LITTLE WOMEN (2019) – Innovative Adaptation by Greta Gerwig One of Best Films of 2019

0
little women

Eliza Scanlen, Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, and Florence Pugh in LITTLE WOMEN (2019).

Greta Gerwig is quickly becoming one of my favorite filmmakers.

Her directorial debut was just two years ago with LADY BIRD (2017), a biting yet sensitive story of a high school girl’s turbulent relationship with her mother as she prepares to go off to college.  And before LADY BIRD Gerwig had already been enjoying a career as an accomplished actress and writer.

Now comes LITTLE WOMEN (2019), an adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s novel that I liked even more than LADY BIRD. Simply put, LITTLE WOMEN is so good it’s one of the best movies of the year, if not the best.

And I’m not really a fan of Alcott’s novel or the previous movie versions of this tale.

But I am an instant fan of this movie, and there are two major reasons why. The first is the way writer/director Gerwig frames the story, and the second is the film’s cast.

To keep a classic story fresh, sometimes it helps to shake things up a bit, and that’s exactly what Greta Gerwig has done with this interpretation of LITTLE WOMEN. Gerwig made the bold decision to tell this story out of sequence.  The film begins with events that occur late in the story, and then rather than use simple flashback, Gerwig takes the movie viewer on a journey through events that make perfect sense even though they are not in chronological order.

To do this successfully, one has to have a command of the story or else the audience will be flat-out confused. Gerwig demonstrates full command of this tale. Events are linked through emotional connections rather than time, and so when a character is thinking or feeling a certain thought or emotion, the story goes there in time and those events play out. The result is an innovative take on a classic tale that in spite of not following a chronological order makes complete and perfect sense.

LITTLE WOMEN is the story of four sisters living in Concord, Massachusetts in the years during and following the Civil War. There’s Jo March (Saoirse Ronan), the free-spirited writer who values her writing above all else, oldest sister Meg (Emma Watson) who is more traditional and down to earth than Jo, Amy (Florence Pugh), the artist who’s also the loudest and often most troubled of the sisters, and the youngest, Beth (Eliza Scanlen), the quiet musician who is the least healthy sister.

They are being raised by their mother Marmee March (Laura Dern) since their father (Bob Odenkirk) is away fighting in the war. Their young wealthy neighbor Laurie (Timothee Chalamet) is infatuated with Jo, and as such becomes friends with all four sisters. He eventually proposes to Jo but she turns him down. Now, the film opens after this major event in the story has already happened, with Amy in Paris with her Aunt March (Meryl Streep) where she meets a forlorn Laurie traveling Europe on his own.

The story follows the plight of these four sisters, and in doing so remains remarkably timely as the film has a lot to say to modern audiences about the state of women in the 1860s, and it makes some interesting parallels to today. For example, there’s Jo’s conversation with her mother where she pushes back against the notion that a woman’s purpose is only to fall in love and get married. Jo argues that she wants to make something of her life, not just get married, but yet admits she his horribly lonely. And there’s Amy’s speech about marriage which outlines just how powerless women were in those years, that there was no way for her to make money unless she married into it, and even if she were wealthy, if she married, her wealth would immediately go to her husband, who also would have complete custody over any children they had. The details of what a woman’s life was like without rights resonates today when some of those rights are again being threatened.

It’s a superior script by Greta Gerwig that works on every level.

And what a cast!

The four leads are superb. Saoirse Ronan who also played Lady Bird in LADY BIRD is wonderfully captivating as Jo here. She captures the character’s fiery spirit and brings her to life in a way that seems far removed from the pages of a literary classic. She makes Jo a living breathing character. Ronan is one of the most intriguing actresses working today.

Likewise Florence Pugh is commanding as Amy March. She runs the full gamut from a young immature girl to a wise and worldly woman. Like Ronan, Pugh is another actress to watch. She made this movie right after filming the disturbing horror movie MIDSOMMAR (2019), and in interviews Pugh has said making LITTLE WOMEN served as therapy for her after such a traumatic experience making MIDSOMMAR.

I also really enjoyed Eliza Scanlen as Beth, and Emma Watson, who I feel is underrated as an actress, also does a fine job as the down to earth Meg.

Laura Dern delivers her best performance in years as Marmee March, and that’s saying something because Dern is an excellent actress who has delivered a lot of phenomenal performances. She makes Marmee the glue that keeps her family together, even when she’s gone off to tend to her ailing husband.

Timothee Chalamet shines as Laurie. Chalamet and Ronan also starred together in LADY BIRD, and their familiarity with each other shows here in LITTLE WOMEN as they really have a strong on-screen chemistry together.

Tracy Letts, who was memorable as Lady Bird’s father in LADY BIRD, is memorable here again as Mr. Dashwood, the editor who buys Jo’s stories but is very particular about the kinds of stories he wants. Bob Odenkirk only adds to the acting depth with his portrayal of the patriarch of the March family.

And then if all this isn’t enough, the film has heavyweights like Meryl Streep and Chris Cooper in the supporting cast.  Streep knocks it out of the park and has several scene stealing moments, albeit subtle ones, as Aunt March, and Chris Cooper, as he always does, delivers the goods as Laurie’s father Mr. Laurence. While Cooper here is playing an admirable father, we just saw him play a much less admirable daddy in A BEAUTFIUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD (2019).

The entire cast is flawless.

Greta Gerwig is every bit as successful behind the camera as she is writing the screenplay. The film is wonderfully shot and visually attractive. It especially captures the feel of a cold and snowy New England winter. There are also some neatly framed shots, like the scene where Jo rejects Laurie and then finds herself sitting alone in a field with a picturesque New England scene in the background complete with a church steeple in the distance which enhances Jo’s loneliness since she is so far removed from the symbol of marriage.

The dance scenes are lively, the script sharp, full of both poignant and humorous moments, and the pacing perfect. The film’s two-hour and fifteen minute running time never drags.

This version of LITTLE WOMEN is driven by its storytelling, by Greta Gerwig’s innovative script and her on-target directing, as well as by its superb ensemble acting. The result is a completely engrossing tale of four New England sisters who have hopes and dreams and like any family of modest means struggle to achieve them. Through it all, they stand by each other.

And while the main character of the story is Jo—it’s her story arc that frames the entire movie—the film also spends considerable time on Amy. Saoirse Ronan and Florence Pugh are both up to the task of putting this movie on their shoulders and with the help of a strong supporting cast they make it one of the best movies of the year.

—END—

 

 

UNCUT GEMS (2019) – Frenzied Tale Raw & Rough But No Gem

0

uncut gems

Brothers Benny and Josh Safdie, the writer/director team who brought us the frenetic thriller GOOD TIME (2017), are back at it again with UNCUT GEMS (2019), another frenzied tale, this one about a New York City jeweler played by Adam Sandler in one of his best dramatic performances ever who is so addicted to gambling he can’t go a second without trying to set up the next big bet.

And that’s pretty much the plot of UNCUT GEMS. Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler) is a jeweler who simply can’t stop gambling. It’s his passion in life, and it comes at the expense of his family, friends, business, and his own personal safety, as he constantly owes people, some of them dangerous, lots of money.

The opening moments of the film set the tone for the rest of the movie. Ratner is on his phone walking the streets of New York City chattering and swearing at an insane pace, balancing multiple deals and situations simultaneously. The film never looks back. It pretty much keeps up this frantic pace for its entire two-hour and fifteen minute running time. It’s ultimately an exhausting experience.

Ratner runs a private business, the type of place where he buzzes in his upscale eclectic clients through two doors, one made of bullet proof glass. One of his clients, Boston Celtics star Kevin Garnett, played here by himself, eyes a rare rock which Ratner tells him is worth millions. Garnett wants it, but Ratner tells him it’s not for sale, that he’s putting it up for auction, and that Garnett is welcome to bid on it. Garnett asks to keep it overnight, and for collateral he gives Ratner his championship ring.

This sets off a series of chain reactions, as Ratner pawns the ring, Garnett doesn’t give the rock back immediately, and Ratner owes some dangerous people large sums of money that he ultimately promises he will get them after he pulls off a monster bet on the Boston Celtics playoff game against the 76ers, since he knows Garnett is extra pumped for the game since he has in his possession his “mystical” rock.

All this occurs against the back drop of Ratner’s crumbling family life. He’s never around for his family, his wife is filing for divorce, his extended religious Jewish family has no idea what’s going on, and he’s having an affair and sharing an apartment with his beautiful employee Julia (Julia Fox) who for some reason finds Ratner irresistible.

If you haven’t noticed, Ratner really isn’t that likable a guy, and for me, that’s one of the biggest knocks against UNCUT GEMS. I didn’t like Ratner all that much and didn’t really care what happened to him, and so I was nowhere near as invested in the plot of this one as I had expected to be.

Benny and Josh Safdie have made another high-octane manic tale, but that being said, I liked their previous effort GOOD TIME much better than UNCUT GEMS. GOOD TIME was a thriller with characters who while they weren’t nice people— they were bank robbers— were involved in a story that the audience could relate to and get behind. That’s not the case here with UNCUT GEMS. In GOOD TIME, the main character was trying to rescue his learning disabled brother after a bank robbery gone wrong. In UNCUT GEMS, Howard Ratner is out for no one other than himself. He basically screws over everyone he comes in contact with, not because he’s a bad person necessarily, but because he’s focused on one thing and one thing only: the next big score. Nothing else matters to him. It’s what he lives for.

So I have mixed feelings on the screenplay by Benny and Josh Safdie and Ronald Bronstein. On the one hand, it succeeds in creating a wild and unpredictable story that is fresh and unnerving throughout, but it fails to create characters who you give two cents for.

Adam Sandler is as good as advertised. It’s probably the best performance I’ve seen him deliver. Ever. He’s really good. Unfortunately, the character he’s playing, Howard Ratner, is an unlikable gambling addict who’s pretty much a toxic person throughout.

In spite of Sandler’s presence, UNCUT GEMS is not a comedy. I know in some circles the film is being touted as a “dramedy” but there’s little that is funny about this movie. In fact, the predominant emotion here is sadness. Ratner is on a collision course with disaster, and there’s nothing in the film that deviates from this gloomy mood. You just know where this one is going to go from the get-go.

That being said, it was fun to see Kevin Garnett play himself. And sure, by playing himself he’s not going to receive many accolades for his acting performance, but he is consistently natural and never once appears to be “acting.”

I also liked Julia Fox as Ratner’s girlfriend Julia. Other notables in the cast include Eric Brogosian as one of Ratner’s more violent adversaries, and Judd Hirsch as Ratner’s father.

The film does have some good moments, but most of these are terribly depressing. One brief light bit involves John Amos as himself as one of Ratner’s neighbors.

Daniel Lopatin wrote the music score, and it’s very similar to the score he wrote for GOOD TIME. I enjoyed his GOOD TIME score more. Here, the music’s main job seems to be to add more cacophony to the already insane proceedings.

UNCUT GEMS is an exhausting and mostly depressing film. Its pace actually picks up towards the end, which is almost unbelievable, as Ratner waits on the results of the Celtics playoff game to see if he’ll win his big score. This climactic sequence is probably the best part of the movie.

But the film as a whole is uneven at best because its main character Howard Ratner embodies little else other than a one way ticket to the gutter.

It’s rough and raw, but hardly a gem.

—END—

 

QUEEN & SLIM (2019) – More Love Story Than Crime Story

0

queen and slim

In QUEEN & SLIM (2019), the two main characters are referred to once in the movie as “the black Bonnie & Clyde.” This really isn’t accurate. Bonnie & Clyde were criminals with a violent agenda. The two main characters here have no agenda. They just happened to shoot a cop in self-defense.

When they go on the run, they find themselves unexpectedly with a following, as people see their action against an aggressive white police officer as justified and necessary, and worthy of both applause and protection.

The strongest part about QUEEN & SLIM is what it says about society in the here and now, that folks are so distraught and afraid of police brutality, they find themselves rallying around folks like the two main characters in the movie. This part of the movie resonates throughout. Black Lives Matter is a real movement, and this movie taps into those emotions.

On the other hand, since the two main characters really just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, their story, in terms of dramatic impact, the longer it goes on, doesn’t work as well, and the film struggles to reach its final reel with the same edge with which it began.

Another reason the drama diminishes is the two characters aren’t interested really in the movement they’ve created. They were just out on a date. Their story arc has less to do with societal matters and much more to do with simple survival, and the fact that they find themselves liking each other a lot, so much so, that by film’s end, they’ve fallen in love.

In a way, QUEEN & SLIM is much more a love story than it is a crime story, although you can’t really take the crime out of the plot. Without it, the date ends, and Queen and Slim probably don’t see each other again.

QUEEN & SLIM opens on a first date between Slim (Daniel Kaluuya) and Queen (Jodie Turner-Smith) at a restaurant in one of the film’s best written scenes. Indeed, based on the writing alone, the movie gets off to a strong start.

On the car ride after the date, the couple gets pulled over by a very aggressive white police officer who we learn later shot a black man and was found innocent of any wrongdoing. This officer eventually pulls a gun on Slim and shoots Queen in the leg. In the ensuing scuffle, Slim shoots the officer. Dead.

Not knowing what to do next, the couple just decides to drive away, and they pretty much make things up as they go along. The rest of the movie follows their efforts to elude a nationwide manhunt. While doing so, they fall in love.  They eventually decide to flee to Cuba, and to get there, they receive lots of help from folks who see them as heroes.

I liked QUEEN AND SLIM for the most part, and I definitely enjoyed the first half better than the second. The plight of these two characters, who didn’t ask to be in the situation they find themselves in, simply isn’t strong enough to carry an entire movie.

It ultimately is a very sad story. It’s also quite maddening. Right after Slim shoots the officer, his first inclination is to stay there and call the police, to do the right thing. But Queen tells him if he does that, he won’t survive the night. This advice generally makes no sense. However, in this case, could anyone argue that Queen is wrong?

And that’s the best part of the screenplay by Lena Waithe. It taps into real racial tensions that are prevalent throughout the film. It also boasts really good dialogue, especially between the two main players.

I really enjoyed the two leads, Daniel Kaluuya as Slim and Jodie Turner-Smith as Queen. Kaluuya was excellent in GET OUT (2017). I think his performance stood out more in that film, but he’s nearly as good here.

Jody Turner-Smith delivers a potent performance at Queen. Her character has a devastating back story, and Turner-Smith captures the brokenness of the character. She and Kaluuya work well together and share some strong chemistry. One of the best scenes in the movie is when he takes her dancing at a local club. Sparks fly between them.

Bokeem Woodbine has a field day as Queen’s Uncle Earl. He enjoys some of the liveliest bits in the movie.

Director Melina Matsoukas keeps the film riveting early on, but towards the end things slow down a bit. There are some really impressive sequences, from the initial tense traffic stop with the combative cop, to the aforementioned dance scene, to the sequence where a community marches against the police in protest, to the sequence where Queen and Slim have to jump from a very high second story window.

But things do slow down towards the end, mostly because Queen and Slim aren’t really protagonists. Instead, they react to events around them, as they lay low from the authorities while trying to escape to Cuba.

As QUEEN & SLIM moves towards its inevitable conclusion, things become sadder and more tragic, but they also become slower and less compelling. Don’t expect shoot-outs from characters who suddenly embrace violence to get their message across.

The only thing Queen and Slim are interested in embracing is each other, which is highly commendable, but not exactly a gold mine for riveting storytelling.

—END—

 

DARK WATERS (2019) – Somber Story of Dupont’s Negligence Revealing and Grim

1

dark waters

DARK WATERS (2019) starring Mark Ruffalo as an attorney who goes after the Dupont chemical company for knowingly dumping poisonous chemicals into the water supply of a West Virginia town is one somber movie.

It’s grim because one, it’s based on a true story, and two, Dupont’s negligence as described in this movie goes well beyond contaminating the water supply of one small town. With their Teflon marketing for cookware, they knowingly put the entire nation at risk and beyond. Indeed, Dupont’s callousness reached a global scale.

Enjoy your popcorn!

So, yes, DARK WATERS deals with some very heavy subject matter, and it does it in a way that is unassuming and direct. Its style reminded me a lot of another somber movie which starred Mark Ruffalo, SPOTLIGHT (2015), which chronicled the pedophile crisis in the Catholic Church in Boston. Like SPOTLIGHT, DARK WATERS simply allows its story to unfold. It doesn’t get overdramatic or fill its screen time with forced bells and whistles. Its story is damaging enough on its own.

In the mid 1990s attorney Robert Bilott (Mark Ruffalo) has just made partner at his firm which specializes in representing large companies like Dupont. So, when he is approached by a farmer Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp) asking him to represent him in a case against Dupont, Robert tells him he needs to find another attorney.  But Tennant tells Robert he’s a friend of his grandmother’s, and so, out of respect for his grandmother, he pays Tennant a visit.

Robert sees firsthand the damage done at Tennant’s farm. Nearly all his cattle have died, and Tennant wants Dupont investigated because he believes they have been spilling chemicals into his land via a neighboring landfill. Robert agrees to take the case, and as he explains it to his boss Tom Terp (Tim Robbins) he believes it will just be a matter of opening Dupont’s eyes to a mistake made by some of their local workers. They’ll fix the mistake, and that will be the end of that.

Hardly.

What Robert uncovers is that Dupont knew exactly what they were doing, and that their disregard for the dangers uncovered by their own research went back decades. Of course, once he discovers this, he is met by fierce resistance both by Dupont and his own firm who see it as bad business to take on a giant like Dupont. But Robert is undeterred, and he continues to wage his battle against the chemical giant, even as it takes its toll on his family and his own health.

I really liked DARK WATERS, even though watching it was certainly not a pleasurable experience. Quite the contrary, it was as disturbing a cinematic experience as I’ve had in a while. The ramifications of its story reach deep into the heart of its audience as it sheds light on an issue that is still with us today. In short, the “forever chemicals” carelessly dumped into the environment by Dupont are already in all of our bloodstreams. Forever chemicals are those which the human body cannot break down. The damage is already done.

Director Todd Haynes, as I said, does not get in the way of this story, nor does he try to sensationalize it. Even though Dupont is viewed as an “evil company,” the focus throughout remains on main character Robert Bilott and the toll the case takes on him. The emphasis is on the human element, how these chemicals harmed the folks in that West Virginia town, and beyond.

Haynes heightens the direness of the story by filming it in dreary drab grays. The countryside is depicted under cloudy skies. The sun is hardly seen. There’s a cloud hanging over West Virginia, and its name is Dupont.

Likewise, the screenplay by Matthew Michael Carnahan and Mario Correa, based on a magazine article by Nathaniel Rich, is simple and to the point. And while it doesn’t go out of its way to overemphasize things, it does enjoy some rousing moments, like Tim Robbins’ speech as Tom Terp, where he’s listening to his fellow attorneys at the firm cautioning against taking on Dupont, and then he explodes in anger, saying what Robert has uncovered is a travesty, and that the folks at Dupont need to be called out for their recklessness, that American business is better than that, and that how everyone at that table should be chomping at the bit to take on Dupont.

Mark Ruffalo is excellent at Robert Bilott. He delivers a powerful performance and he does it in a way which goes against what you might expect. He doesn’t deliver fiery emotional speeches or become more energized the deeper he gets into his investigation. No, it’s the opposite. The investigation nearly kills him. Instead of rousing speeches, he speaks less and less, as if the horrors of his findings are overwhelming him into silence. He grows more and more unhealthy, and Ruffalo does a remarkable job capturing the descent that Robert takes, all the while never backing down..

Anne Hathaway spends the first half of the movie in the thankless role of the stay-at-home housewife, but she turns it on during the film’s second half. Whereas Robert is beaten down, Hathway’s Sarah Bilott steps up for her husband, and she enjoys one of the movie’s better moments as she gives Tim Robbins’ Tom Terp a piece of her mind.

Tim Robbins is very good as Tom Terp, the attorney who sincerely wants to support Robert, and says as much several times during the movie, but as the senior partner at the firm, he has to look out for its best interests, which puts him at odds with Robert the longer this case drags on, and it does drag on. In fact, the end of the movie states that Robert Bilott continues his fight even today.

Bill Pullman shows up for a couple of brief scenes as the lively attorney Harry Dietzler, and he enjoys some fine moments helping Robert take on Dupont’s attorneys. And Victor Garber is sufficiently icy as Dupont head Phil Donnelly.

But my favorite performance in the film belongs to Bill Camp. His portrayal of farmer Wilbur Tennant is as authentic as you can get. Plus the character is integral to the story. He’s the man who first contacted Robert, and he’s also the man who speaks the truth throughout. It takes Robert a while to catch on to this, but when he does, he becomes all the more dedicated to helping Camp and his family, who like his animals, have also been diagnosed with cancer.

DARK WATERS is not a fun movie, and it’s not supposed to be. It tells a story that should be viewed and considered by as many people as possible.  And it serves as a reminder of what happens when large companies are allowed to operate unchecked, and more importantly, what can happen when even one dedicated person decides enough is enough and it’s time to fight back.

—END—

 

21 BRIDGES (2019) – Cliche Cop Drama Offers Nothing New

0

21 bridges

21 BRIDGES (2019), the new cop thriller starring Chadwick Boseman, is a classic example of what happens when a screenplay doesn’t get as down and dirty as it should but remains painfully superficial instead.

Andre Davis (Chadwick Boseman [BLACK PANTHER {2018}]) is a cop with a reputation: he shoots first and asks questions later. Yup, he obviously went to the Dirty Harry school for police officers. When a drug theft goes awry, and the two thieves Michael (Stephan James) and Ray (Taylor Kitsch) find themselves surrounded by police officers, they engage in a fierce gun battle which leaves multiple officers dead while they escape into the night.

When Detective Davis arrives on the scene, Captain McKenna (J.K.Simmons) tells him point-blank that he’s the right man for the job, that they want these guys dead, not captured to stand trial and get off on technicalities. Ah, the dreaded technicalities which show up in every badly written police drama.

Anyway, Davis makes the bold decision to shut down the twenty-one bridges going in and out of Manhattan, in effect locking down the island until he can nab the two bad guys. Hence, the name of the movie, and its plot.

Of course, as Davis closes in on his prey, he learns that there’s more going on here, and that it involves police corruption, a plot point that is so blatantly obvious that even Inspector Clouseau would figure it out.

The plot is pretty bad. For instance, for a guy who is supposed to be trigger happy, Davis is the most conscientious cop in the film. It’s everyone else who shoots first and asks questions later, because they’re all corrupt. And it’s one of those films where nearly every one but Davis is involved in the conspiracy.

I really like Chadwick Boseman, and in fact he’s the reason I went out and saw 21 BRIDGES, and he’s fine here, but he’s stuck in a cliché role that doesn’t do him in any favors. Had the writing been stronger, it could have been the type of role that Denzel Washington would have played twenty years ago, or Al Pacino in the early 70s. But in Pacino’s case, the films he made in the 70s like SERPICO (1973) captured the grit and authentic feel of the time. There’s little that’s authentic about 21 BRIDGES.

Stephan James has a few good moments as Michael, a thief with a good head on his shoulders, but like everyone else in the film, his character is swallowed up by the weak screenplay. Taylor Kitsch is largely wasted as Michael’s fellow thief and mentor Ray.

Everything J. K. Simmons says as Captain McKenna is a cliché. Sienna Miller plays narcotics officer Frankie Burns, a character whose motivations are as believable as the rest of the film, which is to say, they’re not.

As you can tell, I did not like the screenplay by Adam Mervis and Matthew Michael Carnahan. Both the story and dialogue are cliché, offering nothing we haven’t seen before in other cop movies of this type. It also makes little effort to make the story it’s trying to tell believable. I didn’t believe any of it.

Director Brian Kirk offers little help. While the film certainly looks polished, it’s not gritty enough for a New York City police thriller. Plus there’s nary a memorable moment to be found.

What 21 BRIDGES does offer is solid acting, especially by Boseman and Stephan James, but neither one is strong enough to lift the mediocre material to a level where this film becomes recommended viewing.

21 BRIDGES is a largely forgettable entry in the canon of good cop vs. corrupt cop movies.

Dust off an old Dirty Harry flick instead.

—END—

 

FORD v FERRARI (2019) -Thrilling Race Car Sequences Makes This One a Winner

0

ford-v-ferraru

FORD v FERRARI (2019) is a fun movie to see in IMAX.

With its thrilling race scenes and camera angles that are low to the ground which put you in the driver’s seat, FORD v FERRARI watched in IMAX is a special treat. The thunderous roar of the engines literally shakes your insides, and the larger screen makes sure you don’t miss a single turn. It’s one very exciting movie experience.

FORD v FERRARI is based on the true story of how car designer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) and race car driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale) were recruited by Ford Motor Company to build and race a car that could beat Ferrari at the 24 Hours of Le Mans race in 1966.

With sales slipping, Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) challenges his corporate team to start thinking outside the box to shake things up. Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal) suggests they need a younger sportier image and that they could learn a thing or two from the ultra popular Ferrari. When Iacocca reveals that Ferrari is bankrupt, Ford offers a merger deal in which the two companies would work together, but Ferrari rejects the offer, instead inking a deal with Fiat. Insulted, Henry Ford II sets his sights on building a race car that will defeat Ferrari, and he says money is no object.

As a result, Iacocca turns to former race car driver and current car designer Carroll Shelby, who against his better judgment agrees to work for Ford. He handpicks Ken Miles as his driver, a decision that irks Ford Corporate, because Miles is viewed as a loose cannon and someone who does not live up to Ford’s conservative image. Complicating matters is Ford’s Vice President Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas) cannot stand Miles and does everything in his power to remove him from the team, but Shelby is undeterred and fights for his driver all the way to racing day.

As I said, FORD v FERRARI in IMAX was a lot of fun since the larger screen and louder sound really heightened the race car effects.  And yes, the race scenes are definitely one of the reasons to see this one. They’re done really well, as director James Mangold keeps the camera in tight and captures the essence of race car driving from inside the front seat of the car.

I like Mangold as a director, as he’s directed a bunch of movies I’ve really enjoyed over the years, including LOGAN (2017). the superior R-rated Wolverine conclusion starring Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart, the western 3:10 TO YUMA (2007) which starred Christian Bale and Russell Crowe, and way back when COP LAND (1997), which features one of Sylvester Stallone’s better acting performances.

The other reason to see FORD v FERRARI is its two leads, two actors I enjoy a lot, Matt Damon and Christian Bale.

Damon is well-cast as Carroll Shelby, the man who not only uses his talents to build the car that beats Ferrari, but also to keep his team together which is under constant attack by Ford Corporate. This one is called FORD v FERRARI but it could easily have been called FORD v CARROLL SHELBY since more often than not he’s fighting the very company that hired him to get the job done. This is probably Damon’s most satisfying role since THE MARTIAN (2015).

Christian Bale is a phenomenal actor who impresses in nearly every movie he makes. Last time we saw Bale he was unrecognizable as Vice President Dick Cheney in VICE (2018), in a role that required him to gain a considerable amount of weight. Here, he had to lose weight again to play the lean and mean race car driver Ken Miles, and as you would expect, Bale is superb in the role. He easily delivers the best performance in the movie.

Jon Bernthal, another of my favorite actors, does a nice job as Lee Iacocca, and he more than holds his own alongside Damon and Bale. Even though Bernthal is known for his TV work, on shows like THE PUNISHER (2017-2019) and THE WALKING DEAD (2010-2018), he has a lot of film credits as well in some pretty impressive supporting roles, in such films as BABY DRIVER (2017) and WIND RIVER (2017). Incidentally, the real Lee Iacocca just passed away earlier this year.

Josh Lucas is also very good as the very annoying Leo Beebe, while Ray McKinnon is effective as lead mechanic Phil Remington. Rounding out the cast is young Noah Jupe who plays Ken’s son Peter, and Caitriona Balfe who plays Ken’s wife Mollie. Both are very good.

It’s an interesting screenplay by Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth, and Jason Keller, as it tells a less straightforward story than one might expect. The real “villain” here isn’t Ferrari, but Ford, the company and Henry Ford II. The only Ford member shown in a positive light is Lee Iacocca. The rest are portrayed as unimaginative bullies who Carroll Shelby and Ken Miles have to circumvent in order to win. In fact, there are times in this one where I found myself rooting for Ferrari.

FORD v FERRARI is not an incredible or astounding movie, as its story simply isn’t thought-provoking or emotional enough to reach that level, but it does feature top-notch car racing scenes and two actors, Matt Damon and Christian Bale, performing at the top of their games, and they’re supported by a talented cast of actors.

The result is a thrilling movie experience that’s the closest thing to being behind the wheel at the 24 Hours of Le Mans short of actually being there.

Start your engines!

—END—

 

 

THE CURRENT WAR (2017) – Fascinating Illumination of Edison and Westinghouse Race

1

the-current-war

There are a lot of negative reviews out there about THE CURRENT WAR (2017).

Don’t believe them.

Not only does THE CURRENT WAR successfully tell the fascinating story of Thomas Edison’s and George Westinghouse’s bitter battle over the electric current and how best to illuminate the entire nation, but it also features an A-list cast that includes Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Shannon, Tom Holland, and Nicholas Hoult.

Which sounds I know like a superhero movie reunion, as all four of these actors have starred in superhero films— then again, who hasn’t?—: Cumberbatch as Doctor Strange, Shannon as villain General Zod in MAN OF STEEL (2013), Holland as Spider-Man, and Hoult as Beast in the recent X-MEN movies.

None of these four disappoint. In fact, Benedict Cumberbatch who plays Thomas Edison, and Michael Shannon who plays George Westinghouse both dominate this movie, and these two together really turn this one into something special.

But back to those negative reviews for a moment. There’s a story behind them, and it pertains to the delayed theatrical release of this film, which was made in 2017. See, back in 2017, this film was set to be released by The Weinstein Company, just before Harvey Weinstein was accused of rape and sexual assault. The release was delayed, the film sold to other distributors, and two years later here it is.

Now as to those reviews, a lot of those regard the film as it was back in 2017. Upon this 2019 release, the film is being called THE CURRENT WAR: DIRECTOR’S CUT, because director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon re-edited it. I’m guessing a lot of those reviews pertain to the original version, which I didn’t see, but I have seen some of the reviews, and they don’t describe the movie I saw in theaters. The movie I saw is one of the best movies I’ve seen here in 2019.

The movie opens in 1880, where Thomas Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch) is not only an extremely successful inventor, but also a celebrity, with fans across the nation. It’s not uncommon for people to come up to him seeking his autograph. His latest invention, the electric light bulb, is poised to illuminate the country like never before.

But Edison’s system isn’t terribly efficient, and it’s expensive, and it’s not easy to light over great distances, meaning some sections of cities will be lit, while others will not be, at least not at first.

George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon) believes he has a better system. By using an alternating current, Westinghouse’s system is cheaper and more efficient than Edison’s, and it’s able to light great expanses of land. As such, Westinghouse promotes his system as the one that can give electric light to the entire nation.

Edison decries Westinghouse’s alternating current as being deadly, and predicts that it will result in the deaths of many innocent people. Edison demonstrates that his system is like water. You can touch it without harm, but Westinghouse’s, if you touch it you will die.

Of course, today if you’re doing electrical work around your house you know to turn off the power or else face a potentially lethal shock, so we know which system eventually won out, but that doesn’t take away from the potency of the story told here. It’s a captivating story that held my attention throughout. There are also fascinating subplots, like the origin of the electric chair, seen then as the “future to humane executions,” and the involvement of a brilliant young inventor Nikola Tesla (Nicholas Hoult), who was ignored by Edison and who later joined forces with Westinghouse and helped him utilize the alternating current to capture the strength of Niagra Falls to produce unprecedented amounts of electricity.

I really enjoyed THE CURRENT WAR. The story starts in 1880 and continues into the 1890s, and so as a period piece it looks fantastic. Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon captures the period, both with colorful photography and authentic costumes. There’s a lot going on in this story, and I thought Gomez-Rejon did an excellent job keeping it all together. It never felt muddled or confusing. It’s a strong narrative.

As such, the screenplay by Michael Minick is a good one. It delves deeply into the characters of both Edison and Westinghouse. Edison was the showman, forever interested in appearances, always working on the next best invention, and always demanding he be paid highly for it. One of the better lines in the movie is spoken by Edison’s personal secretary and right hand man Samuel Insull (Tom Holland), who warns Edison against his own personality, cautioning him that if he’s not careful he’ll  “be remembered more as P.T. Barnum than Sir Isaac Newton.”

Westinghouse, by contrast, believed more in principles, did not want to fight dirty when engaged in the war with Edison, but also was shrewd and smart, and knew when to hit back hard. He also understood the bottom line, that his system was cheaper and more efficient, and so he knew that unlike Edison with all his bells and whistles, all Westinghouse had to do was to keep repeating that simple message, because it was true.

The story remains interesting throughout. I was hooked right way and remain riveted until the end credits rolled.

My favorite part of THE CURRENT WAR though were the performances of the two leads, Benedict Cumberbatch as Thomas Edison, and Michael Shannon as George Westinghouse. Cumberbatch is perfect as the intense Edison, turning off as many people in his inner circle with his egocentric approach as the lights he turned on, all the while never losing his grip on his celebrity status. Likewise, Shannon is masterful as the more down to earth and lesser known Westinghouse, a man who keeps to his principles until cornered, and at that point, does what it takes to survive.

Nicholas Hoult is also memorable as Nikola Tesla, the genius and dreamer whose ideas rivaled Edison’s. Tesla’s downfall was that, unlike Edison, he didn’t understand business and money. He died having made little or no money off his inventions.

I also enjoyed Matthew Mcfadyen in a supporting role as financer J.P. Morgan, a staunch Edison supporter who eventually jumps ship and puts his money behind Westinghouse.

Of the four big names in the cast, Tom Holland probably has the least impact. His role as Edison’s personal secretary Samuel Insull is a small one, and he doesn’t really do a whole lot.

And while THE CURRENT WAR reunites Tom Holland with his AVENGERS co-star Benedict Cumberbatch, since this film was shot in 2017, technically this is the first movie in which these two starred together.

One drawback I had with THE CURRENT WAR was the absence of key female roles. While there are women characters, like Mary Edison and Marguerite Westinghouse, neither of them figure all that prominently in the proceedings, and their absence is notable.

Other than this, THE CURRENT WAR is a superb movie which tells a riveting story from history that covers a time when the world was changing, when the nation went from darkness to light. The story of the two men involved in the race to give the nation that light is one that is definitely worth learning about.

As such, THE CURRENT WAR is must see viewing.

Even though it was filmed n 2017 and is just getting its theatrical release now, THE CURRENT WAR is one of the best movies I’ve seen this year.

Don’t miss it.

—END—