Ford v. Ferrari

Director: James Mangold

Screenwriters: Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth, and Jason Keller

Cast: Matt Damon, Christian Bale, Jon Bernthal, Caitriona Balfe, Josh Lucas, and Tracy Letts

Ford v. Ferrari was released November 15th, and that makes sense because it’s a finely set table of exactly what you expect in heaping quantities with few surprises, and when you’re done you need a nap.

Matt Damon and Christian Bale headline this cinematic slog through the American pastime of driving cars fast. Damon plays Carroll Shelby, a famous race car driver and designer who finds himself with a heart condition that forces him to end his driving career. Of course, you can take the driver out of the car, but you can’t take the car out of the driver, and soon Shelby is busy working for Ford to deliver a car fast enough to defeat Ferrari at the world renowned race at Le Mans. Shelby selects hot-tempered British mechanic Ken Miles (Christian Bale) to be his driver to the chagrin of Ford President Henry Ford II and VP Lee Iococca. Nonetheless, Shelby and Miles must work together with little to gain and everything to lose.

Ford v. Ferrari is this year’s Green Book. Now depending on who you are, that statement will mean different things. To me, it’s another installment in a troubling cinematic trend. Every year, a handful of “Oscar darling” films are released that follow a virtual template of style and perceived wit. Essentially odd-ducks are paired up to navigate an unkind social climate full of architypes and caricatures that must be thwarted. Movies like The Help, Green Book, and Driving Miss Daisy all fall into this category. Now like I said, you may see that list and say, well that’s a pretty good list! What’s the problem? To that I say, that upon examining these films, what you really have is a film where everyone is uni-dimensional except the principal characters, and the film progresses with a style that broadly spoon feed audiences hearty portions of quippy one-liners and unlikely conversations practically winking at the camera instead of being in the moment. Obviously, Ford v. Ferrari does not contain the racial subject matter that the other films I mentioned have, but the style of this film matches those precisely. These historic, character-driven dramas shot with this disingenuous style ring so false to me, and I wind up caring less and less.

We do have the essential ingredients to a film like this in spades though. The main characters of Shelby and Miles are portrayed strongly by Damon and Bale respectively. They ground the movie as best they can, especially through the racing scenes, of which there are many.

Director James Mangold is generally not guilty of producing these kinds of films. In fact, his 2017 film Logan was raw and exporative despite being a “comic book” movie. Ford v. Ferrari, unfortunately, has little gas in the tank and more or less feels like it’s just going in circles, taking too many pit stops before ultimately just being totaled (puns intended). C-

Ford v. Ferrari is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours and 32 minutes.

American Hustle

ImageLast year, a film about a top-secret 1979 CIA mission to rescue American diplomats during the Iranian hostage crisis took home the best picture Oscar.  This year, David O. Russell looks to keep this trend alive with American Hustle, a stylish story about the top-secret 1978 FBI sting operation, ABSCAM.     

David O. Russell has been an exciting filmmaker for several years now.  His previous three films, The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook, and now American Hustle, have thrust Russell’s notoriety into a new echelon, however, by examining his previous quirky, clever, and unique films, Russell’s evolution can be clearly perceived.  1996’s Flirting With Disaster showed Russell’s quirky comedic tone.  In what some consider his best film, 1999’s Three Kings showcased Russell’s clever style.  Additionally, 2004’s I Heart Huckabees solidifies Russell’s unique writing.  Now it seems he’s hit his stride as his previous three films represent all three of these talents repurposed and mixed with tremendous results.

Russell’s renaissance involves making films about memorable characters with his emerging cast of regular actors.  Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Robert DeNiro, Jennifer Lawrence, and Amy Adams have all been in at least two of his last three films, and all of them have received at least one Oscar nomination as a result – including two winners.  While rumors swirl around Russell’s ease to work with, he is able to coax performances from his actors like none other, and American Hustle is no exception.

American Hustle opens against the gritty backdrop of 1978 New Jersey with a tone-setting title card that reads “Some of this actually happened.”  We are immediately introduced to con man Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) who runs a fledgling at best money lending scheme.  That all changes when he meets the seductive Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) at a party.  As a team, they bring Rosenfeld’s scheme to the next level attracting the attention of FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper).  DiMaso uses his leverage on the two con-artists to coerce them to cooperate with him in a series of operations designed to entrap high ranking politicians and power brokers including New Jersey Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner). 

Now the story might seem complex enough as it is, but under the guise that “some of this actually happened,” Russell does this story one better with the introduction of Irving’s impulsive wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) who could be the one who sends this whole operation crashing down.

Bale gives another transformative performance, this time with an added 60 pounds, a comb-over, and a Bronx accent.  Adams continues her quest to become this generation’s Kevin Bacon by being in a movie with every relevant actor in existence.  She also gives a very strong performance as the mysterious Sydney who is “hell-on-wheels” wrapping every man around her finger and perpetually driving Irving crazy in the process.  Lawrence steals every scene she is in as Irving’s wildly capricious wife who won’t grant him a divorce and doesn’t know how to use a “science oven” either.  Renner and Cooper are very effective at representing both sides of the law in this wildly outrageous story where the line between hero and villain is very, very thin.

Mayor Polito wants nothing more than to re-invent Atlantic City and make New Jersey a better place, but with his hands tied politically, he seeks the necessary capital from a seemingly interested Arab investor who is actually part of agent DiMaso’s operation.  Thus, what makes American Hustle most intriguing is Russell’s conscientious effort to construct an irony where con-men and FBI agents are working together to ostensibly take down a criminal who may be the most honorable character in the film.  American Hustle does have one element working against it, running time.  At around 130 minutes, most of which is rapid dialogue, the film feels a bit bloated.  There are many characters and they all have a lot to say.   From an acting standpoint, it is quite impressive, but from an audience standpoint the film slags a bit through its second half. 

There is plenty to like about American Hustle, far more than what’s not to like.  For those looking for an amazingly well made and well acted film that does not include the brutality of slavery or the primal fear of being lost in space, this is your movie.  B+

American Hustle is rated R and has a running time of 2 hours and 9 minutes.  Keep any eye out for some great and surprising faces in some of the supporting roles. 

Out of the Furnace

ImageOut of the Furnace poses a rather critical conundrum.  On one hand, the film’s gritty exploration of one man’s quest for justice is finely acted, but on the other hand, it is substantially conventional. 

Director Scott Cooper follows up his enormously successful 2009 film Crazy Heart with Out of the Furnace.  In it, steel mill worker Russell Baze (Christian Bale) works in order to take care of his terminally ill father while his Iraq-War veteran brother Rodney (Casey Affleck) tries to find a way to adapt to life back at home.  On the surface, it is a film about fathers, sons, and brothers.  However, Cooper opens his film with an alarmingly tense and violent scene at a drive-in movie theater that includes neither of the film’s two main characters.  This scene sets the tone for the film as well as attempts to set the stage for its ambition.  Unfortunately, Out of the Furnace can not quite maintain its balance between narrative and ambition.

The ambition angle aims to document and test the two brothers as life locks them in a metaphorical “furnace.”  Russell spends several years in prison for a drunk driving accident and Rodney begins a downward spiral after the war that leads him to an underground fight-ring headed up by a ruthless kingpin, DeGroat (Woody Harrelson, in his most frightening role in years).  When Rodney suddenly disappears, Russell takes matters into his own hands and goes on a manhunt.  This is when Out of the Furnace ends up stepping on the heels of a film released earlier this year, Prisoners.  Both films want the audience in a “what would you do?” type of scenario, but Prisoners executes it much better.  Both films even have a deer hunting motif!

Out of the Furnace is clunky structurally and it is heavy handed in its treatment of flawed characters who “just want to do the right thing.”  However, the film did attract big, big stars who all came to play.  Affleck and Bale turn out career performances, and the supporting players include Willem DaFoe, Sam Shepard, Forest Whitaker, Zoe Saldana, and the aforementioned Harrelson who are all quite compelling as well.     

Out of the Furnace is all guts and not much glory.  The film desires to resonate with the audience, but I was left feeling unsatisfied and disappointed.  I appreciate great performances, but they are rarely enough to carry a film on their own merits.  C

Out of the Furnace is rated R, and has a running time of one hour and 46 minutes.  I say see Prisoners instead.