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Ford vs. Ferrari (2019)

I don’t care one lick about cars and I was greatly entertained by Ford vs. Ferrari, a thrilling look back where the gear-heads at Ford wanted to build a new model of racing car that could challenge the seemingly unbeatable Italians at the Le Mans raceway. The smartest move the movie makes is placing this as a character-driven story with a group of big personalities solving a puzzle and trying to prove the arrogant suits wrong. It has such winning elements that it’s got crowd-pleaser DNA all over it, even if you’ll likely predict every step of the story. Even if you know nothing about the history of racing and motor vehicles, you can suspect that designer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) and driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale) will, through grit and confidence and outside-the-box thinking, overcome their obstacles to win the 1966 Le Mans race. The movie even realizes this, and that’s why the climax of the movie isn’t whether or not Ford will triumph but on a very personal dilemma and choice. It’s less about the mechanics of cars and more about simply solving problems with innovative solutions, and there’s a great satisfaction in watching characters we care about get closer to solving a puzzle that has outwitted the masses. As the characters get excited, we get excited because the personal is what is felt most. Miles is an arrogant, disgraced driver that Ford doesn’t want being the face of anything for the company. Shelby is trying to transition from being in a car to the head of a company, and he’s the heat shield for his team, taking the corporate ire and laying more and more on the line for their experiments. Damon is great, and sounds uncannily like Tommy Lee Jones, but this is chiefly Bale’s movie and he is fantastic. He once again just disappears into a character, this time the lanky, cocky, hard-driving family man, and the scenes with Miles’ wife and son actually provide important dimension to all the participants. They aren’t simply there to express concern or admiration. The screenplay by the Butterworth brothers (Edge of Tomorrow) and Jason Keller (Machine Gun Preacher) have opened up these characters, their fear, anxieties, hopes, and dreams in a way that feels genuine and considerate. They hook us in with the characters early, so that the rest of the film serves as a series of payoffs for our investment. The racing sequences are thrilling as director James Mangold (Logan) has his camera career around the cars, placing the audience in the middle of the RPMs and feeling that immersive sense of speed. I never knew that the Le Mans race is 24 hours long, and the scene of these 1960s cars, with 1960s windshield wiper technology, driving in the rain and dark at 200 miles-per-hour is starkly terrifying. I still don’t care much about cars or their history, but you present me engaging characters and Oscar-caliber performances to boot, and I’ll watch those people anywhere. Ford vs. Ferrari is a bit long (150 minutes) but a well-crafted, potent crowd-pleaser with exhilarating racing and strong characters worthy of cheering.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Life of Pi (2012)

1892Director Ang Lee’s openly spiritual survival drama is really all about a kid, a lifeboat, and a tiger. Or is it? Based on the best-selling book, Life of Pi is a hard movie to put into words. You can assess what you’ve seen on screen but the emotional experience and the narrative purpose are a little trickier to nail. Our main character, Pi, is trying to survive adrift in the ocean, his only “companion” an angry tiger. I appreciated that the tiger acts, well, mostly like a tiger; ferocious, scared, territorial, and hungry for some tasty Pi. Just because they’re stuck together doesn’t mean this wild animal becomes cuddly. Lee has put careful attention into crafting a film that uses 3D artfully, and you can tell a big difference from the normal slapdash efforts made for an extra buck. The shipwreck scene is terrifying, the moments of wonder at sea are majestic, and the tiger is a marvel of CGI, rarely looking fake. Despite the life-and-death circumstances, I cannot say I was truly emotionally invested in the story, and I think that has to do with the reveal at the end. I won’t spoil it but we find out the story is also an allegory and there’s a deeper, sadder meaning to the dramatic events onscreen. The very nature of storytelling as a means of psychological redress is an idea worth pondering by film’s end. I just don’t know if it was a strong enough ending to send me on my way. The movie looks great, it’s imaginative and contemplative, but by the end, Life of Pi hadn’t convinced me about the existence of God, as it promised to do, but left me emotionally at arm’s length. Maybe that’s subtext for man’s relationship with God, but I won’t go there. I wish Pi’s emotional journey was held to the same level of art as the physical struggle.

Nate’s Grade: B

Poseidon (2006)

The Poseidon production design is rather fantastic and director Wolfgang Peterson (Troy) has a real handle on large-scale carnage, but Poseidon is a stripped down action flick that lacks the suspense and emotional involvement to bring strength to its attempts at harrowing survival. Some sequences, only some, are nail-biting, like a very claustrophobic escape through an air vent slowly filling with water. We’re presented a situation and then Peterson cranks up the tension and utilizes different characters working together. The sequence has the added benefit of utilizing the child to save them, unlike most films of this nature where irritating kids just become a liability to your own safety. The fact that this sequence, the film’s high point in my view, is also the least expensive of this $160 million dollar movie’s sequences is not lost on me. The film’s premise of working through the bowels of an underwater ship is filled with potential. The original Poseidon Adventure was cheesy, yes, but it was a lot of fun. This slick remake brings the action fairly early, having its “rouge wave” flip the ship at the 15-minute mark. Because of this decision the audience has no attachment to the film’s collection of characters, given fleeting seconds to establish some sense of personality. You really don’t care at all what happens to these people in the ensuing danger. The female characters add nothing to the story except to fall into the constant need of being rescued. Peterson paces his obstacles mercilessly right after the other, but he runs into the problem of killing off all his expendable (read: non-white) cast off too quickly. That lessens even the small amount of tension the film had going. Poseidon is way too big-budget and serious to go for camp. The special effects are above average and the pacing is swift. Frankly, you could do worse this summer for entertainment than spending 100 minutes watching this movie.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Secondhand Lions (2003)

Walter (Haley Joel Osment) is being shipped off by his absent-minded mother (Kyra Sedgwick) to spend the summer with his two great uncles (Michael Caine and Robert Duvall). His mother is secretly hoping that Walter will cozy up to his eccentric relatives because of rumors that they have stockpiled millions of dollars. She sends Walter off with a mission to find the location of that money. Walter is a weenie, and Caine and Duvall are man’s men that can still show them cocksure youngins a thing or two. The summer passes and Walter learns more than he could have ever known about his uncles and their supposedly amazing lives.

Caine and Duvall, two of the best actors we have, are wasted with material that pushes them into grizzled ole’ curmudgeons that inevitably soften up. Duvall plays the same rough and tumble character he plays in so many better movies, and Caine just seems like he’s bored. Osment loses some cuteness as he hits puberty. He still has the face of a teddy bear (really look sometime) but I’m sure he’ll rebound and it’’ll only be a matter of time before he’’s dating one of the Olsen twins. Wow, this is weird for me to write about.

The film feels like it’s in the hands of a novice with no confidence. The director (whose only other experience was a film called, [Dancer,Texas Pop. 81) doesn’’t seem to know of anything reaching subtlety. The storyline with Osment’’s flighty mother is just painful to watch. She’’s an embarrassment of a character. Scenes are awkwardly framed and there are way too many “fun” montages of Caine and Duvall shooting things endlessly. I don’’t know about your movie lore, but when I see old men firing at people from their porch, this doesn’’t register as “crazy yet lovable old timer” but only as “crazy.” The entire lion subplot is just silly. The film even gets worse as it spins into a fantastical epilogue that stretches the bounds of reality. You’’ll know it when the helicopter touches down.

Some elements of Secondhand Lions work despite themselves. There’s an ongoing subplot where Caine spins a great yarn about him and Duvall’’s adventures as young men in the French Foreign Legion. We cut to some B-movie inserts that provide some fun, despite a preponderance of sword swinging violence that may question the “family” label people are too freely applying to Secondhand Lions. Watching this tall tale was far more entertaining than the reality Secondhand Lions[ was trying to dish. I kept wanting the film to somehow invert, and then this film would be the B-movie adventures where some person is telling a story about a whiny kid who gets an old lion and learns a thing or two about life and being a man from his two crazy uncles. Do you see what I’m getting at.

Secondhand Lions is an overly sentimental Hallmark card of a movie. I don’t think I’’ve yawned this much during a movie in a long time. Secondhand Lions is an uninspired trick pony trying to appear like a wise coming of age nostalgic tale. Instead, the entire film feels secondhand. Beware, contents may have shifted upon delivery. Mark this box return to sender. Okay, I’’m done with the postal puns.

Nate’s Grade: C

Hulk (2003)

Comic book movies are all the rage these days. The X-Men films, Spider-Man, even Daredevil all managed some level of success because they were, at their heart, entertaining pulp and treated the source material with some sense of reverence. Now Ang Lee’’s monstrous film Hulk lumbers into theaters and one could best describe it as being too serious for its own good.

Bruce Banner (Eric Bana) is the quiet guy, the one who bottles everything inside. His lab partner Betty Ross (Jennifer Connelly) has recently broken off their relationship due to his emotionally shut-off demeanor. Well Bruce gets hit with a lethal dose of gamma rays and it kicks up something inside him. You see, Bruce’s long-absent father (Nick Nolte, looking frightfully like his drunken mug shot photo) experimented some kind of regeneration serum on himself. When he fathered Bruce he passed on whatever genetic alteration. So now when Bruce gets mad he turns into a 15-foot raging Jolly Green Giant (the CGI in this movie is not good). He starts enjoying the freedom letting go can bring. Nothing gets him more mad than some yuppie (Josh Lucas, badly miscast) trying to buy out his lab and then kill him to sell his DNA to the military. Along the way, Betty’’s father (Sam Elliott) tries to hunt Bruce and his greener-on-the-other-side alter ego for the good of us all.

Director Ang Lee has injected most of his films with a sense of depression and repression, from the biting and darkly astute The Ice Storm to the stoic Gary Cooper-like silence of the aerobatic samurai in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. He’’s a master filmmaker without question. Lee bites off more than he can chew with Hulk much like the gifted Cameron Crowe did with the sci-fi Vanilla Sky. Lee is so damn ambitious that Hulk tries to be everything and it ends up fulfilling nothing. His film is the most ambitious and the most tedious super hero/comic book movie of all time. What does it say when the super green Hulk has more personality than the bland Bruce Banner?

The acting is a non-issue here. Connelly remains one of the most beautiful women in all of movies and has incredibly expressive eyes and brows. She has this strand of hair that’s always in the right side of her face. It’’s so awkward. Bana gets the least fun part as the mentally scarred kid afraid of his own anger. He doesn’’t do much but then he isn’’t given much. Elliott overacts with impressive gusto whereas Nolte overacts like every line was his last breath.

After about an hour or so of beleaguered talking and flat characters, I started to become restless. I wanted to see Hulk smash, Hulk smash good. Instead what you get is endless scenes of cheesy speeches, sci-fi babble speech, phony philosophy, and mind-numbingly awful pacing. Seriously, Hulk has worse pacing than glaciers. You’’ll see the Mona Lisa yellow faster than this movie will be over. And in some weird paradox, I think it’ will never be over.

Lee attempts to make the film a living comic book. You’’ve never seen this many wipes short of a Brady Bunch marathon on TV Land. Lee splits his screen into multiple panels and slides them around much like the layout of a comic book. However, this visual cue is overused and calls attention to itself in a “how arty are we” kind of pretentious way. If Hulk was attempting to be a comic book movie, then where the hell did all the action go? This movie could have been subtitled The Hulk Goes to Therapy because everything excluding an over-the-top final act revolves around people working out childhood issues. Man, there’’s nothing I like to see more during the summer than a $150 million dollar movie about – people working out childhood issues. Oh yeah!

Hulk is an overlong and ambitiously meandering film that’s incredibly serious, incredibly labored, and incredibly boring. Someone needs to tell the creators of this film to lighten up. The big-screen adaptation of the big green id may have heavy doses of Freudian psychoanalysis (try and tie THAT with the merchandizing onslaught) but the film is barren when it comes to fun. Even comic book fans should be disappointed. I heard a story of a kid who saw Hulk and asked his mom when the movie was going to start, and she replied, “90 minutes ago.” Should you see Hulk in the theater at full price? No. Instead, give your money to me. It will have more resonance and action than anything this bloated, joyless, self-important vacuum of entertainment could offer.

Hulk mad? Audience mad! Audience leave theater. See other better movies instead. Hulk sad. No Hulk 2. Audience happy.

Nate’s Grade: D+

American Psycho (2000)

American Psycho is based on the controversial 1991 best seller by Brent Ellis though it got old fast. One can easily grasp how the lead connects with brand names on page one, but repeat it for 300 more and you’re tempted to add the book to your collection of firewood. Ellis’ novel was sadistically perverse, but director Mary Haron (I Shot Andy Warhol) has somehow managed to pull out an entertaining social satire from the pages of blood and name brands.

Christian Bale, mainly known as the boy-next-door in period piece films, plays Patrick Bateman with ferocious malevolence and vigorous life. Teen scream Leo was once considered for the part but after seeing Bale’s startling performance it should prove why he’s on screen and Leo’s swimming in The Beach. Bateman is an up-and-up Wall Street yuppie who glosses over appearance more than anything else. The only outlet it appears for our sinister shark from the soulless decade is by random acts of gruesome violence.

If Bateman blows off steam by blowing off companion’s heads than it only becomes more frustrating when no one believes his random confessions. Haron takes the grisly material of Ellis’ novel and mines it for pure 80s pulp. It only gets better the further it gets as you have so many points to discuss: Is Bateman acting out to prove his existence in a world that doesn’t humor him or others? Is he acting out deep-seeded rage from the actions of the decade on its people? Is he desensitized and so jaded that death does not even fracture him anymore? The questions are boundless.

The hit list of stars in Psycho includes Chloe Sevigny as a nailed home addition, Willem Dafoe as an investigative detective, Jared Leto as an axed co-worker, and sweet Reese Witherspoon as the apple of Bateman’s twisted eye. Everyone has fun in their tongue-in-cheek nostalgia romp through the absurd.

American Psycho should not be confused with the successful teen sex farce American Pie. The only desserts in this film are just, and they’re usually left of the mayonnaise and behind the frozen head in the refrigerator. American Psycho is the thinking man’s slasher movie. A flick that slices, dices, and always entices. It only gets better after you’ve seen it. One of the best films of 2000 for now.

Nate’s Grade: A

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