Ford v Ferrari: Suits v Creatives in this unexpectedly smart car-crash movie.

His milkshake brings all the boys to the yard. Photo courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox

When I was a senior in high school, one of the guys in my class had a Shelby Cobra. Everyone drooled over it, and even though I was more interested in the eye-liner I got to wear as a chorus boy in the school production of Pippin than bro-y things like fast cars, I recognized there was something special about it, that Shelby did for this car what Calvin Klein did for my ass.

Now, after all these years, I finally get to meet Carroll Shelby, via Matt Damon in Persols and a cowboy hat I would actually wear. 

We learn that Shelby was a champion race car driver, but got heart palpitations whenever he drove so eventually had to give it up. This same thing happened to me with Google-searching Tom Hardy images, so I get it. To stay as close to his passion as he could, Shelby turned to designing custom sports cars.

Meanwhile, it’s the early 60s, and the yes men at Ford Motor Company are getting reemed by Henry Ford II over lagging sales. “Ok, boomer”, they respond, which in this case means “Ok, let’s go after the young boomers who want sports cars now and will ruin the world in 50 years”. So Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal, paying tribute to the recently deceased Iacocca by being smoking hot) suggests Ford buy Ferrari for their cache. The Ford suits go to Italy, where they are sneered at by the Ferrari suits, who need to be set up as villains for our final showdown. Old man Ferrari looks and acts like a mob boss from a Scorsese film, and he toys with the Ford people only to get more money out of his preferred suitor, fellow chic Italian brand Fiat. He sends Iacocca away, calling Ford cars ugly, which to this day doesn’t seem to have sunk in at Ford.

But back then it did start a $25 million dollar pissing match. Ford is determined to show up Ferrari by beating them at the most famous racing event in the world – something Ferrari always wins – called the 24 Hours of LeMans. It’s not like that race where they drive all over the French Riviera and try not to Grace Kelly off picturesque cliffs. In this one, racers speed around and around and around a short, rainy course for 24 hours straight. That’s the equivalent of logging 3000 miles endlessly circling the same block. I cannot imagine how torturous that would be, but then I’m not a mom who has to pick up her kid from private school.

Here’s where Shelby and his ace driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale) come in, and here’s where the movie really kicks into gear. What could have been The Fast and the Furious with Wikipedia footnotes is instead a narrative that laps efficiently around the theme of Creativity v Capitalism, how those postwar formative years of American corporate think set the stage for a culture that slaps a “Premium” label on mediocrity and opens another Walmart. 

The film points out, without belaboring anything, that while corporate America loves to talk about originality and passion, it cannot abide the freedom original and passionate creative people need. As the character who embodies this concept, Miles is like a flesh and blood version of a rarified race car. He’s built for his purpose, taut and precise, but difficult to handle. Any variation in course, any bump in the road, can throw him into a tailspin. And when you need an actor who can play a car (in a non-animated context), you call Christian Bale. While he doesn’t go through one of his infamous transformations by ingesting gasoline, he does find the perfect speeds for both his on- and off-track life, turning a character that could have easily been a testy prick into a principled pro and conscientious family man. Bale is, as well, one of the least ‘corporate’ movie star out there, which fits the film’s allegiances. Even in a mega-franchise like Batman he insisted on freedom with his technique, and through his career has been loathe to brand himself with a familiar way of delivering a line or stylistic choices that can be recognized from role to role. That way he can be a Shelby Cobra or a Pierce Arrow, a Ferrari or a Mini Cooper. What he’ll never be, though, is a Ford.

That, unfortunately, is Matt Damon’s spot in the studio parking lot, the actor version of an F150, but with a cheeky bumper sticker like ‘My other car is Harvey Weinstein’s limo’. He’s stuck with the less flashy role here, caught as Shelby is between his affinity for corporate branding and his need to defend Miles’ individualism, so Matt settles into his usual track, but this is the brand of American hero he does so well, especially opposite a Brit who can match his cheeky banter.

With this level of quality in the directing, writing and acting, we expect everything else to match, and it does. We’ve seen automotive theatrics ad infinitum (what’s Fast & Furious on, number 7?), but Ford v Ferrari delivers race footage that feels more analog and tactile, and thus scarier every time Miles seals himself into a potential 200mph death trap. 

There is only one female in the macho world of Ford v Ferrari – Miles’ wife – and though she gets an over-the-top and out-of-nowhere scene trying to compensate for her minimal role, she just can’t compete with the real love interest here – the cars. It’s the mid 60s, so most of that pointy, finny business from the 50s has smoothed out into sensual curves, at least on the more sophisticated offerings. Shelby clearly had taste as well as skill, and you don’t wonder for a minute why all these guys are willing to risk their lives to get inside these curvy beauties (sorry, but the screenwriter’s name is Jez Butterworth, so they started it). 

I did go into Ford v Ferrari thinking it would be just a lark with some boys and their toys. But it’s much more, a wise and observant film about the pursuit of perfection in a homogenous culture, that also happens to get your adrenaline going. 

Ford v Ferrari is currently playing nationwide.

#movies #moviereviews #ratedfritz #fordvferrari #christianbale #oscarnoms

The Irishman: It’s Mobsters: Endgame from the Martin Scorsese Universe

De-aging gracefully. Photo courtesy of Netflix

Martin Scorsese has always been such a great contributor to – and champion of, through his preservation efforts – the art of film that it sounds sacrilegious to suggest he’s been a bit hypocritical in attacking big-budget franchise films when he keeps making them himself. The fact is we know what we’re going to get in a Scorsese mob movie (DeNiro, Pesci, R-rated bludgeoning) just as sure as we know what we’ll get in a Marvel film (Downey, Evans, PG-rated bludgeoning). 

It’s interesting that Scorsese chose to level this criticism just as he’s releasing a film that marks a significant tonal departure from his usual gangster theme parks. Compared to Goodfellas and CasinoThe Irishman is languid and melancholy, the violence mostly muffled, the menace quieter. A more low-key Scorsese feels fitting with our moment of cultural ennui, and his usual cast of wiseguys are clearly relishing what feels like a graceful, reverent send-off of their characters from (Scorsese and real-life) mob history. 

The first sign that things are different this go-round is that the movie has two titles. Ticketing apps and theater lobbies announce The Irishman, which sounds like Scorsese’s ‘grander’ movie titles (The Departed,The Aviator), but once in our seats the film we see is titled I Heard You Paint Houses, which has a winking, conversational feel more reminiscent of his looser earlier films like Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. Whether this is due to Scorsese’s inability to pick a flavor, or Netflix stepping in, we don’t know.

The story is set in three main time frames, which required the much-discussed de-aging of the leads DeNiro and Pesci. And while neither ever looks younger than 60, the movie is set in a time period where 30-year-old guys looked 60 anyway, so it all kind of mushes together and works. 

If it’s a Scorsese gangster film, we get a narrator, so here it’s the title character, Frank Sheeran (DeNiro), in his oldest phase. From a wheelchair at the nursing home where he lives, Frank relates the story of how he met and began ‘painting houses’ (with blood if you didn’t get it) for mob boss Russell Buffalino (Pesci) and how Russell eventually recommends Frank as a bodyguard for infamous Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). The relationship between Frank and Hoffa becomes the heart of the narrative, literally and figuratively. Through Frank, we witness the Jimmy Hoffa era of the late 50s until his disappearance in 1975, one of the most tumultuous socio-economic and political periods in American history. This period was also sort of a last hurrah for organized crime, and it feels as if the movie’s sadness stems from this, as if Scorsese misses the world he’s immersed himself in for so long. 

DeNiro, for his part, channels that longing into his character, and Frank ends up a fuller and more nuanced creation than DeNiro has shown in a while. Frank has genuine affection for Hoffa, and once things get bad between Hoffa and the mob, Frank’s divided loyalties hollow him out. DeNiro and Pacino exchange dialogue like it’s a dance that neither is leading, speaking in coded language of the inevitabilities of the world they’ve each chosen to live – and likely die – in. It’s two of the best actors in film history locked not in battle but in a back-and-forth deference to each other, and it’s both pretty amazing and profoundly sad to watch.

Pesci is worth the trip as well. He finds a different, softer presentation from his typically volatile mobsters, and it helps that here he doesn’t do any of the dirty work himself. That dichotomy between repulsive and magnetic was always Pesci’s calling card, and watching him play it from a fresh angle makes you realize that no actor has embodied Scorsese’s complicated allegiance to these types of men more than Pesci has, and just how valuable he is to Scorsese’s work, not to mention the entire ‘likeable mobster’ trope that gave us our Tony Sopranos.

It’s hard to imagine a 3 1/2-hour movie that isn’t puffed up with directorial indulgences, but in The Irishman, nothing feels superfluous. Every casual conversation or seemingly insignificant moment has consequences, and the pace is so expert that you don’t notice you’ve been in a theater seat (or your sofa, thanks Netflix!) for half the day.

Frank is a man grown so comfortable with his demons he has no need to face them down as he approaches the end. He simply takes a day to pick out his coffin and reserve his berth high up on a mortuary wall, all the while explaining why he wants to be put in a metal casket and stored in a piece of architecture, rather than a wood casket buried in the earth. “I know I’ll still be dead and all,” he says, “but that way it doesn’t feel as final.”

The line is a lovely coda for The Irishman, but really hits home when you think of it referencing the way film, when treasured properly, grants immortality to its director and performers. It’s the way someone old school like Scorcese would say goodbye, though we certainly hope this isn’t the last we see from a legend who clearly still has places to explore.

The Irishman is currently in limited release in theaters, and will begin streaming on Netflix this Tuesday, Nov.20.

#movies #moviereview #ratedfritz #theirishman #robertdeniro #joepesci #martinscorsese #oscarnoms

Parasite: Money is eating us from inside.

“Next time we use Angie’s List.” Photo courtesy of Neon

The last time director Bong Joon Ho centered a film around the class divide was SnowPiercer, in which he fashioned a post-apocalyptic train endlessly circling an uninhabitable earth, with the poor folk in the caboose forced to literally fight their way forward, to the resources horded by the privileged. As with most dystopian fantasies, its message was writ large, in a buck-toothed Tilda Swinton cursive.

With Parasite, Bong sets the same theme in a real-world context. He ditches his fantastical beasts and caricatures and the results are devastating. It’s the best film of the year.

This time around the disenfranchised move ahead through cunning, using both the ruthlessness needed to survive on the fringes and an understanding of how the wealthy think. Their marks, who’ve known nothing but comfort and never had any interest in how the desperate relate to the world, are no match.

Parasite also showcases Bong’s mastery at weaving humor and satire with suspense. The movie opens with a down-and-out family who are even more concerned with losing their pilfered wifi access than going hungry. A friend of the son visits and asks him to take over a tutoring gig for a wealthy couple’s daughter. With the recommendation from his well-off friend, a forged degree (the son couldn’t afford to finish college) and street smarts, the son secures the position. This launches a comical and brilliantly choreographed sequence of scenes as each family member takes advantage of a weakness in the rich couple – insecurity, prudishness, overprotectiveness – to secure a position in the household for another family member, acting as if they don’t know each other. 

With each clandestine infringement by the poor family into the lives of the rich one, the tension mounts, and Bong slowly phases out the humor as dread takes its place. Where that dread ends up is so unexpected that if you were already on the edge of your seat, you’ll be crawling onto the armrest.

The movie has both families behaving badly, so we aren’t steered into the kind of allegiances most movies try to get audiences to make so they feel better when violence is perpetrated (talking to you, Joker). Desperation forces the poor son to lie to get his lucrative tutoring job, but the family gets greedy when they see more money to be had by going deeper and deeper into the deception. The rich couple, for their part, feel they’re being generous and trusting by hiring off the advice of people they barely know, but this behavior really stems from their belief that these workers are all disposable. The real tragedy is that through to the end, everyone, rich and poor, continues to believe that money can solve all troubles.

Bong peppers the narrative with both classic thriller foreshadowing – like the gift of a large ‘wealth stone’ to the poor family that we know will come to no good – and sublimely subtle details revealing characters’ inner lives, as when the rich husband discusses firing his driver while drinking from a disposable juice pouch and his wife slips on single-use plastic gloves to examine the panties planted in the car to incriminate the driver.

With its mix of incisive social commentary and horror/thriller plot devices, Parasite will be compared to Jordan Peele’s excellent Us and Get OutParasite, though, is more of a slow burn. The twists are every bit as clever and shocking, but feel a bit more organic than in Peele’s films. It’s a truly satisfying movie on every level, a fascinating parable about the single most insidious bug humankind has never been able to eradicate.

Parasite is now playing in limited release.

#movies #moviereview #ratedfritz #parasite #bongjoonho #bestpicture #bestdirector #oscarnoms

New Orleans Film Festival: Marriage Story: Black Widow and Kylo Ren battle without special effects

These are not the droids you’re looking for. Photo courtesy of Netflix

Noah Baumbach movies have always felt like filmed versions of HuffPost Life & Style articles: ’35 Funny Tweets About Having a Roommate’; ‘The 1 Thing Unfaithful People Have in Common’; ‘So THAT’S the Difference Between Orange and White Cheddar Cheese’. We get a chuckle, learn something we’ll forget a second later, and nod our heads to things we already know are true but for some reason like to have written out for us.

What’s made Baumbach’s scripts worth bothering to shoot is his love of actors, a commendable thing considering this Marvel Universe in which we live. Miming fisticuffs with an alien against a green-screen is nothing compared to reeling off a 5-minute monologue on some basic slice-of-life moment and making it riveting, and in Marriage Story, Baumbach’s got his most riveting pair yet in Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver. 

ScarJo is an actress named Nicole who wants a divorce from Adam’s Charlie. We assume it’s because he makes her act in his terrible BAM-y stage plays, where she has to climb all over the other actors while her huge projected mug yells at the audience. But since this kind of theater isn’t legally recognized as abuse (yet), Nicole has to go a different route.

Being woke Brooklynite parents, they think they can keep their split ‘gentle’. But then Nicole hires Laura Dern as her lawyer. ScarJo, did you not watch Big Little Lies? Renata Klein does not do gentle. So then Charlie dumps kindly old Alan Alda for a Mafioso lawyer played by who else but Ray Liotta, fresh off his Chantix infomercials and looking like he should have kept smoking.

Proceedings of course get ugly (‘The 5 Things Every Couple Who Hate Each Other Should Know’), in both subtle and overt ways, and Johansson actresses like never before. But let’s discuss Adam Driver.

Does anyone ever stop and think, like I do, what a dismal future American film acting will have once the likes of DeNiro and Pacino and Hoffman and Streep retire? And that Adam Driver is the extremely rare actor of his generation with the shoulders to carry a mantle that big? From the moment he walked out in Girls and made everyone and everything else in the show feel like a Twitter exchange to his single-handedly turning the Star Wars franchise into the grand opera it always wanted to be, this guy has shown an uncanny ability to slap material around until it’s his bitch. Though it purports to present things with an even hand, Marriage Story continually corners Charlie into the villain role (a rousing, biting lecture by Dern during the custody battle makes this obvious), yet Driver refuses to stay in that corner, sneaking out when he can and bursting out when he must. 

Like kids watching parents fight, the movie tries to distract us with comedy, but there’s no getting around that Marriage Story is the opposite of escapist fare. Johansson and Driver’s portrayal of a couple trying and failing to keep their anger and love from nuclear melt-down is so good that it leaves anyone who can relate to the situation a bit traumatized. I saw more than a few dazed faces leaving my theater, and no doubt heading to the nearest bar.

Baumbach knows he’s got something bigger this time than his previous films, that this one will play beyond the Upper West Side, that Oscar may finally find a Noah Baumbach film sexy enough for recognition. But just in case, he hedges his bet by making the crux of the couple’s animosity a stand-off between New York’s artistic snobbery (Charlie, recipient of a MacArthur Genius Grant) and LA’s ‘broader’ creative sensibilities (Nicole, who made her name by exposing her boobs in a teen flick). This and the use of the son to wring emotion during crucial moments is a little convenient, but no more so than classics like Kramer vs Kramer. 

Baumbach devotees will of course love this, though they may secretly wish there was a little more Frances Ha-ha and a little less yelling. But for those who weren’t ever blown away by his films, he’s found excellent actors to convert us. 

Marriage Story opens nationally on November 6.

#movies #moviereview #ratedfritz #marriagestory #noff2019 #oscarnoms #scarlettjohansson #adamdriver #bestactor

Joker: Joaquin Phoenix does interpretive dance to Sinatra classics

Arthur rehearses for Gotham’s Got Talent. Photo courtesy of Warner Bros.

You know when someone tells you a joke they think is brilliant, and you don’t get it, and then they look at you like you’re stupid and unsophisticated because that’s better than admitting their joke makes no sense? 

That’s director Todd Phillips, and his ‘brilliant’ joke that we don’t get is JOKER. Need proof of this? It’s exactly how Phillips chooses to end his movie (this is not a spoiler):

JOKER: (sudden maniacal laughter)

PRISON PSYCHATRIST: “What’s so funny?”

JOKER: “I just thought of a joke.”

PRISON PSYCHIATRIST: “Can you tell me?”

JOKER: “You wouldn’t get it.”

No, we don’t get it. We don’t get how a movie about a comic book villain who stabs people in the eyeball can act this pretentious. And can insist it’s a timely commentary on the dangers of ignoring mental health care when it so willingly hands the gun to the mentally ill character and delights in giving him reasons to use it.

Joaquin Phoenix’s performance as Arthur Fleck, aka Joker, is the big sell here, and it is mesmerizing (at one point it looks like his ribcage is trying to escape and go find a calmer torso to settle in, like Christian Bale’s maybe). But from frame one Phoenix has his dial up to 11, so by 20 minutes in he’s exhausted the myriad tics he so famously commits every twisting bone in his body to. His solution is to start pulling different Jokers from our collective memory of the character, using escalating violent acts as milestones, and excuses, for his Joker to shift personality. After his first murder, his previously uber-milquetoast Arthur gets the dismissive swagger of Nicholson’s Joker. Next he possesses the tightly wound control of Ledger’s. A quick dip into Leto’s version (whatever that was) before landing at the effeminate vaudevillian Joker Cesar Romero played in the Batman TV series. It is a clever – and satisfyingly weird – way for an actor to construct a character arc without help from the script, but it takes a different track from the rest of the movie, its virtuoso inventiveness making everything around it pale in comparison.

Once Arthur is completely deranged at the finale, and Joaquin is spent from his effort, Phillips steps in to say “Wait, you still have to deliver my Important Message!”, and a character who has supposedly lost the few marbles he had left, suddenly reels off a clear-headed and precise critique of society’s treatment of the mentally ill. No one buys this, including the audience.

Frances Conroy is here to yet again play ‘terrible mother whose hair is too long for her age’ and the great Zazie Beetz is a woman who can’t be in the movie too much because she’s not supposed to be. You’ll see, and it’s annoying.

Another element thrown in to say this is an important film is Robert DeNiro, but the only part left for him was a night-time TV talk show host a la Johnny Carson. Jovial and deferential is not a DeNiro thing, and the character should have been presented in a different context, say a confrontational talk radio format. But this film constantly chooses style over sense.

There are several iconic visual sequences audiences will walk out remembering, but the stylistic flourishes become overplayed, like the constantly flickering florescent lights, the blood-on-greasepaint motif, the endless intrusion of ironic song choices for Phoenix to twist and shout to.

I don’t see the critique that the movie incites incels (men who’ve been made ‘involuntarily celibate’ because women are demanding respect). I see a director who considers himself the incel. In interviews Phillips blames ‘woke culture’ (Liberal McCarthyism, etc) for his inability to make fratty comedies like The Hangover and Old School anymore. So he’s been forced into a new genre, which he feels he has reinvented in the same way he feels he revolutionized comedy (move over, Christopher Nolan, there’s a new auteur in the comic book movie game!). 

When I caught my partner, who typically loves all things comic book related, yawning, I knew my reaction was shared. This is a movie full of style and full of always-fascinating Joaquin Phoenix. It’s just also full of itself.  

#movies #moviereview #joker #ratedfritz #joaquinphoenix #oscarnoms #bestactor