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Jim Schembri’s new release movie reviews: 14 Nov, 2019

Jim Schembri

FORD v FERRARI **** (152 minutes) M

The epic contest of wills and wheels between the Ford Motor Company and Ferrari over the supremacy of the 1966 Le Mans endurance race is brought to dazzling, super-charged life in what is easily one of the best racing films we’ve seen in decades.

Containing every single racing car movie trope you could wish for and with cinematography that drops you right into the middle of the track as well as the driver’s seat, the film, energetically directed by James Mangold (Logan; 3:10 to Yuma; Copland; Walk the Line) is a brisk, exciting and, most of all, fun account of the race by Ford to prepare a car fast enough to break the Italian domination of Le Mans and re-assert the power of American ingenuity.

In one of the most enjoyable big-screen odd-couple bromances since Butch & Sundance, Matt Damon and Christian Bale head a fabulous ensemble cast that includes Josh Lucas, Jon Bernthal, Tracy Letts and Ray McKinnon.

It’s excitement from go-to-whoa, yet with all the racing and revving and talk about engines and air flow and chassis design and fuel and RPMs, the film could easily be taken as being primarily about motor sport, which, in a way, it is.

But what Ford v Ferrari is really about, what it really celebrates in its throbbing soul, is the triumph of the entrepreneurial spirit and how imagination, vision and ingenuity often collide with dictates of bureaucracy.

When former race driver and car engineer Carroll Shelby (Damon) and British driver/master mechanic Ken Miles (Christian Bale) are brought together by Ford vice president Lee Iacocca (John Bernthal) the odd-couple chemistry immediately starts to sizzle.

Shelby, a former race driver, has been recruited by Ford boss Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) to get Miles, a financially strapped, fast-mouthed garage mechanic, to help construct a sleek, air-slicing vehicle that will squash the Le Mans winning streak of Ferrari’s brilliant but broke maestro Enzo Ferrari (Remo Girone) and put America back in front.

Their love of cars and racing instantly match their obvious love for each other, and their mutual passion to win sparks off a fiery collaboration. Ford is desperate for his company to reclaim its place in the eyes of the American public, so pours all he can into the campaign.

The only snag, wouldn’t you know it, comes from within the upper echelon of his own team. Head bean counter Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas) bristles against Miles’ cheeky, anti-authoritarian manner and the effect it could have on the corporation’s carefully curated image. Beebe is not so much a villain as a devoted company man whose eyes are on the process rather than the prize.

The performances throughout crackle with old-school charm, with Tracy Letts especially good as Ford. He’s a boss with a big heart who feels his grandfather’s culture-changing legacy as both a burden and an honour. He might have a no-nonsense, hard-nosed business sense when dealing with these troublesome Italians, but he also not above crying. It’s a great portrayal.

The patriotism that fuels Ford’s quest is complemented by the film’s exacting and beautiful period recreation of 1960s Americana, right down to the splashy showroom decor, buttoned down suits and wood-pannelled offices. All that colour and detail is just luscious to look at.

And as we’ve seen recently with films such as Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Joker and The Old Man & the Gun, when filmmakers recreate a much-loved period of cinema they tend to adopt the filming style of that era.

Hence Mangold and his longtime cinematographer Phedon Papamichael (whose stamp is also all over Alexander Payne’s films), give the film a clean, crisp, stately look, synonymous with the 1960s.

The interior compositions are sedate and classical,  and when the film hits the track the disciplined camera coverage and superb editing recall such racing movie classics as John Frankenheimer’s Grand Prix (1966, with James Garner), Le Mans (1971 with Steve McQueen) and Winning (1969 with Paul Newman).

And while the film naturally has the benefits of digitally enhanced visuals, they are sparsely used.

The eye-popping realism of the racing sequences in Ford v Ferrari have the hard-edged feel of scenes captured on the track, with the aid of state-of-the-art camera rigs and an army of stuntmen staging the action with dozens of race cars built especially for the film.

Sure, Ford v Ferrari could be described as a boy’s film, and on that score it delivers all the horsepower, throbbing engines and tough talking you would expect.

In a film dominated by men clad either in suits or race gear, the only main female character is Miles’ long-suffering wife Mollie. Played with gusto by Caitriona Balfe (from TV’s Outlander), Mollie tries keeping Miles focused on the fact that his life at the wheel has to make room with the one he has at home.

It’s that focus on character that keeps the film’s infectious energy dramatically grounded, however fast the action gets. And, boy, does it get fast.

 

THE REPORT *** (120 minutes) M

The patriotic fervour that took hold of America after the 9/11 attacks is captured with raw brutality in this very good, very dark, fact-based drama about how a nation’s lust for payback lead to acts that violated its own values.

In a fine, subdued lead performance, Adam Driver plays senate investigator Daniel Jones who is directed to look into the use by the CIA of “enhanced interrogation techniques” on terrorist suspects in the wake of the attacks.

Using a forceful docu-drama style, writer/director Scott Z. Burns (writer on Contagion, The Bourne Ultimatum, The Informant) methodically follows Jones as he picks through the blinkered process that saw the US government lose its head.

Putting revenge before reason, it granted license to two psychologists who had less-than-elaborate theories on how torture could be used to extract valuable information from terrorist prisoners, their rationale being that they would prevent further attacks.

Drawing on the Senate Intelligence Committee report, the film does a fairly comprehensive job exposing the fallacy of that. As Shakespeare said in The Merchant of Venice – and as paraphrased so eloquently by Nice Guy Eddie (Chris Penn) in Reservoir Dogs – torturing people for information tends to make them say anything to stop the pain.

For Jones and his small team detailing the violations is harrowing enough – Burns shows in flashes some of the horrific methods used, such as sleep deprivation and water boarding – but then comes the bureaucratic nightmare of actually getting the report released.

Though The Report is a prime example of strong, sturdy political filmmaking, it is a relentlessly gritty, often gruelling drama with unkind things to say about human nature and how political conviction can render you blind to evidence that counters your beliefs. It’s a tough, timely message, well delivered, if occasionally hard to watch.

Side note: The Report is the latest film to use an emerging release model that we are going to be seeing a lot more of. The film will play in cinemas for a couple of weeks before being released into the stream via Amazon Prime.

Traditionally a film has a 90-day window to play out in cinemas before hitting small-screen platforms such as DVD or streaming.

Well, that’s changing, and it’s changing fast. Two new films, The King by Australian director David Michod and the 3+ hour Martin Scorsese crime epic The Irishman took similar routes.

The idea behind the model, of course, is that it offers a quicker, more efficient and more cost-effective means of getting to the audiences filmmakers want to reach. Here’s hoping it works.

(Both The King and The Irishman will be reviewed shortly.)

 

FINKE: THERE AND BACK ***1/2 (92 minutes) M

All the guts, grime, glory and grievous bodily injury involved in jockeying a motorcycle along the unforgiving, unsealed 500-kilometre Outback route of the annual Finke Desert Race are captured by director Dylan River in this fabulously photographed, engaging, slickly made documentary.

Narrated by Eric Bana, River and his team of about 20 cinematographers cover every conceivable aspect of the race and from every possible point of view, including those of veteran racers, first timers, emergency workers, the Alice Springs mayor and the police. It’s amazing how a camera always seems to be in just the right spot, whether on the ground or in the air, when something critical happens on the track.

Drawing hundreds of participants across its two races – a car race preceding the bike race screams for a movie of its own – the point is well-made how, in some cases, the attraction the event has for some riders defies human understanding.

 For screening details visit: https://www.madmanfilms.com.au/finke/

Jim Schembri
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