwhile, the other performances are also solid. Matt Damon is very good in the role of Shelby, though his character is quite often reserved because he has to be. When you put him against Bale, however, it’s clear that Shelby pales to the race car driver’s fleshed-out character, as we follow the latter’s family, his rejections and successes, and his pure heart. In the backdrop is a wide array of supporting actors, including Caitriona Balfe as Mollie Miles, Josh Lucas as the thorn in Shelby’s side, Jon Bernthal playing a standard Jon Bernthal role, and Tracy Letts chewing up scenery whenever he can as Henry Ford II. Letts and Lucas in particular give great caricatured performances, planting Ford v Ferrari into a more standard Hollywood drama.

Ford v Ferrari

Largely that’s the problem: Ford v Ferrari is a technical achievement with some incredible craftsmanship and performances that just never feels as great at slow times as it does when it’s moving past 7000 RPMs. It has a need for speed, and the pacing shows that, but it also doesn’t really rise very high above what’s needed to please an audience. Mangold is great at deriving emotional substance out of a subject, but a lot of that in Ford v Ferrari is left on the shoulders of Bale’s performance. Instead, the film focuses heavily on the bureaucratic side of things, and how that hinders talented people from being who they are destined to be. While fun to watch, there isn’t much more that will have Ford v Ferrari lingering with audiences. Instead, this will be a movie that resonates with racing fans and those that struggle against restrictions, keeping general audience satisfied in their big Hollywood dramas for the time being.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on September 14 as part of our coverage of The Toronto International Film Festival.

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‘Motherless Brooklyn’ Is a Twisting Homage to Classic Detective Films

TIFF 2019

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Motherless Brooklyn

Edward Norton writes, directs, and stars in this meditative and absorbing adaptation of Jonathan Lethem’s neo-noir novel.

In 1999, Jonathan Lethem published his fifth novel, Motherless Brooklyn, and went from being an under-read but respected postmodernist with a science-fiction bent to a writer with a growing mainstream audience. The book was an odd choice to suddenly get people’s attention — a tribute to the classic detective fiction of Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald, but featuring a detective with Tourette’s syndrome, and taking place in the 1990s. But Lethem’s flair for language, along with the novel’s equal portions of humor and sincere longing, made it a striking success. Back in the early 2000s, Edward Norton began developing the film, shortly after making his directorial debut. It took almost 19 years, but miraculously, Norton has made a version of Motherless Brooklyn that’s fun, engaging, and a tribute to classic detective films of the past.

Norton takes the lead as Lionel Essrog, a member of a shady detective agency that mainly takes on cases for organized crime rather than regular citizens. He has worked there for years after being rescued from a brutal Catholic school for orphans by Frank Minna (an asleep-at-the-wheel Bruce Willis), the head of the detective agency and a major contact to underworld figures. Lionel suffers from Tourette’s, as well as a smidgen of obsessive-compulsive disorder. His speech is interrupted at varying times with shards of curse words, nonsense phrases, and plays on words (he says the condition is like having “glass in my brain”). The Maryland-raised Norton isn’t an obvious choice for someone who grew up in the outer boroughs, but he brings dueling amounts of chagrin and decency. These qualities are necessary following his ticks and outbursts, which would seem obnoxious from nearly anyone else.

Motherless Brooklyn

Motherless Brooklyn opens on Lionel surveilling his own boss. Frank is meeting with an unnamed group of men, and he’s having Lionel keep tabs on the meeting so that he can burst in should anything go wrong. Of course, something does go wrong, and Frank is left with a bullet in his belly and no answers to give. In the wake of the shooting, Lionel makes it his personal quest to find out who shot his boss. The twisting plot, which grows exponentially more labyrinthine over time, pulls the burgeoning detective into a tangled web involving New York City’s development. Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin), a power-hungry figure modeled after Robert Moses, seems to have some connection to Frank, as does Laura Rose (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a young assistant to a Jane Jacobs-like figure who opposes everything Randolph stands for.

The convoluted plot will surely turn off some viewers, as did the more gonzo plot of last year’s Under the Silver Lake, but it’s a key component of all noir-inflected mysteries. The core books in the genre were written around WWII through the Cold War, and they illustrated a world gone mad — where the protagonist could never trust the word of another, and there was always more crucial information being hidden than he could ever real. The sense of disorientation that accompanies prime noir novels and films is a feature, not a bug.

Norton loses some of the wonderful strangeness of the novels ‘90s settings by setting it in the ‘50s, but it fits the story well, and some of the New York development details make more sense in mid-century. There are perhaps some tangents that could have been pruned involving various jazz clubs, and Bruce Willis’ phoned-in turn as Lionel’s mentor is an utter shame, robbing the film of some much-needed emotional moments, but Norton’s own performance makes up for many of the shortcomings, and he strikes up a charming rapport with Raw. Motherless Brooklyn can’t come close to topping its source material, but it’s still a lively mystery that might make you wish they still made this kind of detective story.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on September 11 as part of our coverage of the Toronto International Film Festival.

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‘Dolemite Is My Name’ Is a Return to Form for Eddie Murphy

Eddie Murphy is back and in fine form as the creator of a hit Blaxploitation film, though the film doesn’t always live up to his talents.

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Dolemite Is My Name

It’s hard to remember the last time that Eddie Murphy was good in a movie, so it’s with great pleasure that I can report that he’s back and actually trying in Dolemite Is My Name, a new film for Netflix about the creator of the wildly successful blaxploitation hit, Dolemite (1975). It’s a fairly conventional piece of work, and much of the humor surrounding Rudy Ray Moore’s Dolemite act doesn’t hold up any more, but there are still enough laughs and palpable passion from Murphy to make it a worthy story.

It’s the early 1970s when we first see Moore trying to pressure a DJ (Snoop Dogg) into playing some singles. Moore thinks of himself as a renaissance man — someone who has worked every facet of the entertainment industry — and wants to do it all, like his idol, Sammy Davis Jr. But his music dreams never went anywhere, and the closest he ever came to success was working in a record store. At nights, he gets five minutes of stand-up time before introducing acts at a local club, though he often stretches his time limit.

After a run-in with a homeless man who tells braggadocious stories about the hardest man he ever met (the improbably named Dolemite), Moore adopts the same rhyming style and crafts a stand-up act in which he puffs himself up and trash talks others mercilessly, all while dressed like a dandy pimp. The character is an instant success at the club, and soon Moore is taking his new act on the Chitlin Circuit, where he’s joined by Lady Reed (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), a singer with her own stage persona.

Raunchy comedy records that reach the Billboard 25 follow, though Moore is interested in something even bigger: the movies. He hires playwright Jerry Jones (Keegan-Michael Key), who is interested in respectability and social issues, and has him write the story for a blaxploitation crime film starring his Dolemite character. Along the way, Moore enlists actor D’Urville Martin (Wesley Snipes, having a lot of fun) as the film’s director and villain, while assembling a crew mostly made up of his friends — talented people who know nothing about making a movie.

Dolemite Is My Name

Dolemite isn’t as well-known now as some of its more famous Blaxploitation peers, but the film was a major success among black audiences, who came out to see it in droves in major cities. Though Murphy is often in comedic mode throughout, the awe Moore displays from people finally wanting to see something he has made is touching. Murphy also gives a performance that manages to channel Moore’s speech patterns as Dolemite, without ever slipping into parody.

Meanwhile, screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski excel at dramatizing the uncertainties and inevitable failures that come with the ultra–low–budget film production, but they’re oddly incurious when it comes to Moore’s personal life. We never understand where his desire to be a jack of all trades comes from, and his responses to a life full of failures are only briefly covered. The two excelled at writing complicated real-life characters in earlier successes like Ed Wood (1994), The People vs. Larry Flynt (1996), and Man on the Moon (1999), yet they don’t give Moore the same in-depth treatment. The director, Hustle & Flow’s Craig Brewer, doesn’t help matters either. He can’t make the visuals and period details of those earlier bio films, and never really displays any directorial flair, while some of the supporting performances are perfunctory at best.

But it’s Eddie Murphy that people will want to see, and he’s at least in fine form. Perhaps this film, as well as his upcoming Coming 2 America (also directed by Brewer), will help to usher in a new era of Eddie Murphy movies that aren’t terrible. One can hope.

This article was originally published on September 13, 2019, as part of our coverage of the Toronto International Film Festival.

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