Movie Review ~ Ford v Ferrari


The Facts
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Synopsis: American car designer Carroll Shelby and driver Ken Miles battle corporate interference, the laws of physics and their own personal demons to build a revolutionary race car for Ford and challenge Ferrari at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1966.

Stars: Christian Bale, Matt Damon, Caitriona Balfe, Jon Bernthal, Tracy Letts, Ray McKinnon, Josh Lucas, Noah Jupe

Director: James Mangold

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 152 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review:  With authors, historians, and filmmakers having greater access than ever before to archival materials for events throughout history, it isn’t long before we’ll have an easy way to bring up a certain important milestone that occurred and research it’s significance.  In the meantime, we have to rely on those who seek to preserve these cultural touchstones and explore the work they do to bring that information to the general public.  Maybe it’s an art exhibition of a painter that died before their time and was never known for their technique in their lifetime.  Perhaps it’s a long-lost book of essays from a famous writer that was found in a safety deposit box of their former lover.  Or it could be something as simple as a movie documenting the rivalry between two car companies seeking to win a world famous race and pushing each other to build better vehicles in the process.

That’s how I choose to look at Ford v Ferrari, the dandy new racing drama zooming into theaters this weekend.  Sure, it looks like that late in the year release that feels like a perfect film for your dad to enjoy while you’re shopping for the holidays at the mall but it’s far more than a mere ‘Dad Film’ and you should consider riding shotgun for this one as well.  If you do, you’re going to find a film gassed up and ready to go from the start, with A-list talent in the driver’s seat and a fine supporting cast of venerable characters actors admirably doing stellar work in the pit crew.  Though I know over the years I’ve come across a number of them, the last racing movie I can remember seeing (and liking) in a theater was a whopping 28 years ago with the (still great!) Days of Thunder – so it was high time to get back behind the wheel and try out this model that had some history to go along with it.

As a barely casual Formula 1 viewer, the only races I had any familiarity with were the Daytona 500 and the Indy 500 so learning about the 24 Hours of Le Mans that plays such a major role in this movie was a real eye opening experience.  According to Wikipedia, it is “the world’s oldest active sports car race in endurance racing, held annually since 1923 near the town of Le Mans, France. It is considered one of the most prestigious automobile races in the world and has been called the “Grand Prix of Endurance and Efficiency.”  I had always thought cars went around the track for a while and eventually whoever had the best time after a certain amount of laps won.  It totally blew by me that there was a strategy and skill involved in endurance racing, especially when you consider the length of time of Le Mans and how specifically the car has to be made to survive those conditions.

By 1963, the Ford Motor Company was in trouble.  Business wasn’t great and their production line wasn’t appealing to a younger culture that were becoming more enamored with the European cars they were seeing in films.  These foreign cars, driven by the likes of James Bond, were sleek and sexy, not boxy and chaste like the types Ford was churning out.  Inspired by his Vice President Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal, The Accountant), Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts, Lady Bird) makes an offer to buy the cash-strapped Ferrari who had steadily been losing business after investing so much money into their countless efforts to win Le Mans.  Hoping to claim a Le Mans victory for his company, Ford II or “The Deuce” as he was called behind his back, thought that by buying Ferrari he was guaranteeing himself a win.  When Ferrari balked, The Deuce made it his mission to destroy Ferrari by gathering a team of his own and winning Le Mans as a way to get a kind of revenge against Ferrari.

At the time, the best man to go to about cars was designer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon, The Martian) who had previously driven a car to a Le Mans victory in 1959.  The brusque Texan knew the right people to gather together to get the job done but also knew the corporate red tape that would ultimately get in the way – yet he soldiered on, eventually bringing in unpredictable British driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale, American Hustle) to test the car and steer it to victory.  Miles was known for his brilliant knowledge of cars and his talent behind the wheel, but also for his hotshot attitude and aversion to authority, a problem that comes into play when a ego-centric Ford company man (Josh Lucas, Thinner) gets promoted to oversee the racing team.  Under his penny pinching corporate eye, Shelby and Miles collaborate on a revolutionary automobile though and field test it endlessly to prepare for the legendary race.  The road to Le Mans is filled with potholes, though, and over the next years Shelby and Miles would have their professional relationship and friendship tested on multiple occasions as they navigated a company that wanted to win but with compromise and a leader who valued personal victory over loyalty.

Based on the 2009 book “Go Like Hell: Ford, Ferrari and Their Battle for Speed and Glory at Le Mans” by A.J. Baime was adapted by Jez Butterworth (Edge of Tomorrow), John-Henry Butterworth (Get on Up) and Jason Keller (Mirror, Mirror) into a well-oiled screenplay that, while heavy on car talk, doesn’t leave us non-car people in the dust.  In doing my research I’ve found that by and large Ford v Ferrari sticks fairly close to the events as they happened, taking few liberties with the real people that lived it.  As always, a movie can’t concentrate on every member of the larger team that led to success and I think focusing on Shelby and Miles was a good idea, mostly because the roles are so different yet complement each other so nicely.  Most agree that Shelby and Miles were key figures in Ford’s development of a racing car for the Le Mans race, though it’s well known it was a large team effort that wasn’t just accomplished by grease monkeys and the non-corporate type.

Director James Mangold (Logan) and cinematographer Phedon Papamichael (Nebraska) make the non-racing scenes look absolutely stunning, whether it be a conversation Miles is having with his son (Noah Jupe, Suburbicon, in another winning performance) or when The Deuce is throwing a tantrum in front of his executive staff.  It’s the racing footage that’s truly, incredibly, awesome.  Putting you right into the drivers seat without the shaking camera that often accompanies these views, whether we are looking in, out, or around the car Papamichael makes sure we know where we are and who we are following at all times.  With several races to go through before Le Mans, it allows audiences time to get a rhythm for the racing before the big one that takes up a large part of the last hour of the movie.  Having no knowledge of this event beforehand, I didn’t know the ultimate outcome of the Ford/Ferrari match-up and I’m so glad – it helped make the movie that much more enjoyable to be in some suspense as we near the finish line.

There’s already been a lot of talk about Ford v Ferrari around the performances of Damon and Bale, questioning if one actor should put himself in the running for Best Actor and one for Best Supporting Actor.  If we’re being fair, both are leading actors of the movie but I’d argue that Bale has the larger and more pivotal role…which is of course why many are saying he should campaign as Supporting Actor (??).  Even so, it appears both actors are going for the leading category now and I worry that it will either leave both out of the nominations or allow Damon to get in instead of Bale.  Nothing against Damon because he’s very good in this, I just responded more to what Bale was putting out onto the screen.  I also greatly enjoyed the Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Letts as the obnoxiously pompous son of Henry Ford.  Wait for the scene where Damon’s character takes him on his first ride in a true racing car…it’s worth the price of admission.  As the lone female in the film with any kind of significance (the film’s one true drawback), Caitriona Balfe (Now You See Me) is stuck with the Wife That Is Supportive Above All Else but makes it less saccharine than it could have been.  If only the script had allowed her a few more dimensions, Balfe would surely have been up to the challenge.

Some movies are easy to skip in theaters and wait until they arrive for rent at home.  This is not one of those movies.  I’d advise to see this on the biggest screen possible with the best sound system available.  It can only enhance what is already a thrilling film experience, a history lesson brought to considerable life by a crackerjack team of professionals at the top of their game.  I’ve had this one on my mind quite a lot over the past week and feel as if it’s one I’ll revisit sooner rather than later.  Definitely worth your time to see it in theater.

Movie Review ~ The Good Liar


The Facts
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Synopsis: Career con artist Roy Courtnay can hardly believe his luck when he meets well-to-do widow Betty McLeish online. As Betty opens her home and life to him, Roy is surprised to find himself caring about her, turning what should be a cut-and-dry swindle into the most treacherous tightrope walk of his life.

Stars: Helen Mirren, Ian McKellen, Russell Tovey, Jim Carter, Mark Lewis Jones, Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson

Director: Bill Condon

Rated: R

Running Length: 109 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  When you know you’re in good hands, it’s easy to settle back in your seat at a movie theater.  That’s why looking over the cast and crew of The Good Liar the other day I was able to get comfortable early on because I just had an inkling this would be one I didn’t have to fret much over.  Two iconic actors starring in a movie for a Oscar-winning director based on an international bestselling thriller adapted by a MN-connected screenwriter I quite like – you are speaking my cinematic language with perfect pronunciation.  Add in my general craving for something sophisticated and, y’know, adult and I was primed for a sly con movie that would have the usual twists and turns that came with the genre.

Now I’ve seen the trailer for The Good Liar several times over the past few months and more than a few key moments have been shown already so I’d advise you not to take another look before seeing this or avert your eyes if it comes on the telly before you get to the theater.  What’s nice to report is that, for once, the marketing team has elected to omit a key piece of the puzzle and that’s what makes The Good Liar such a fine treat to receive in the middle of a shaky November at the movies.  Instead of telegraphing what audiences should expect to see, they’ve left it for you to find out if you choose to venture into this adaptation of Nicholas Searle’s acclaimed debut novel from 2016.  If you do, you’ll be in for a fine ride featuring excellent performances in a movie that comes with crisp edges and is cool to the touch.

After meeting on a dating website for seniors, Ray (Ian McKellen, All Is True) and Betty (Helen Mirren, Woman in Gold) hit it off right away at their first dinner and strike up a friendship.  She’s looking for companionship after losing her husband the year before and he’s looking for…something different.  Well, not at first.  At first he seems genuinely a little interested in her as a potential love interest, but once he finds out Betty is sitting on a hefty nest egg, he moves in for the con and brings along his partner (Jim Carter, Downton Abbey) with plans to swindle his new friend.  As Ray and Betty’s friendship deepens, so does his ability to charm her and it’s to the script’s great credit that it doesn’t immediately turn Ray into an obvious money-hungry sociopath that Betty should be able to see right through.

That’s not the extent of Ray’s criminal dealings though, as he’s also involved with another scheme involving businessmen investing in a fake real estate corporation.  Opting to lay low until that blows over, he moves in with Betty, under the disapproving eye of her increasingly suspicious grandson (Russell Tovey, Muppets Most Wanted) who knows something is off about Ray but can’t put his finger on exactly what.  Driving a sly wedge between grandmother and grandson, Ray starts to separate Betty from her resources of safety until he’s practically all she has to rely on.  As Ray grows closer to Betty and gains her trust, his plan starts to come together…but when the time comes will he be able to go through with it and wipe her bank account clean?   Will his feelings get the best of him?  Or is there another player in the game that no one is yet aware of?

The answers to all these questions and more are laid out cleanly in the graceful screenplay by Jeffrey Hatcher (Mr. Holmes) which is generous to both Mirren and McKellen in the way it allows them to play each scene without rushing.  The same goes for director Bill Condon (Beauty and the Beast) who takes his time setting the film up in its first hour as we are introduced to Ray’s duality as a slick (and surprisingly nasty) crook one moment and a fragile aged elder leaning on Betty’s compassion in another.  There’s a tendency to let the victim of these stories look like a of fool for not seeing through this ruse but you get the sense in Mirren’s performance she knows Ray’s not always telling the whole truth but also that she has maybe emerged from a marriage where certain things went unsaid as well.

The final act of The Good Liar contains a few satisfyingly head-turning game changers and I didn’t see all of them coming…at least not the exact direction they were coming from.  You may have an inkling what corner the movie is about to go around but with Hatcher keeping Searle’s secrets so well he easily throws you off the scent, and that’s where the movie becomes less of a thriller and more of a cat and mouse drama that Mirren and McKellen revel in.  Both are playing against their perceived type here, he less as the warm-hearted gentlemen he appears to be and she far removed from the ballsy dame we know she is.  That’s fun to watch and seems like it was fun for them to perform.

If there’s one thing I’d change about The Good Liar is that it didn’t need to be quite so hard of a film.  Certain elements I’d agree have to play out against a backdrop of vicious crimes for specific plot tricks to work but there are parts of the movie that take place in strip clubs for no real purpose and key scenes of brutality that feel out of place.  While it contributes some element of surprise, it didn’t feel like an overall value add to the story Condon and company set out to tell.  Thankfully, any inclination to turn a pivotal moment into a bloody mess was avoided and the film as a whole retained its level of maturity when it very well could have sold its soul for cheap shock value.

There are certain actors some people would pay to hear read the telephone book and I honestly don’t think I’d be happy just watching Mirren or McKellen be stationary going through the alphabet.  What they’ve shown in The Good Liar is that they’re keen on taking on roles that require them to take action and get their hands dirty, not remain sedentary and stodgy.  Using their bodies as well as their trained voices, they’re actors that are fascinating to watch teamed in a project that holds your attention with ease.  If only more movies were made with this amount of class, patience, and trust in the audience.

Movie Review ~ Charlie’s Angels (2019)


The Facts
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Synopsis: When a young systems engineer blows the whistle on a dangerous technology, Charlie’s Angels are called into action, putting their lives on the line to protect us all.

Stars: Kristen Stewart, Naomi Scott, Ella Balinska, Elizabeth Banks, Patrick Stewart, Djimon Hounsou

Director: Elizabeth Banks

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 118 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: Leading up to the screening of the brand-new 2019 reboot of Charlie’s Angels, all signs were pointing to something less than impressive.  Early trailers were considerably lackluster and the marketing of the film was…well, look up a few inches and check out the poster I selected to headline this review.  It’s the best one I could find and that should be saying something because it’s pretty bad on its own.  It’s like a major studio (Sony) had decided to revamp a key piece of IP and then opted to spend no creative energy or cash on seeing to its success.  If they didn’t have some faith or interest in the movie, why should I?

I had also come off a recent double-feature rewatch of the previous 2000 McG directed reboot starring Drew Barrymore, Cameron Diaz, and Lucy Liu and it’s 2003 sequel and was kind of ashamed of myself for having a poster of both films on my wall at one point. (In my defense, the first poster was a fairly sweet high quality shiny foil material.) Both movies are still cornball pieces of bubblegum entertainment but they now come off as pre-packaged raunch fests, pushing the limits of the PG-13 rating and filtered through a male gaze so much that you can almost feel your chin stubble growing as the film progresses.  And the butt shots.  Oh my goodness.  You could do a drinking game (there has to be one, right) at the amount of gratuitous gluteus shots that occupy a rump-shaking amount of the film’s running length.

So yes, I was feeling conflicted about yet another new take on Charlie’s Angels, adapted from the popular television series that ran from 1976 to 1981.  I also had some questions.  Written and directed by Elizabeth Banks (Brightburn) tackling her sophomore feature after 2015’s Pitch Perfect 2, would the star actress be able to switch from a frothy musical to a spy-adventure?  What about the involvement of Kristen Stewart? The hard to pin down indie darling isn’t wholly picky with her roles but even this seemed like an out of left field choice for her.  Overall, the movie was lacking in mega-star wattage, a big selling point of the previous revitalization.  The two other women starring with Stewart were Naomi Scott (Aladdin) and Ella Balinska, not exactly household names.  With the less than boffo box office of Ocean’s 8, would audiences line up for another female-led caper action film?

I would never advocate for arriving late at a movie because it’s rude to others around you and you might miss some important info that could come in handy down the road but in the case of Charlie’s Angels, it wouldn’t be an outright terrible idea.   That’s because the first 10 minutes of this are pretty bad.  So bad I feared all my apprehensions about the movie were being made manifest and I’d be sitting there for another 105 minutes watching the time tick by in agony.  Fear not, because after that rocky road of an opening the movie rights itself almost immediately and a rather solid film materializes right before your eyes.  One that feels of the moment and also one that’s in on the overall joke from the jump.

Acting as a semi-continuation of the two previous films (with a few poorly photoshopped tweaks), Charlie’s “Angels” have gone international and now have branches all around the world.  {Stick around for the post-credits to see just how star-studded the recruits have become.} Bosley is now an official rank within the organization, which is why Banks, Patrick Stewart (Green Room), and Djimon Hounsou (Serenity) are all credited by some version of the moniker in the cast list.  They are each responsible for specific areas and keep tabs on their Angels that are close by, in addition to recruiting and training new candidates. Angels come from all walks of life and are called in when their special talents are required, so it’s less like they work as a group but more as a team of experts based on the need.

The need that exists currently is to keep an eye on an engineer in Germany (Scott) who has discovered a flaw in a handheld electrical system she helped create.  Without spending more time and resources to mend the error, the tool could go to market and be used as a weapon by someone with advanced knowledge and kill anyone in close proximity.  With her company intent on moving forward with mass-producing the item and not fixing the issue she’s found, she reaches out to the Townsend Agency/Charlie to help her find a way to stop her invention from falling into the wrong hands.  Before she can pass her info off, an attempt is made on her life – which is when the Angels fly in.  Tomboy Sabina (Stewart, Personal Shopper) is an heiress that likes to live on the edge and Jane (Balinksa) is a former MI:6 agent who left the agency for mysterious reasons we’ll learn about later on.

The movie plays like an extended episode of a television show with little in the way of complex plot development, save for a couple of well-timed twists that would have coincided nicely with a commercial break.  It’s not aiming to be that deep, however, and I appreciated that it favored forward momentum instead of digging too deep under the surface.  That’s not to say Banks doesn’t ask anything of her three leads because she elicits fine performances out of all, it’s just clear that they all had a mission to create a movie that was entertaining and I think they accomplished that.  The elaborate wig and costume changes are fun but grounded and the most madcap Banks lets things get is a giggly little bit of choreographed disco led by Stewart and Balinska. (Speaking of Balinska, she’s a real find and manages to steal the movie away from her fellow Angels quite often).  Whereas the Barrymore/Diaz/Lu movie felt like it was amusing them more than anything by the end, Banks and company allow us into that fun arena on a more regular basis.

If the new Charlie’s Angels spreads its wings at the box office, Banks has set things up to be an intriguing franchise.  With the globalization of the Townsend Agency, the Angels can come from anywhere so even if, say, Stewart wasn’t available for the next film you can easily swap her out for another super spy from the opposite side of the world.  It leaves the playing field (and cast list) open for a myriad of interesting possibilities for future installments.  Just make sure to give these new Angels a chance past those first ten minutes – we’re in the culture of snap judgments now and if you stick it out I think you’ll like where this one lands.