Ford v Ferrari (dir. by James Mangold)


fordvferrari posterIt’s rare for me to say that I enjoyed a film so much that I didn’t want it to end, but James Mangold’s Ford v. Ferrari hits all the right notes. A fantastic cast, impressive visuals on the races, scenes that flow without any time wasted and sound that begs to be heard on a surround system. It’s no surprise that the film earned Four Oscar Nominations – Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing, Best Film Editing and Best Picture, all of which are well deserved. If the lineup this year wasn’t so stacked, I’d say that Ford v Ferrari would score quite a bit. It can go any way, but It may end up like The Shawshank Redemption – A great film that could be eclipsed by giants.

Based on a true story, Ford v. Ferrari focuses on the Ford Motor Company in the mid 60’s, down on its luck and looking for a way to stay ahead of the game. Henry Ford II, played by a scene stealing Tracy Letts (August: Osage County), asks his workers to come up with an idea. A young Lee Iacoccoa  (Jon Bernthal, The Punisher) feels the best way to do so is to attempt to win the famed 24 hour race at Le Mans in France. The LeMans is dominated by Ferrari, who hand manufactures their machines to be legends in the racing circuit. If Ford could win, it would put them in a better light to consumers, but winning requires more than just a fast car.

Ford enlists the help of Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon, The Martian), along with his brash and skillful driver, Ken Miles (Christian Bale, 3:10 to Yuma), Ken has a few issues getting along with others, but his knowledge of cars is brilliant. Shelby continuously goes to bat for Miles, who isn’t exactly poster boy material in the eyes of Ford.  Together, they work on building a competitive vehicle. The poster may suggest the story is about the cars, but at its heart, I felt that Ford v. Ferrari was more about the friendship between Shelby and Miles than anything else. Their mutual love of cars and racing is what ties it all together.

When it comes to the technical points of racing, Ford v Ferrari’s script doesn’t ask you to know much about cars going in. Just about everything you need to about the LeMans and the abilities of the cars is explained through the characters over time. Car gurus may find areas where liberties are taken, but casual watchers should find themselves entertained.

Kudos goes out to the casting for Ford v. Ferrari. Josh Lucas (Poseidon) plays the heavy in the film as a Ford businessman who would love to see Miles out of the spotlight. Caitriona Balfe (Starz’ Outlander) has some good moments with Bale as Miles’ wife, Mollie, though she happens to be the only woman in the film with many lines. Given that the story takes place in the 1960s and its guys building cars, it made sense. Playing Miles son, Peter, Noah Jupe (Honey Boy, A Quiet Place) is that character that helps the audience understand the nuances of racing. I kind of wish Bernthal had more to do here, but he’s cool when he’s on screen and carries his weight easily.

The film belongs to Damon and Bale, though. Damon’s Shelby is full of attitude. He knows what he wants to get done, what needs to happen and just does it. Damon carries this with ease, and it’s easy to forget that the actor is there at times (for me, anyway). Bale does the same, but is on a different level, with his Ken Miles being both focused and a little wild, perhaps even cynical. There’s a great mix of comedy and drama between the two actors.

The sound quality of Ford v. Ferrari is amazing. If you had the chance to see it in the cinema, consider yourself lucky. The rev of the engines are crisp, the shifting the of gears sublime. I’d be somewhat shocked if the film doesn’t walk away with the Sound Mixing / Sound Editing Oscars. From a visual standpoint, the races themselves offer some nice tracking shots, though there may be one or two scenes that particularly stand out.

Mangold and Phedon Papamichael (his Director of Photography for Walk the Line) perform some interesting tricks with the camera. With the races themselves, the cuts are smooth. You have dynamic tracking shots of cars  in some cases while others are lit enough to be comfortable. One of my favorite scenes involves a play on shadows that makes it appear like you’re watching a race, complete with the sound of the cars in the background. It’s subtle touches like that make me wonder why it wasn’t nominated for Best Cinematography. I should also note that for a 2:30 minute film, it flies by. I found very few (if any) moments where I felt a scene wasn’t particularly needed to push the narrative along. You can thank Jez and John-Henry Butterworth (Edge of Tomorrow) for that screenplay.

I can’t say I have any real problems with Ford v Ferrari. Overall, it’s an entertaining film right from the start that gets you into the story and behind the wheel.

Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: The Post (dir by Steven Spielberg)


So, I finally sat down and watched the 2017 film, The Post.

The Post is something of an odd film.  Imagine if someone made a film about the production of a movie.  And imagine if, instead of focusing on the actors or the members of the crew or even the director, the film was instead about the studio executives sitting back in Hollywood and debating whether or not they should agree to give the director another million dollars to complete the film.  Imagine dramatic scenes of the execs meeting with their accountants to determine whether they can spare an extra million dollars.  Imagine triumphant music swelling in the background as one of the execs announces that they’ll raise the budget but only in return for getting to pick the title of the director’s next film.  The Post is kind of like that.  It’s a film about journalism that’s more concerned with publishers and editors than with actual journalists.

To be honest, The Post‘s deification of the bosses shouldn’t really be that much of a shock.  This is a Steven Spielberg film and a part of Spielberg’s legend has always been that, of all the young, maverick directors who emerged in the 70s, he was always the one who was the most comfortable dealing with the studio execs.  As opposed to directors like Martin Scorsese, Brian DePalma, and Francis Ford Coppola, Spielberg got along with the bosses and they loved him.  While his contemporaries were talking about burning Hollywood down and transforming the culture, Spielberg was happily joining the establishment and reshaping American cinema.  No one can deny that Spielberg is a talented filmmaker.  It’s just that, if anyone was going to make a movie celebrating management, you just know it would be Steven Spielberg.

Taking place in the early 70s, The Post deals with the decision to publish The Pentagon Papers, which were thirty years worth of classified documents dealing with America’s involvement in the Vietnam War.  Since the Pentagon Papers revealed that the government spent several decades lying to the American people about the situation in Vietnam, there’s naturally a lot of pushback from the government.  It all leads to one of those monumental supreme court decisions, the type that usually ends a movie like this.  And while the film does acknowledge that there were journalists involved in breaking the story, it devotes most of its attention to editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) and publisher Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep).

Gasp as Ben and Katharine debate whether to publish the story!

Shudder as Katharine tries to figure out how to keep the Post from going bankrupt.

Watch as Ben Bradlee talks to the legal department!

Thrill as Katharine Graham learns that her family friends, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, weren’t always honest with her!

And listen, I get it.  The Post isn’t as much about Nixon and the Vietnam War as it’s about Trump and the modern-day war on the media.  And yes, we get plenty of scenes of Tom Hanks explaining why freedom of the press is important and the movie ends in typical Spielberg fashion, with triumphant music and all the rest.  But watching The Post, it’s hard not to think about other films that celebrated journalism, films like All The President’s Men and Spotlight.  Both of those films featured scenes of editors supporting their reporters.  In fact, All The President’s Men featured Jason Robards playing the same editor that Tom Hanks plays in The Post.  But Spotlight and All The President’s Men focused on the journalists and the hard work that goes into breaking an important story.  Robards and Spotlight‘s Michael Keaton played editors who were willing to stand up and defend their reporters but, at the same time, those films emphasized that it was the underpaid and underappreciated reporters who were often putting their careers (and sometimes, their lives) on the line to break a story.  Whereas Spotlight and All The President’s Men showed us why journalism is important, The Post is content to merely tell us.

The Post was a famously rushed production.  Shooting started in May of 2017 and was completed in November, all so it could be released in December and receive Oscar consideration.  Production was rushed because Spielberg, Streep, and Hanks all felt that it was important to make a statement about Trump’s treatment of the press.  While I can see their point and I don’t deny that they had noble intentions, a rushed production is still going to lead to a rushed film.  The Post is a sloppy film, full of way too much on-the-nose dialogue and scenes that just seem to be missing Spielberg’s usual visual spark.  It feels less like a feature film and more like a well-made HBO production.  Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep give performances that are all surface.  Streep’s performance is all mannered technique while Hanks occasionally puts his feet up on his desk and furrows his brow.

It gets frustrating because, watching the film, you get the feeling that there’s a great movie to be made about the Pentagon Papers and the struggle to publish them.  I’d love to know what the actual reporters went through to get their hands on the papers.  But The Post is more interested in management than the workers.

All through 2017, The Post was touted as being a sure Oscar front-runner.  When it was released, it received respectful but hardly enthusiastic reviews.  In the end, it only received two nominations — one for best picture and one for Streep.  In a year dominated by Lady Bird, Shape of Water, Get Out, and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, The Post turned to be a nonfactor.  For all the hype and expectations, it’s the film that you usually forget whenever you’re trying to remember everything that was nominated last year.

The Things You Find on Netflix: Christine (dir by Antonio Campos)


I really regret that I didn’t get a chance to see Christine when it played here last year.  I wanted to but the movie was only in theaters for a week and then it vanished.

I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised that Christine didn’t become a blockbuster.  I imagine that most potential viewers were turned off by the fact that 1) it wasn’t a remake of the movie about the killer car and 2) it was based on the true story of a reporter who, in 1974, committed suicide on live television.  I imagine that, to many people, the film sounded like it would be indescribably sad.  It certainly sounded that way to me.  That’s why, when the movie opened at the Dallas Angelika, I said, “I’ll see it next week.”  Of course, by the time “next week” rolled around, the movie was gone.

And that’s a shame.  I just watched Christine on Netflix and I discovered that it was one of the best films of 2016.  Yes, it is a sad film but it’s also a frequently fascinating one.  The movie may tell the story of a tragedy but it’s anchored and enlivened by a brilliant performance from Rebecca Hall.  People who love movies, of course, already know that Rebecca Hall is a brilliant actress but, unfortunately, she rarely gets the roles in the films that she deserves.  As of this writing, her most financially successful film was probably The Town and, in that film, she was pretty much wasted in a nothing role.  She is perfectly cast in Christine, perhaps as perfectly cast as any performer could ever hope to be.

Rebecca Hall plays Christine Chubbuck, a reporter who was based in Sarasota, Florida.  In 1974, she started a newscast by announcing, “”In keeping with Channel 40’s policy of bringing you the latest in ‘blood and guts’, and in living color, you are going to see another first—attempted suicide.”  She then drew a gun from a shopping bag that was sitting behind the anchor desk.  As thousands watched, she shot herself in the back of the head.

Along with the gun, the shopping bag had contained the homemade puppets that Christine used whenever she volunteered at the local children’s hospital.  On the anchor desk, among her papers, was a news report that she had written the previous night, announcing that “Local news personality Christine Chubbuck” had shot herself on live television and had been taken to the hospital in critical condition.  Christine, who was reportedly frustrated both personally and professionally, was briefly the number one story in the nation.

One of the more interesting things about the suicide of Christine Chubbuck is that it happened in 1974, long before YouTube, Facebook Live, or Twitter.  Chubbuck’s suicide was only aired once and the footage has subsequently vanished.  If Christine Chubbuck, or anyone else, committed suicide on television today, it would immediately be all over the internet.  We would end up seeing, at the very least, clips of it on an almost daily basis.  Sadly, we would see it so much that we would probably become desensitized to it.  Since Christine Chubbuck’s death was recorded but remains unseen, both she and her suicide have achieved an almost mythical quality.  One can look at the details of Christine Chubbuck’s death and see almost anything that they want.

Christine follows the last few months of Chubbuck’s life.  As played by Rebecca Hall, Christine is confident enough that she can imagine interviewing Richard Nixon but insecure enough to obsess over whether she was nodding too much while the imaginary President gave his imaginary answer.  She lives with her mother (J. Smith-Cameron), a self-described hippie who keeps making references to a breakdown that Christine had in Boston.  When she complains about the pressure that she’s under to sensationalize the news, her boss dismisses her with “You’re a feminist!”  (He says it like an accusation.)  When she gives in and purchases a police scanner so that she can find the stories that the boss is demanding, she ends up spending most of her night listening to two cops brag about “how far” they got with their girlfriends the night before. When she goes to the doctor to complain about chronic stomach pain, she’s told that she has to have an ovary removed and she’ll probably never be able to conceive.  When she thinks that she finally has a date with the man who she’s been crushing on, she is instead dragged to an empty-headed encounter group.  Her group partner has a slick answer for every problem that Christine has until Christine says that she’s thirty and she’s still a virgin.

“Oh,” her partner replies, flummoxed.

In the film, Christine struggles with both depression and, in my opinion, bipolar disorder as well.  Unfortunately, for her mental well-being, she’s a woman in 1974.  The only thing that the world has to offer her are vapid self-affirmation (“I’m okay, you’re okay!  I’m okay, you’re okay!” one co-worker chants at a particularly dramatic moment) and sexist bosses who dismiss what is clearly a manic episode as either “being moody” or “being difficult.”  Speaking as someone who is very sensitive as to how mental health issues are portrayed onscreen, all I can say is that Christine gets it right.

I’m probably making this film sound like the most depressing movie ever made and it’s definitely not a happy film.  I had tears in my eyes by the end of it.  At the same time, it’s also a compulsively watchable character study.  Rebecca Hall gives such a good and brave performance as Christine that you can’t look away, even when you feel like you should.  Rebecca Hall is also ably supported by Michael C. Hall, Tracy Letts, Morgan Spector, Timothy Simons, and Maria Dizzia, who all play her sometimes sympathetic, sometimes annoyed co-workers.

Now, I do think that I should warn anyone from thinking that Christine is a 100% accurate look at Christine Chubbuck’s life and death.  The film left me so moved that I actually did some research and I came across this article from the Washington Post — Christine Chubbuck: 29, Good-Looking, Educated, A Television Personality. Dead. Live and in Color.  After reading the profile, it was easy to see that the film did take some dramatic license.  However, it was also easy to see that Christine gets the essence of the story right.

If, like me, you missed Christine in the theaters, you can now see it on Netflix.  And you should!

Playing Catch-Up With The Films of 2016: Elvis & Nixon (dir by Liza Johnson)


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When you think of actors who you could cast in a biopic of Elvis Presley, Michael Shannon is probably not the first actor who comes to mind.  And yet that’s just what the people behind Elvis & Nixon did.  They also cast Kevin Spacey as Richard Nixon, a decision that, on the surface, makes more sense than Shannon playing Elvis.

And yet, in the finished film, it’s Shannon who gives the memorable performance while Spacey often seems lost in the role of Nixon.  Fortunately, with Kevin Spacey’s role largely being an extended cameo, Michael Shannon is the one who is in nearly every scene of the movie.

Elvis and Nixon is based on a true story.  In 1970, Elvis Presley asked for a meeting with Richard Nixon who, if the film is to be believed, wasn’t quite sure who Elvis actually was.  It turns out that Elvis was very concerned about the growing popularity of illegal drugs.  In between consuming prodigious amounts of legal drugs, Elvis formulated a plan.  Perhaps he could go to the White House and convince Nixon to deputize him.  Elvis could be a special agent of the FBI.  Even more importantly, maybe Elvis could get a FBI badge.

So, was Elvis sincere or was he just crazy?  Elvis & Nixon walks a thin line between those two possibilities, suggesting that Elvis may have been a bit unblanced but he was also achingly sincere.  Michael Shannon plays Elvis as a man who is blissfully out-of-touch but who truly wants to make the world a better place.  As played by Shannon, Elvis is defined by ennui.   He may be the biggest star in the world but he still struggles with the feeling that he hasn’t accomplished anything.  This is a film that asks, “When you’ve reached top, where else can you do?”  Elvis wants to make the world a better place by combating the spread of drugs.

And he also really, really wants that badge.  There’s an almost child-like petulance to Shannon’s Elvis.  He may be sincere but he’s also very much used to getting whatever he wants.

For that matter, so is Nixon.  And Nixon really doesn’t want to visit with Elvis.  Of course, that’s before his White House aides mention that being seen with Elvis could help him with the youth vote when he runs for reelection.  And then his daughter says that she wants Elvis’s autograph….

Anyway, it all leads to a meeting in the Oval Office and a scene that would have worked better if Spacey’s performance as Nixon was a bit less of caricature.  That said, the scene still works because Michael Shannon totally invests himself in the role of Elvis.  When he’s talking to Nixon and showing off his karate moves, Elvis is happier than we’ve ever seen him.  He’s performing on the biggest stage of his career.

Elvis & Nixon came out earlier this year.  It’s an enjoyable film, even if it’s never quite as good as you might want it to be.  If nothing else, this film proves that Michael Shannon can pretty much do anything.

 

Playing Catch-Up: The Big Short (dir by Adam McKay)


The_Big_Short_teaser_poster

The Big Short is a film that is so critically acclaimed and that has been so passionately embraced by those who enjoyed it that it’s a bit intimidating to admit that it really didn’t do much for me.  (It’s even more intimidating for me to admit that I nearly included it on my list of the 16 worst films of 2015.)  It’s a big, angry movie and, even though it’s not really that good, it definitely taps into the zeitgeist.  It captures the anger, the frustration, and the fears that people (including me) are feeling right now.  It didn’t do much for me but I can understand why others have so passionately embraced it.

As for the film itself, it’s about the housing collapse and the financial crisis of 2008.  The main characters are all people who realized that the economy was about to collapse and who managed to make a profit off of the crisis.  For the most part, everyone gets at least two scenes where they get to rail about how angry they are that they’re making a profit off of other people’s misery.  However, they all still collect their money at the end of the film.

For the most part, our main characters are the type of quirky eccentrics who always tend to pop up in ensemble films like this.  They’re all played by recognizable actors and they all have an identifiable trait or two so we can keep them straight.  For instance, Christian Bale has trouble relating to people socially, plays drums, and looks like he probably has terrible body odor.  Steve Carell has a bad haircut and spends a lot of time yelling at people.  He’s also haunted by the suicide of his brother and he’s married to Marisa Tomei but she only gets to appear in two scenes and doesn’t really do much because this is a film about menfolk, dagnabit.  (I love Steve Carell but this is probably the least interesting performance that he’s ever given.)  John Magaro and Finn Wittrock are two young investors and they especially get upset when they realize that the economy is about to collapse.  Their mentor is played by Brad Pitt.  Since this is an important film, Brad Pitt plays his role with his important actor beard.

And then there’s Ryan Gosling.  Gosling plays a trader and he also narrates the film.  And really, Gosling probably gives the best performance in the film, perhaps because his character is the only one who is actually allowed to enjoy making money.  I think we’re supposed to be outraged when he brags about making money while people lose their houses but Gosling’s so charismatic and the character is so cheerful that it’s hard to dislike him.

(Of course, listening to Gosling’s narration, it’s impossible not to be reminded of The Wolf of Wall Street.  And it’s appropriate because The Big Short is kind of like The Wolf of Wall Street for people who don’t want to have to deal with ambiguity or nuance.)

The film has gotten a lot of attention for Adam McKay’s direction, which is flashy and always watchable but, at the same time, also rather shallow.  For the most part, McKay’s directorial tricks only served to remind me of other movies.  The narration, of course, made me think about The Wolf of Wall Street.  The scenes where characters look straight at the camera and say, “This isn’t the way it really happened,” only reminded me of how much more effective it was when the same thing happened in Michael Winterbottom’s 24 Hour Party People.

And then there’s the celebrity cameos.  These are the scenes where a special guest celebrity is brought on screen to explain to us how Wall Street actually works.  The first time, it’s Margot Robbie in a bubble bath and it works well because it admits the debt that The Big Short owes to Wolf of Wall Street.  (Plus, it ends with Robbie telling the viewers to “fuck off,” which is probably what I would do if a huge group of strangers interrupted my bubble bath.)  If McKay had limited himself to just doing it once, it would have been brilliant.  But McKay drags out three more celebs and, with repeated use, the technique gets less and less interesting.

But I guess it’s debatable whether any of that matters.  The Big Short taps into the way people are feeling now.  It’s a zeitgeist film.  People are rightfully angry and The Big Short is all about that anger.  A decade from now, it’ll probably be as forgotten as Gabriel Over The White House.  But for now, it’s definitely the film of the moment.