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 ~ Get on Up

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A chronicle of James Brown’s rise from extreme poverty to become one of the most influential musicians in history

Stars: Chadwick Boseman, Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Nelsan Ellis, Lennie James, Jill Scott, Dan Aykroyd

Director: Tate Taylor

Rated: PG-13

Running Length:

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review: As I mentioned in my review of the trailer for Get on Up, my dad was responsible for introducing me to the music of James Brown.  I remember he had several cassettes of Brown’s hits in his car and though I liked his early music just fine it was his later smash “Living in America” that I requested most often.  May dad passed away in 2009 and watching this long overdue biopic of Brown I couldn’t help but think how much my dad would have grooved with this well made, if overly sanitized, look into the life of the Godfather of Soul.

Being a James Brown fan I was a little leery about how this PG-13 biopic chronicling Brown’s rise to fame would tackle some of the more R-rated aspects of Brown’s life and career.  The answer to that is it treats some of Brown’s run-ins with the law, drug use, marital problems, and allegations of domestic abuse as anecdotes to his story rather than events that played a huge role in the path his career and life ultimately took.  It’s more reverentially respectful to the man once called Mr. Dynamite than condemning.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that, mind you.  The movie is designed to be an audience pleaser, thundering along with hit after hit…not making you wait for the music like June’s Jersey Boys, which seemed afraid to let their Broadway-trained actors actually sing the songs crowds know by heart.  As James Brown, Chadwick Boseman doesn’t do any singing of his own but impressively lyp-synchs to Brown’s vocals.  And what vocals!  The sound design is appropriately loud and immersive, allowing ticket-buyers the opportunity to hear every horn and funky beat that Brown and company laid down.

Director Tate Taylor wasn’t the obvious choice to helm 2011’s adaptation of The Help and he’s an odd choice for this one too…but he brings a certain flare to the screen that matches well with Brown’s larger than life personality.  Working from an oddly structured script by brothers Jez & John-Henry Butterworth (already represented this summer with Edge of Tomorrow), Taylor brings along several of his ladies from The Help for comfort and winds up giving them another chance to shine.

The script has its problems though.  The brothers Butterworth opt for a fractured timeline to tell their tale, beginning in the 80s before quickly moving backwards, forwards, sideways, and such to other years in Brown’s life.  I get that the standard narrative of biopics is straight-ahead-with-no-stops but what happens here results in confusion of time and place, making it difficult to see how certain events of the past influenced the star in the future.  It also conveniently places emotional arcs right where they need to be, peeking with a poignant (though well acted) crescendo shortly before the credits roll.  It’s as if the film was put together randomly, rather than from a place with strong narrative intentions.

The randomness of the scenes could have been a death sentence for the film had the performances not been so terrific.  Boseman (Draft Day, 42) takes on another real life story and knocks it clean out of the park.  The first time we see him as Brown he’s walking down a shadowy hallway before a concert late in life with Brown’s recognizable swagger.  Then we see his face and for a moment I wasn’t sure if it was Boseman or stock footage of the real man he’s portraying.  Boseman nails Brown’s raspy voice and rapid fire delivery and acquits himself as a dancer quite believably.  It’s a fully realized, galvanizing performance that signals Boseman is just getting started in this business.

Maybe even better than Boseman is Nelsan Ellis (Lee Daniels’ The Butler) as Brown’s second in command, confidant, and life-long friend.  Meeting an imprisoned Brown while performing with his gospel group in a local penitentiary, Byrd takes him under his wing and allows him to fly even after Brown outgrew his old band mates.  Ellis too lyp-synchs quite well and goes toe-to-toe with Boseman in several highly charged scenes.  It would be great to see Ellis nab an Oscar nom for his valuable supporting contribution to the film.

Rounding out the cast is Viola Davis (Beautiful Creatures) as Brown’s absentee mother, Octavia Spencer (Fruitvale Station) in a marginally realized role as Brown’s aunt running a shanty town brothel, & Dan Aykroyd (This is My Life), contributing less than his fair share as Brown’s agent.  All are merely there to bridge gaps between scenes where Boseman and Ellis can do their thing.

Though it misses opportunities to dig into some sensitive territory, Get on Up is nonetheless a pleasing bit of entertainment that accomplishes what it sets out to do: tell the James Brown story through music.

The Silver Bullet ~ Get on Up

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Synopsis: A chronicle of James Brown’s rise from extreme poverty to become one of the most influential musicians in history.

Release Date: August 1, 2014

Thoughts:  One of my earliest musical memories is my dad owning the soundtrack to Rocky IV on vinyl and playing it while he went through his workout. Though Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger” may be the most closely associated with the third sequel of Sylvester Stallone’s popular franchise, the song I always dropped the needle on was James Brown’s horn heavy whopper “Living in America” and its remained a personal favorite ever since.

Though The Godfather of Soul has been gone for nearly eight years, a biopic of his life is just now making its way to the big screen in a late summer slot. Directed by Tate Taylor (The Help) and featuring Chadwick Boseman (Draft Day) as James Brown I’m wondering why the previews I’ve seen so far haven’t made me as excited for this film as I think I should be. In addition to Boseman, Taylor has hot screenwriters Jez & Jon-Henry Butterworth (Edge of Tomorrow), a fine group of actors like Octavia Spencer (Fruitvale Station), Viola Davis (Prisoners), and Dan Aykroyd (This is My Life), and has the music not to mention the real-life drama to produce what should be a slam-dunk. Yet I’m left feeling that this will be a surface dwelling account of Brown’s rise to stardom and the troubles of the drug and legal kind won’t be lingered on for long.

I hope I’m wrong because done right, this could be the kind of music biography that gets the crowd on its feet.

Movie Review ~ Edge of Tomorrow

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The Facts:

Synopsis: An officer finds himself caught in a time loop in a war with an alien race. His skills increase as he faces the same brutal combat scenarios, and his union with a Special Forces warrior gets him closer and closer to defeating the enemy.

Stars: Tom Cruise, Emily Blunt, Bill Paxton, Noah Taylor, Kick Gurry, Dragomir Mrsic, Charlotte Riley, Jonas Armstrong, Franz Drameh, Masayoshi Haneda, Tony Way

Director: Doug Liman

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 113 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: I was discussing Tom Cruise with a casual acquaintance in a group setting the other day and when I mentioned how much I like his films, she responded with “Yeah, but he’ll always be that crazy couch jumper.”  It’s hard to believe that nearly a decade since the couch jump heard ‘round the world people still can’t let that one go…not that Cruise has helped his case by taking a critical stance against anti-depressants and being the poster boy for Scientology in the intervening years.

As a critic, though, you have to be able to put all that aside and look at the work…and when you look at the almost thirty years of Cruise’s Hollywood ventures you’ll see a portfolio filled with major blockbusters (Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol), guilty pleasures (Cocktail), old-fashioned epics (Far and Away), under-appreciated misfires (Oblivion, Jack Reacher), and miscalculated bombs like Rock of Ages that Cruise managed to emerge victorious from.  Put plainly…the man knows how to deliver the goods and that’s something that no amount of religious discussion or questionably hyper antics can sully.

Cruise is back in summer 2014 with the unexpectedly fun sci-fi action film Edge of Tomorrow, adapted from the graphic novel All You Need is Kill by Hiroshi Sakurazaka.  Already being described by critics as Groundhog Day with guns, the script from Christopher McQuarrie, Jez Butterworth, and John-Henry Butterworth rises above the simple ‘Live Die Repeat’ tagline to be a genuinely interesting mind-bender that plays by the rules (mostly) and keeps you on the edge of your seat after taking off like a rocket.

An alien race has arrived on Earth via comet and is lying waste to much of Europe.  In the battle to conquer these invaders, the army has developed specialized metal suits (think Sigourney Weaver in the final battle of Aliens) as armor against some very sneaky creatures that look like Medusa heads and strike with fatal precision.  Playing Cage, a cowardly lion of a military man, Cruise unwillingly finds himself moving from the face of the war recruitment effort into the front lines after running afoul of a general (Brendan Gleeson, Albert Nobbs, The Company You Keep) unimpressed with his spinelessness.

Without any training or real life knowledge of the enemies he’s fighting, Cage is dispatched to a military base where he’ll be one of the first troops to deploy on a deadly mission that plays out like the battle on Omaha Beach. Disoriented and seeing his platoon fall around him, he comes face to face with a Big Nasty Alien and dies.

Only that’s not the end, that’s just the first 20 minutes of director Doug Liman’s smashing freight train of a film.  See, when Cage dies the day starts over again, back when he arrives at the base.  Initially not believing it’s a convenient case déjà vu, when he continues to die in different ways only to wake up in the same spot he begins to figure out a way to change his fate and the fate of those around him.

Helping him out is Emily Blunt (Looper, The Five-Year Engagement) playing hard-ass Rita dubbed the Angel of Verdun for her impressive skills in alien extermination.  Cage soon finds that he has more in common with Rita than he’d ever imagined…and soon both are working together to turn the tables on an enemy always one step ahead of them.  Though the previews for Edge of Tomorrow seem to show a lot, there’s a nice hunk of story left that hasn’t been spoiled by the marketing department and certainly won’t be spoiled by me here.

Cruise is in top form (my date for the evening was heard saying several times “He’s 50!  The man is 50! How does he still look like that?” in the darkened theater) and is more than happy to let Blunt get her moment in the sunshine as well.  A movie star through and through, Cruise has fun playing a man of avarice humbled by his new found curse of living a bad day over and over and over.  Blunt steps up to the plate in a big way, proving to be a formidable co-star and giving the impression she’s just as tough as her leading man and any of the grizzled grunts that populate the film.

Liman keeps the action going strong without muddying the waters.  Originally I was a bit overwhelmed by the onslaught of explosions and battle sequences but it’s all in service to how the script refines what we’re seeing as the film progresses.  The musical score by Christophe Beck (Muppets Most Wanted, Endless Love) is appropriately juggernaut-y and the special effects blend seamlessly with the large scale set pieces necessary to tell the tale.

Movies are often compared to video games and in the case of Edge of Tomorrow that’s a fair comparison.  In video games, when you die you get to repeat the level and do your best to try and avoid past mistakes.  It’s a gimmick the film uses well and even if it bends the rules ever so slightly to get to an ending that was probably unavoidable, it’s a small nitpick for a summer blockbuster that more than gets the job done.  Well worth a watch.

The Silver Bullet ~ Edge of Tomorrow

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Synopsis: A soldier fighting in a war with aliens finds himself caught in a time loop of his last day in the battle, though he becomes better skilled along the way.

Release Date:  June 6, 2014

Thoughts: It’s become almost too easy for people to go after Tom Cruise and how he lives his life off-screen.  Yes, the couch jumping was eyebrow raising, the Scientology is head-scratching, and the rumors of his personal life have been tabloid fodder for decades.  Still, it’s hard to deny that the man continues to make very watchable films.  I thought his performance in Rock of Ages was the only saving grace in that mess and the underappreciated Jack Reacher and Oblivion showed the scrappy actor aging gracefully in quality product.

Slightly delayed from its original intended holiday 2013 release date and re-titled from the more interesting All You Need is Kill, Cruise’s Edge of Tomorrow has the creative time behind it that suggests it’s more than just another big budget Tranformers-y point and shoot film.  Adding considerable interest to me is Emily Blunt (Looper, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen), an actress consistently good but who has yet to lock into that perfect role.  2014 might be her year as she goes action chick in this and shows off her singing pipes in Into The Woods so check back in a year to see where she winds up.  Me, I’m looking forward to this…as I do most Cruise vehicles because they are always cinematically in tune with the times.