FORD v FERRARI aka LE MANS ’66 – THE RIGHT STUFF ON THE RACE TRACK

 

SHORT TAKE:

Ford v Ferrari does for the professional car race what The Right Stuff did for the space race. Fascinating insight into the art of the beasts’ designs and the intense skill of the men who push the limits of human endurance to risk piloting these genius feats of American engineering into record breaking speeds and distances.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Mostly mid to older teens for profanity, including blasphemy, and sudden automotive violence. No inappropriate or gratuitous sexuality.

LONG TAKE:

Ford v Ferrari, directed by the eclectically talented James Mangold, (including films as diverse as Logan, and Kate and Leopold) tells the tale about the challenge to the long time champion Ferrari  by the underdog American Ford company in the grueling 24-hour Le Mans race in 1966.

Previous racing movies like the crowd pleasing Grand Prix in 1966 and the disastrous MacQueen vanity bomb LeMans in 1971 relied heavily on made up soap opera plots against the backdrop of the famous races. The more recent cinematic venture, Rush (2013), while covering the story of two real life competitors, leaned on the scandal and juicy personal troubles of the men.

Ford v Ferrari, like the cars it features and the men who drove them, is a different breed. Ford v Ferrari, written by the team of: Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth, and Jason Keller, is far more reminiscent of The Right Stuff, focusing on the goals these brave and determined men wished to achieve. Where astronauts like Armstrong, Grissom, Glenn and Yeager dreamed of going out into space, drivers  like Ken Miles (Christian Bale – Batman: Dark Knight, Henry V, Midsummer’s Night Dream, Prestige) and designer Carroll Shelby (Will Damon – Good Will Hunting, Bourne franchise, The Martian) were committed to going flat out.

Carroll Shelby, most famous for bringing the Mustang to life for Ford Motor Company, spoke to a group of people on the eve of Ford’s launch into the racing business. He recalled that his father told them if he found something he loved to do for a living he would never have to work a day in his life. He then goes on to say that there are some people who go beyond that, and find something that compels them so strongly that they must do it or die. Ferrari versus Ford is the story of two such men, Shelby and Miles whose groundbreaking work on the development of the racing car brought innovations in speed, efficiency and safety to the motor vehicles we drive 50 years later. Their determination and courage to break records and accomplish what others only dream of is inspirational and exemplifies the American spirit of the 1960’s and gives example of what America does when her people put their minds to it.

Christian Bale’s British Ken Miles allows this versatile method actor to relax into something closer to his native accent than is his usual. Bale is, like Charlize Theron, Meryl Streep and Dustin Hoffman, one of those brilliant actors who don’t mind looking rough and ugly to benefit a performance. If you don’t believe that you should take a look at The Machinist. In Ford v Ferrari, Bale portrays Miles accurately as sweaty, dirty and plain, with the weather-beaten rough sunburned face of a man who spends his time either underneath the car or outside behind the wheel.

Damon’s performance as Carroll Shelby is one of quiet strength and subtle restraint. There’s great chemistry between these two men and you thoroughly believe them to be closer than brothers bonded by a common passion.

Unlike other racing movies, Ford v Ferrari has the courage of its convictions in putting the machines, technology and the race in the forefront of the story, leaving the personalities and the corporate manipulators as a colorful background. I understand very little about how cars work and despite the mountains of (perfectly appropriate) technobabble and jargon in the script, I understood clearly everything that was going on, including the hazards risked, the challenges endured, and the accomplishments achieved by these men and their crews.

Miles is at once brash and obnoxiously violent, not suffering fools, and at the same time gentle and philosophical with his son and wife.

There is a beautiful subplot that runs as a thread throughout the movie in the warm and close relationship between Miles and his son, Peter (Noah Jupes known for his outstanding performance in A Quiet Place). Peter was constantly at Miles’ elbow and went on to a career in car design, manufacture and racing. There seems to be a genuine rapport between Bale and Jupes.  The scenes with Miles and Peter provide many of the quiet gentle themes and take aways to this otherwise often loud and brutal movie.

There is also good chemistry between Bale and Caitriona Balfe (beautiful Irish model known for Money Monster and Now You See Me) who plays Miles’ wife Mollie. Balfe’s Mollie is supportive and understanding of Miles’ obsession but practical and no-nonsense when the occasion requires. Their tender moments feel very natural, with Bale and Balfe’s performance together making believable that this lovely woman would be devoted to this tough beef jerky of a man.

The machines, which provide the freedom of incredible speed, imagined and sculpted by the men devoted to the craft, demand a terrible price. Along with native skill and hard won knowledge it takes the sangfroid of acceptance of one’s own brief mortality to truly master the racing art. The drivers, designers and machinists accept that and know it takes a special fearlessness to undertake command of this breed of car. Ken Miles exemplifies this perfect blend of talents, expertise, aesthetic comprehension, and raw courage.

There are a number of character cameos: Jon Bernthal (The Accountant SEE REVIEW HERE and Peanut Butter Falcon SEE REVIEW HERE) portrays Lee Iaccoca, (later known for his part in the development of the Mustang and reviving the Chrysler Corporation), at the beginning of his career with Ford. Tracy Letts, an accomplished writer and theatre actor known for the movies Lady Bird SEE REVIEW HERE and 2019’s Little Women, portrays the blustering but determined Henry Ford, II. Josh Lucas (2006 Poseidon and Glory Road) is the weaselly Beebe, a composite of the worst of the corporate suits system. Remo Girone portrays Enzo Ferrari.

The cinematography by Phedon Papamichael is outstanding, taking you right into the “cockpit” of the driver’s seat, helping you feel the enticement of the driver’s adrenaline rush without feeling claustrophobic. The music by Marco Beltrami & Buck Sanders  echoes the sound of pistons while adding an Aaron Copeland feel of freedom and a jaunty ’60’s cockiness, all adding up to a musical recreation of the personalities of the two main characters.

If you are familiar with this history this movie will bring what you know to robust life. If you are not familiar with the history, do NOT look it up before you see this film because to give away too much would be  unfair to this  movie about racing cars which is more than the sum of its parts. So two checkered flags to Ford v Ferrari.

THOR: RAGNAROK – EXACTLY WHAT IT SHOULD BE

The wise and ancient Greek aphorism "Know thyself" which was said to hang in the forecourt at the Temple of Apollo at Delphi can apply to many things, even to movies. Movies of a particular genre are best when they adhere to the rules of their own known Universe. A romance should have long gazes and lovers who overcome obstacles. Horror movies should have jump scares. Disaster flicks should feature near misses and heroic self sacrifice. And movies based on comic books should bear the irreverent broad strokes of plot and illustration from which they originate.

Suffice it to say that Thor: Ragnarok understands its pedigree and is abundantly familiar with its own inner workings.

The premise, obvious from the title, is another in the line of adventures featuring Thor, Son of Odin and god of Thunder (Chris Hemsworth). Here he seeks to prevent the foretold, Ragnarok, the fiery destruction of Asgard, his home world.

SPOILER FOR THOSE WHO HAVE NOT SEEN THOR: THE DARK WORLD

Thor’s goal is complicated by Loki (Tom Hiddleson) who is hiding in the guise of Odin.

SPOILER FOR THOSE WHO HAVE NOT SEEN THE THOR: RAGNAROK TRAILERS

Thor is also hindered in his quest by Hela, the goddess of death, (Cate Blanchett) and by The Grand Master (Jeff Goldblum) who conscripts him into a gladiatorial competition against Hulk (Mark Ruiffalo).

This is a movie which THANKFULLY does NOT take itself too seriously. The colors are bright, the tale is full of creatures and fighting,    narrow escapes and changing alliances, spaceships, and the most unexpected cameos in the strangest places and characters which are WAAAAY over the top.

Jeff Goldblum’s Grand Master appears often as a hundred story hologram to his city which is imagined as the world’s biggest gameshow.

Hiddleson brings back Loki, the favorite Avenger Universe character one loves to hate in all of his snarky, clever, quipping, never-quite-absolutely-sure-what-he’s-going-to-do-next, ever so fun unpredictability. And every once in a while you get the feeling he is the only sensible adult in a room of idealistic children.

Anthony Hopkins reprises his role as Odin – first, in a comic turn, as Loki pretending to be Odin, then as the real Odin bringing to bear all of Hopkins’ Odin’s gentle dignity as a king and father.

Cate Blanchett’s Hela sports long dark hair which, when she brushes it back with her hands become enormous imposing deer antlers – a look, (much like Jason Isaacs’ ridiculously tall beaver hat adorning his Colonel Tavington in The Patriot), which only the likes of a great actor such as herself could sell as frightening.

As a side note, it is interesting to consider that Blanchett also played Galadriel, another extremely powerful supernatural being – the Queen Mother of the elves in Lord of the Rings who, when offered the Ring by Frodo gave a terrifying vision to Frodo should she accept:

"In the place of a Dark Lord you would have a Queen! Not dark but beautiful and terrible as the Morn! Treacherous as the Seas! Stronger than the foundations of the Earth! All shall love me and despair!"

But who then musters heroic self restraint and refuses ownership of the treacherous Ring.

"I have passed the test. I will diminish, and go into the West, and remain Galadriel. "

Weeeeeeeeeeeeeell just imagine if Galadriel had hungrily embraced the proffered ornament, eagerly put it on her finger, crushed Lord Sauron between her greedy fingers then you would get an idea of Hela – the flip side of Galadriel.

  And Blanchett has a Hela-va (think about it) good time munching on this role. She chews scenery, mows down soldiers, blows up castles and mews theatrically about being so very unappreciated in magnificent anti-hero finery. Hela is a worthy counterpoint to Thor’s beautifully strutting, splendidly self-aware position as the hero of the story.

But the story is not nearly as Wagernian as you might think, as characters, in very human fashion – make mistakes, trip, run into walls and annoy each other.

The screenwriters manage to run right up to that line in the sand between parody and affectionate homage and occasionally even plant one foot on either side. But they keep the ebb and flow between the comedy and genuine tragedy balanced as skillfully as a sword juggler at a PT Barnum circus.

Thor: Ragnarok is exactly what it should be: a live action comic book, brought to a gloriously larger than life by its director Taiha Waititi a New Zealand born child of both Maori and Jewish heritage, who also plays a wry rock monster gladiator named Korg.

Thor: Ragnarok is a perfect example of its kind. Like a two hour Disney ride it leaves you awash in eye-popping breath taking images, gentle humor which makes otherwise grandiose heroes familiar, and a plot which will carry you along like the Kali Rapids River Ride at Disneyworld. Thor: Ragnarok is, at turns, funny, heart-wrenching, heroic, endearing and ridiculous in only the way a comic book hero can come alive.

So grab your popcorn, turn your brain off and let Thor: Ragnarok take you on one of the most entertaining rides of the year. Had they been part of the same mythology, Thor: Ragnarok would have made Apollo proud.

Suburbicon: Clooney sinks a Coen comedy

SHORT TAKE: Clooney’s failed attempt to walk in the shoes of the Coen brothers, Suburbicon is supposed to be a noir comedy in the line of Fargo but sinks under the heavy handed weight of Clooney’s attempt to be socially relevant.

LONG TAKE: Years ago the Coen brothers wrote a darkly comic script about a quiet average suburban family who descends slowly and inexorably into evil and ultimately madness beginning with one bad decision. That script lay fallow until George Clooney – alumni of multiple Coen films, including two of my favorites –

Hail, Caeser! and o brotherO Brother, Where Art Thou? – decided to film it.

BEYOND HERE BE SPOILERS:

The premise of the main story deals with the disintegration of a family subsequent to a robbery which results in the death of the paraplegic mom, Rose (Julianna Moore). As the story unfolds, like the gradual rotting of a supporting beam to a house, the unnatural complacency of the husband, Gardner Lodge (Matt Damon) during the break in, the displays of grief amongst his friends and family that he obviously does not share, the quick injection of the twin sister Margaret (also Julianna Moore) into the mother’s place all begin to develop the smell of what Big Daddy from Tennessee William’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof might have referred to as “mendacity”. gardner and margaretThat is – the husband and the deceased wife’s sister are lying and definitely up to no good. Much of this growing tragedy is seen through the eyes of their 12 year old boy Nicky (Noah Jupe).

What struck me about the machinations of Gardner was the “Banality of Evil” – a phrase coined by Hannah Arendt – the ease with which otherwise ordinary decent men can be lured into committing great evil.

At its best moments, Suburbicon reminded me of the movie Good – starring Viggo “Aragorn” Mortensen and Jason “Lucius Malfoy” Isaacs. Good is about a decent ordinary man named John Halder (Mortensen) who is slowly lured, one simple, poorly chosen decision at a time, into having his mother euthanized, betraying his best friend and family to hideous deaths, and becoming a functionary of the Nazi party, ending in the weight of his guilt pushing him into madness. Good is a tragic tale of the noble man whose flaw of stunning self-interest destroys him and everyone around him. Good is a fascinating movie heartbreakingly told with complexity and depth of purpose. But – at the deliberate risk of being punny – Suburbicon is NOT Good.

There is an especially telling scene in Suburbicon where Lodge calls his son, Nicky, into his office. Nicky, by witness of a number of incriminating events subsequent to his mother’s murder, has already inferred his father and aunt’s complicity. Aside from the terrible vulnerability a child would feel, he has been betrayed by his father in the most fundamental of ways. intimidatingHis father has not only failed to protect their family but he has opened the door to permit evil and chaos wreck their will upon their home. carSo driven is Lodge by his own mortally self-indulgent passions, that he has tried very little to even pretend sympathy or connection with his son throughout this ordeal. Knowing his son’s suspicions Lodge enters the bathroom where Nicky is bathing – metaphorically and physically vulnerable – to cajole then berate Nicky into agreeing that what he knows – he does NOT know. Then in a later scene he lectures his son on his failings, rationalizing the boy’s grief and suspicions on being undisciplined and coddled by his dead mother.  Lodge’s thinly veiled justifications for his own abominable deeds reek of the casual self justifications offered by the Nazis at Nuremberg.

This is as dark a story as one might tell and in the hands of the Coen brothers who directed equally dark themed topics like Fargo through the medium of humor they become multilayered stories which make you wiser for having watched them. But wherein the Coens guide their films through those grim forests with the lightening lantern of humor, Clooney takes himself too seriously and drives the Coen scripted screenplay to murky depths. The trailers advertise a black comedy. What we get is a noir which attempts and fails humor like someone who uses a hand buzzer in a funeral line.

To underscore Clooney’s heavy handedness he adds to the Coen script a clunky grafting of the real life incident of the Myers family in Bush, Pennsylvania in 1957, wherein a black family’s entrance into an otherwise white suburban community results in two weeks of harrassment culminating in a neighborhood riot. Clooney is too intent on castigating the memory of early white suburbia as uniformly viciously racist based upon a single isolated incident, rather than craft the Aesop-like Coen tale to which we are used.

There is some small merit to the historical event’s inclusion to the Coen brother’s film as a macrocosm of chaos, as it were, to the microcosm of the family’s disintegration. In addition, as a clunky plot point, the riots act as a convenient McGuffin to explain why the neighbors don’t notice the insanity unfolding in the Lodge’s home. But Clooney cannot resist the urge to overlay his own obvious disdain and suspicion of middle class America upon the story all the while in an act of hypocrisy more wryly amusing than the movie, patronizingly presents the beseiged black family not as individuals but as de-personalized racial symbols. Neither adult has a first name and the father does not even have any lines. The only personality given to the black family is through their son Andy and only then through his friendship with the white Nicky Lodge child next door.

Samuel Goldwyn once famously said to an idealistic screenwriter with visions of teaching the public a socially meaningful lesson: “If you want to send a message, call Western Union.” Clooney would have been wise to heed that advice.

Hopefully Clooney will learn, if he directs any movies in the future, from the admonition that Edmund Kean allegedly gave upon his death bed: “Dying is easy, comedy is hard.”

As a side note – if anyone was wondering – I looked for a connection to Satyricon – the story whose obvious title similarity screams for comparison – and really couldn’t find much – aside from the fact Satyricon in all of its manifestations from Roman literature to Fellini – were just bawdy house sensualities with about as much deep meaning as your average porno film. I suppose it is possible the title was simply intended as a warning that this story might start out as an innocent  look at suburban life in the 50’s but will become an excuse to roll around in undiluted profane sexuality and raw graphic violence and bloodshed.

The Martian – MacGyver in Space

The Martian - aloneThe Martian reminds me of a MacGyver on Mars. You remember the old tongue-in-cheek  1980’s TV show about a secret agent who can make anything out of — well, anything. MacGyverThe old joke is that he could make a bomb with  some Scotch tape and a stick of chewing gum. Now that is NOT to denigrate The Martian in any way.

So maybe I should better go with the more obvious analogy —- BourneBourne in space, though if you say that without thinking you’d assume it was about a generational ship. LOL

I thought The Martian was a good story, well acted and kept me on the edge of my seat. The premise is that one Mark Watney (played beautifully by Matt Damon), astronaut, is part of an exploratory landing crew on Mars who (and this is not a spoiler as nothing you wouldn’t see in the trailer) is thought killed and left behind in an emergency evacuation.

Now, I might quibble with this premise as I have a hard time believing people smart and resourceful and careful and well informed as people who can get other people to Mars and back can not check – the weather? I also can not believe that, even if in the decades to come, we STILL can not *sigh* predict the weather properly (nor cure the common cold I presume) that the geniuses (and I do not use this term here loosely) who got them to Mars would not have anticipated the kind of situation our astronauts find themselves in and provided for it. In short: a bad storm comes up which makes their tower-shaped rocket begin to tip so badly that they must leave their landing site MONTHS prematurely and abort the entire mission!! Somehow I find it unlikely that the future equivalent of NASA would not have provided for an alternative which would have: kept the tower stable OR allowed the crew to come back down in a different spot OR let them telescope the entire rig down to a structure at least less vulnerable than a water tower. (I stayed through Hurricane Rita and I can tell you our city’s water towers were still there the next morning.)

HOWEVER, I usually give any movie at least ONE unbelievable premise as part of their needed McGuffin (the “THING” – whatever it is – without which the plot can not happen) to move things along. Because if everything was routine there likely would not BE a movie. And the emergency take-off and ENTIRE ABANDONMENT of what must have been YEARS and bazillions of dollars in the making ALL because of bad weather —- is the one gimme I’ll give it.

Now, the best parts of The Martian had to do with how Mark Watney  decides to fight to live. There is one line that sums up his character and it is a philosophy to which one should aspire. Faced with accidental abandonment on a planet where nothing grows he has to find a way to stretch his food supplies from a few months to years. He has to create water. He has to live in and keep repaired for years a habitat meant for a few months. He has to keep his waste and oxygen recyclers working with minimal equipment other than what was left behind in the emergency evac and some crew mementos. Reviewing the obstacles before him as he videos his assessment of his circumstances he could have (and I might add justifiably) broken down in despair. And for just one moment you wonder which way he is going to go. Then he states with the air of someone simply planning a challenging science project:Martian at video “I’m gonna have to science the **** out of this.” Lt. Gen. Harry W.O. Kinnard, when offered surrender by the Nazis during the Battle of the Bulge in 1944, responded: “Nuts”. When General George S Patton heard about this he famously quipped: “A man that eloquent has to be saved.” So I similarly and immediately felt about Astronaut Watney. Whether he is or not – saved – I wil not spill, but suffice to say that, regardless of the outcome, the struggle made by Watney to not only survive but to do so with grace and courage and OPTIMISM was worth the watching and frankly inspirational.Martian making rows

This is the point at which I heave a small *sigh* and divulge a wish.

What I wish The Martian had been was more Robinson Crusoe on Mars. Now — hold on — there really WAS a movie with that EXACT name R C on Mars posterwhich sought to update the current myth of Robinson Crusoe and place it on Mars – only Mars had breathable air and the intrepid survivor ended up with a man Friday. R C on Mars w FridayIt’s very dated, but very quaint and an old classic flick.

But THAT Robinson Crusoe on Mars is not what I’m talking about. In the ORIGINAL story written by Daniel Defoe published in 1719 Crusoe was an adventurer and slaver, embarking on sea voyage after sea voyage against his family’s wishes. During one of his trips to transport slaves he is shipwrecked and left alone on an island for 17 years. He too learns to survive on an inhospitable “planet”, just as our astronaut Watney does. But one thing the first Crusoe did which our modern astronaut does not is repent and turn to God. R C - cross R C - bible

Once again, as I mentioned in the blog about Interstellar happens so often in today’s sci fi stories, in The Martian science becomes god. While the determination to “science the s*** out of —” something to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles is a worthy sentiment, it is not enough. No amount of science in the world will allow you to do more than stave off the inevitable – as Watney discovers (and no I’m not giving anything about the ending away because these set backs come throughout the movie).

The situation for our main character is extremely dire. The man is stuck in space 140 million miles away from Earth and the only people who have even a chance of saving him YEARS from now do not even know he is alive. Mark goes through his friends’ personal effects, he inventories supplies, he plays his captain’s disco music and he even scavenges the wood from a crew mate’s crucifix — but even here only a superficial nod is made to assistance from God for this desperate man’s plight. From a realistic POV I would imagine there to be a lot of discussion with God – and I also imagine not all of it very happy. I would understand anger and grief but ultimately the seeking of solice from and acceptance of God’s Will would have fit in with Mark’s efforts and his thoughtful sangfroid personality.

The Martian suffers from the same flaw as other recent movies about desperate people left adrift (one way or another) without the usual resources (family, equipment, communication with home) needed in a dire situation: likeInterstellar - 1 astronaut Interstellar andCastaway Castaway.

Gravity - wombGravity was much more akin to the original Robinson Crusoe and the original Robinson Crusoe’s themes, because the main character there was struggling with her atheism as an analogy for the isolation she felt from God in the face overwhelming obstacles and baggage of personal tragedy.

The seemingly deliberate avoidance in The Martian of any but the most tenuous and brief of nods to an acknowledgement of man’s need for help from his Creator is a disappointing affront to this and other worthy film efforts.

From an educational POV there is MUCH to be gleaned from Mark’s experiments and projects in biology 101: What is needed when one has almost nothing but sterile dirt to grow food? How DO you make large amounts of water when all you have is air? How do you cope when even your air is in limited quantity? Mark’s solutions are clever and realistic But they COULD have been – with a simple exercise in humility – profound.

Small warning – there is ZERO hanky panky. But the language can get a bit raw, though not at all gratuitous given Mark’s predicament. And given the positive nature of the themes and educational values, worth enduring. The plot is, obviously, quite tense. So I would suggest your initial consideration would be for mid to older teens. But definitely check it out yourself first or access  Screenit.com on The Martian for a helpful guide.

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