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.

The Martian

Martian PosterDirector: Ridley Scott

Screenwriter: Drew Goddard

Cast: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Michael Peña, Kate Mara, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Jeff Daniels

Quite honestly, if you have seen Apollo 13, Cast Away, Interstellar, or The Right Stuff, then ironically, The Martian, the new film from Ridley Scott about an astronaut left behind by his crew on Mars, treads no new territory.  That being said, why did we all love those movies if they basically explored the same things?  The answer is that we have an insatiable appetite for watching humankind’s intelligence put to the test.  When The Martian is over, that is the piece that stays with you, not the performances or even the directing, but the way human intellect is pooled to solve unsolvable problems!

The Martian stars Matt Damon as Mark Watney, a NASA botanist who is part of a six-person, 31-day mission to explore the surface of Mars.  When an unexpected dust storm escalates with no warning, Watney is struck by debris, disabling his spacesuit’s communication device and forcing his crew to assume he has been killed.  With the storm jeopardizing the integrity of their ship, Commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) makes the tough call to evacuate the planet early and consequently leave Watney’s body behind.  Now as Lewis and her crew begin the 10-month journey back to Earth, Watney awakens from being struck unconscious to discover that he is alone on a dessert planet 34 million miles from Earth and potentially years from being rescued, and that is if he can somehow communicate to NASA that he is not dead.

For a film with such a discouraging scenario at its heart, The Martian is extremely upbeat thanks to a terrific performance by Matt Damon who masterfully captures the brilliance of Andy Weir’s original character from his novel of the same name.  Damon displays a resourcefulness, wit, and spirit with his portrayal of Watney, and it reminds us all of the importance of “mindset.”  A film that could so easily present a protagonist’s slow dissent into madness at the mercy of isolation is instead wisely turned on its head early on when Watney declares, “I will not die here.”  Whether or not this declaration becomes fact remains to be seen, but this decision to persevere is precisely why this film is such a joy to watch and not a test of our sensibilities.  Watney’s decision to live comes with the caveat of finding a way to survive for an indeterminate amount of time on a planet with no atmosphere, extreme temperatures, and no food or water source.  It is endlessly fascinating to watch Watney work his way through these dilemmas and according to director Ridley Scott, NASA validates nearly all of the survival methods Watney employs in this film.

It is no spoiler to reveal that Watney does eventually manage to contact Earth and establish that he is alive, creating a new element of tension as the film evolves from a survival film (like Gravity) to one that introduces the concept of rescue.  As exciting as it is to examine the power of the individual in films like Gravity and Cast Away, The Martian introduces a type of global effort that can be assembled when the people of Earth put aside their differences and work together on a common goal.  Consequently, like Apollo 13, The Martian wisely balances the space scenes with others that show the ingenuity and frustration of the scientists on Earth as they try to develop some kind of plan to save Watney.  That being said, a simple glance at the promotional poster for The Martian clearly demonstrates that this film was developed as a vehicle for Damon, but there are many other big names in this movie and boy are they wasted.  Michael Peña, Jessica Chastain, Kate Mara, Jeff Daniels, Kristin Wiig, Sean Bean and others all share about 20% of the running time and don’t get to do very much.  This is slightly disappointing especially when one thinks back to Ed Harris and Gary Sinise in Apollo 13 and realizes how powerful these roles could have been with some slight refocusing.

With Gravity, Interstellar, The Martian, and soon Star Wars: The Force Awakens, we are firmly in the midst of a science-fiction renaissance.  While box office has plenty to do with this current fad, what makes these films most enticing to the big name directors is their opportunity to dazzle us visually.  I saw The Martian in 3-D, which I normally avoid.  I still believe that 3-D releases are nothing more than a way to make you pay an extra few dollars for a ticket, but I will admit that Ridley Scott has crafted a beautiful and exciting film with The Martian that does use the technology to immerse the audience in the experience better than most.

The Martian is everything you want in a big budget, exciting, tense blockbuster.  It is entertaining, researched, and impressive.  Still, while it features brilliant people doing brilliant things, The Martian does all of the heavy lifting.  It would have been nice to walk away with a little bit more to think about, but it does let you walk out with plenty to celebrate, and that is good too. A-

The Martian is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours and 21 minutes. 

Elysium

ImageWhat if Wall-E were real?  That’s the question director Matt Damon and director Neill Blomkamp try to answer in Elysium.  Actually, there have been plenty of films depicting world-ending scenarios this summer, nonetheless, this is the one that stars Matt Damon, so pay attention.

The word “Elysium” actually refers to a Greek notion of the afterlife where those chosen by the gods would spend eternity.  Blomkamp’s Elysium reveals a similar idea with the ironic twist being that the “chosen few” are simply the world’s wealthiest and most privileged.  Here Elysium is a space station constructed miles above Earth’s atmosphere designed to house the planet’s most fortunate, so that they can maintain their lavish lifestyle without the burdens of living on an overpopulated Earth.  The year is 2154.  Max (Damon) is an average guy living in L.A. who finds himself in a life or death situation that can only be cured by the advanced medical treatments available on Elysium.  Elysium’s strict immigration laws prevent unauthorized travel to the haven, leaving Max to desperate measures.

Blomkamp’s film is wonderfully directed.  With brilliant juxtapositions between Elysium and Earth, he designs a very well made story that looks all too real!  Scenes of sweeping, Eden-esque beauty are shattered by guerrilla-style wildness of a civilization clinging to existence.  Slightly reminiscent of Minority Report, Max’s humanity and loss thereof is accentuated with symbolic intensity and careful pacing.  His decent into despair is marked by a crude cyborg-like surgical implant that Blomkamp uses to remind us of how close we are from becoming a race of data transfer capsules.  The film’s various villains are united and yet compartmentalized representing a visionary balance of complexity that while slightly excessive could have been tremendously overbearing.  Blomkamp’s previous film District 9 was in a similar topical vein, and while it was a better film overall than Elysium, this latest film is a finer directorial effort, perhaps worthy of Oscar’s attention, although unlikely given the film’s weaknesses in other areas.

Elysium’s main problem is in the writing.  The problem is that Elysium should be more upsetting than it is.  It attempts to invoke the spirit, the outrage, and the temperament of the Occupy Wall-Street movement, showing a wealthy 1% looking down on a struggling and desperate 99%.  However, this is done in a rather heavy-handed way that comes across simplistic and, at times, stereotypically vapid.  This is most apparent in examining Jodi Foster’s Secretary Delacourt who attempts to plan a coup for seemingly no better reason than because her fascist ways are more fascist than the current fascist in charge.  Foster does her best with what she’s given, but a complicated issue is reduced to a shred of viability, turning what could have been a deeply stirring sci-fi commentary into just another by the numbers hero tale.  Questions are left unanswered especially in the film’s closing act, which offers a naive and, while plausible, uneven resolution.  Not to mention that the film fails to soften the reality that Damon, Blomkamp, and company are pandering to a low to middle class audience about the gap between the haves and the have-nots.  I had a similar issue with Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby from earlier this Spring.  This is the “Catch-22” of A-List Hollywood in the economically polarized 21st century.

Pompousness aside, Elysium offers a fast-paced, stirring, visually well-made exploration of a slice of humanity.  While it may not accomplish what it set out to do contextually, it is still a worthy film deserving of some credence.  B

Elysium is rated R and has a refreshingly appropriate running time of 1 hour and 37 minutes.  While not the near masterpiece of sci-fi that was District 9, Elysium is a good summer movie and a great example of visionary directing. 

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