Determination and Deception
Reviews by Ken Burke
I invite you to join me on a regular basis to see how my responses to current cinematic offerings compare to the critical establishment, which I’ll refer to as either the CCAL (Collective Critics at Large) if they agree with me or the OCCU (Often Cranky Critics Universe) if they choose to disagree.
Ford v Ferrari (James Mangold) rated PG-13
“Executive Summary” (no spoilers): (More-or-less) based-on-fact story about the grueling 24-hour Le Mans motor race (day or night, rain or shine) in 1966, this one pitting frequent-champ Enzo Ferrari’s dominating sports cars against upstart entries from the Ford Motor Co. somewhat as a rebuttal to Ferrari refusing Henry Ford II’s offer to merge with the Italians, somewhat as a personal vendetta of Mr. Ford, responding to insults from his competitor. Ford II, through V.P. Lee Iacocca, enlists famed race-car-designer Carroll Shelby (the only American ever to win at Le Mans back then) who in turn brings along frequent-friend/sometimes-foe fearless, brash British driver Ken Miles, expert in getting better performance from the emerging Ford racer but not the kind of public persona acceptable to another Ford V.P., Leo Beebe. Problems with getting the Ford racer into truly-competitive-shape lead to Shelby finally getting the kind of (almost) full control he needs, allowing Miles his own freedom after winning the 1966 24-hour Daytona marathon as proof he could handle Le Mans. Beyond that, I’d have to venture into Spoiler territory (which you can do easily if you like with an Internet search about this event or just by reading all of my review below), but I will say I think auto-racing-fans (which normally don’t include me [how many times can you watch someone zip around in some form of a circle, he wonders?]) will be thrilled with the action here as vividly depicted on screen while the rest of us can simply appreciate the expected-solid-acting from Matt Damon (Shelby) and Christian Bale (Miles), as well as get some sense of what it must be like to hurl yourself around a racetrack at up to 200 or more miles per hour (as Shelby demonstrates to Ford II, proving why they need someone as unflappable as Miles to run their race).
Here’s the trailer: (Use the full screen button in the image’s lower right to enlarge it; activate that same button on the full screen’s lower right or your “esc” keyboard key to return to normal size.)
If you can abide plot spoilers read on, but as this blog’s intended for those who’ve seen the film—or want to save some bucks—to help any of you who want to learn more details yet avoid important plot-reveals I’ll identify any give-away sentences/sentence-clusters like this:
⇒The first and last words will be noted with arrows and red.⇐ OK, now continue on if you prefer.
What Happens: Once again we’re in the realm of “inspired by a true story,” so join brilliant dog Mr. Peabody and his adopted human son, Sherman, as they escort us into their WABAC machine, arriving in the early 1960s where we first meet Texas-born Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) who’s either dreaming, daydreaming, or reminiscing (not sure, but no matter) about 1959 when he became the first American to win the body/mind-crushing-endurance-test in France known as the 24 Hours of Le Mans (each car has a pair of alternating drivers who keep going around an 8½ mile track for a full day), although he did it in a British Aston Martin rather than a U.S. car; he’s frustrated his heart condition precludes him from such further-demanding-driving so he puts his energy into building race cars at his Shelby American factory near L.A., often depending on his drives-like-a-maniac-friend, Brit Ken Miles (Christian Bale), to pick up the trophies, although Ken’s idiosyncratic-attitude, sharp wisecracks (often at Shelby’s expense) gain him no favors with racing officials nor customers in his repair shop, soon repossessed for missed payments. Unbeknown to them in 1963, across the country in Detroit Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts)—even though he’s the grandson of famed-assembly-line-proponent Henry Ford, with H.F. II being the son of Edsel Ford, so I guess this is an alternative to not actually being a “Junior”—is angrily-worried about his company losing market share to Chevrolet, so one of his V.P.s, Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal), suggests they need to project a more dynamic image, like the products of Italian automaker Enzo Ferrari (Remo Girone), whose expensive sports cars win famous races. Iacocca and his team even call on Ferrari, offering to buy his cash-strapped-company, but a combination of not fully keeping control of his race-car-division and a looming option from Fiat (ultimately successful in 1969) led to Enzo rejecting the offer, leveling some insults at Ford II in the process, leading the Detroit honcho to work through Iacocca to team up with Shelby, financing a Ford race car that could beat Ferrari’s entries at Le Mans. Shelby’s willing but has trouble convincing Miles to join him, until Ken’s cash-strapped-reality (much more financially-troubling at the lower end of the economic-spectrum than Enzo’s situation, even with a new mechanic's job at another garage, barely allowing him to support wife Mollie [Caitriona Balfe] and teenage son Peter [Noah Jupe]), so they, along with Shelby’s team, headed by Phil Remington (Ray McKinnon)—and more input than they want from Ford, especially Senior Executive V.P. Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas)—keep pushing the Ford GT40 to better levels of improvement, although Beebe finally pushes Miles out as too much of an egotistical “beatnik” to properly be a public face of the company, putting his faith in New Zealander Bruce McLaren (Benjamin Rigby) instead, even though when the Ford cars compete at Le Mans in 1964 none of them finish the race.
Henry Ford II’s ready to abandon the whole project until Shelby convinces him otherwise, with the proviso he’s now to be totally in charge of the project, yet even Ford II refuses to rehire Miles until Shelby takes him for a test drive at such speeds the old man’s “driven” to fright-filled-tears, agrees someone as steel-willed as Miles is what they need to conquer the bone/brain-crunching-demands of Le Mans, which Ken proves himself capable of by winning the similar 24-hour-endurance-test of the 1966 Daytona race (using extreme speed) as a final requirement. ⇒At Le Mans there are 3 Ford teams (each car alternates 2 drivers—another Ford car’s captained by McLaren), 3 from Ferrari (plus many others) with the initial challenge being drivers racing across the track, jumping in their cars to blast off, with some not even making it past the starting line before serious mishaps occur. Miles roars away quickly, but his driver’s-side-door won’t stay closed so he has to pull off into the pit after the first lap so Phil can bang it shut with a mallet. After that, on they all go for hours and hours, enduring darkness, rain, crashes by other drivers along the way, with Miles (who pushed his car up to the dangerous territory of 200+ mph, a bit into the 7,000 rpm’s red zone, then had to have his entire braking system replaced) finally in full control as all the Ferrari cars failed, the other 2 Fords left way behind as he set/exceeded his own time record for a single lap. However, as he prepared to push forward for his last shift at the wheel, Shelby had to tell him of Beebe’s demand that Miles slow down so the other Ford cars could catch up as they’d all cross the finish line in tandem; Miles has no interest in this (neither does Shelby), but at the last minute goes along with it; however, even though he’s barely first over the line the race goes to McLaren due to a rules technicality his car started behind Miles’ so he actually covered more distance when he finished (?). We’re all shocked at this outcome, but Ken takes it in good spirits just because he got to drive at all. However, the real shock comes a couple of months later when he’s doing another test drive where his brakes fail, the car crashes engulfed in flame (this had happened earlier on a test drive but he survived), killing Miles. Months later Shelby’s still upset, has a brief final visit with Peter and Mollie, followed by final intertitles before the credits telling us Ford cars went on to win Le Mans in 1967-’69,* Miles was inducted into the Motorsports Hall of Fame in 2001, with Shelby honored, well-remembered too.⇐
*See this article if you want for some interesting details on the post-1966 wins for Ford at Le Mans.
So What? In truth, I don’t recall seeing anything on screen at the beginning of this movie about it being based in historical fact (a practice which seems to have become the norm in such current productions), but maybe I was distracted by the tasty, toppings-enhanced popcorn which I often don’t eat at these screenings, knowing I’ll be busy taking notes; however, this time I chomped away more than usual in the opening minutes because all that really mattered to me was who’d win this race (as if I couldn’t guess without Googling, I assumed; maybe the occasional fictional sports movie like Rocky [John G. Avildsen, 1976] can succeed [it did; won Oscar’s Best Picture, Best Director; global box-office of $225 million] with an inspirational-triumph rather than an actual victory in a crucial-competition, yet I can’t see where a docudrama of the magnitude of Ford v Ferrari [$97.6 million production budget, major star-power] would be made if the protagonist’s car blew up on the final lap [even as the finale’s major events surprised me after all]). I’ve never been much of a racing fan, becoming bored with the repetition of cars going around in circles for hours (I get much more involved with horses making only one sweep of their tracks, even though I’m becoming quite disturbed by news of equine deaths during training/after racing, concerns about animal cruelty with jockeys viciously whipping their animals, etc., so I’m drifting away from that), never finding any thrill when crashes on the racetracks lead to death, injury, or even just potential danger to oncoming cars, having no heritage with relatives or friends all that interested in this sport, but for those who care about these souped-up-cars, fearless drivers, daredevil tactics at extremely high speeds, cinematography putting you actively into the flow of dangerous hunks of metal almost flying as their motions approach the breaking point I think this movie will deliver a successful immersion into what makes this highly-dangerous-sport into an experience many wish to be a part of, either as spectators or (yikes!) behind the wheel, even as dangerous curves approach (Miles mostly spun around them by braking, not really letting up much on his acceleration—we do get plenty of shots of his feet in such actions, maybe more fascinating to the true believers than to “OK, let’s get this part of the story over with”-me) along with the constant fear of what might happen if another driver nudges you too hard or (saints preserve us!) comes flying into you. For those (again, like me) who need something more than car-centric-dialogue (terms I can’t even recognize except from some early Beach Boys songs) the interpersonal dynamics here between Shelby and Miles are quite compelling (you truly feel their connections even when they argue), the success of true-believer-individualists over corporate-image-executives is satisfying, while the whole thing proves to be mostly accurate, even as Hollywood drama invariably inserts itself, as detailed in this short video (9:42) about the Top 10 things right and wrong in this cinematic story (be aware of Spoilers).
Bottom Line Final Comments: The CCAL's highly-supportive of this pure-hearted-retro-sense-of-triumph-movie (which turns out to be more like Rocky than I’d originally assumed), with a hearty 91% collection of positive reviews at Rotten Tomatoes, an 81% average score at Metacritic (very-encouraging for this bunch) while domestic (U.S.-Canada) audiences have also been reasonably supportive during the 2 weeks of release with this movie playing at 3,528 theaters, bringing in $57.7 million in domestic grosses so far, although last weekend nothing else much mattered except Disney’s Frozen II (Jennifer Lee, Chris Buck) with its enormous-domestic-gross-debut of $130.3 million, dominating 4,440 screens (Box Office Mojo’s new format no longer notes total worldwide grosses for specific movies [at least not that I can find], but Frozen II was the leader in many markets across the globe according to Mojo's individual-country-tallies, bringing in another $103.1 million from the 9 nations where it was the box-office-champ last weekend [China, South Korea, France, Turkey, Vietnam, Hungary, Croatia, Slovenia, Iceland—of course—with no info I know about to tell how it did in the other 10 they’ve reported, along with any others around the world not covered in these 19 listings], although Ford v Ferrari was #1 in Australia last weekend). This possibly-a-bit-too-esoteric-race-car-content might not hold up very long as the potential-awards-contenders keep rolling out, but I’ll bet it’ll still be easily available for the next few weeks if you’d like a pure adrenaline rush before settling in for all the Oscar-yearning-dramas either out now or soon vying to capture your attention. Until you see some of them, though, I’ll leave you with my usual wrap-it-up Musical Metaphor, intended to bring an aural closure to what’s gone so brilliantly before in the contents above. We’ll start with one of those tunes I referenced earlier, the Beach Boys’ “Shut Down” (from both of their 1963 albums, Surfin’ U.S.A. and Little Deuce Coupe, emphasizing both aspects of their early popularity) at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=09yy OQjvKdM where you not only get the original quintet live on stage but also Mike Love on saxophone, as this battle between 2 American hotrods (a Dodge 413 and a Corvette) echoes the movie’s Ford-Ferrari matchup (“Superstock Dart is winding out in low but my fuel injected Stingrays really starting to go To get the traction I’m riding the clutch My pressure plate’s burning that machine’s too much”) while this bonus Metaphor, "Beep Beep" by the Playmates (from their 1958 album At Play with the Playmates) is a marvelously-whimsical story of a proud Cadillac owner being bested by a working-class Nash Rambler, just as utilitarian Ford topped classy Ferrari back in 1966.
SHORT TAKES (spoilers also appear here)
The Good Liar (Bill Condon) rated R
In near-contemporary London an elderly con-man has 2 scams going, one to relieve a couple of guys of a lot of cash through a scam about fake investments/fake Russians, the other an attempt to rob a wealthy widow, but there are other twists making this more than a comedic (at times quite serious) caper starring 2 grandly-exquisite actors.
Here’s the trailer:
Before reading any further, I’ll ask you to refer to the plot spoilers warning far above.
Roy Courtnay’s (Ian McKellen) an experienced con-man working 2 scams in 2009 London (not sure why the date matters): (1) Faking info on a dating site he prowls for rich widows, finds one in Betty McLeish (Helen Mirren), former history professor at Oxford, who seems immediately interested, even as she admits to minor strokes which may finish her off in about a year; (2) a phony investment scheme intended to swindle Brits Bryn (Mark Lewis Jones) and Beni (Lucian Msamati), encouraged to put up £50,000 each along with 2 Russians—the main one a big, bearded guy named Vlad (Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson)—being courted to contribute £800,000 for some development in the Caribbean. We’ll get back to the former in a minute; as for the latter, their meeting comes to an abrupt end after Bryn's crack about Putin, followed by another chance where Bryn and Beni up their antes to £100,000 each, transfer done, then Bryn hugs Vlad, feels a wire on him, thinks these “Russians” are cops (enhanced by screaming sirens outside), so Roy fakes a faint, Bryn and Beni rush away assuming Roy and “accountant” accomplice Vincent (Jim Carter) are arrested but in truth they’re working with these “Russians,” quickly withdraw what they transferred into the account, keeping the remaining £200,000 for themselves (Vlad, actually a Polish butcher, later demands a larger cut of the take only to have a couple of Roy’s thugs smash his left hand with a mallet). Regarding the widow-scheme, Roy meets Betty for dinner, charms her, fakes a bad knee to gain sympathy so she offers him a room in her suburban home until he’s more mobile, insisting grandson Steven (Russell Tovey) chauffeur him around, Steven increasingly suspicious of the old man’s advances on Grandma. Roy and Betty discuss a trip to Berlin, Paris, and Venice which he rushes her into right after Bryn notices him on a street, chases him down in a tube station to demand his money back, dies when Roy pushes him into an oncoming train. In Berlin Roy’s surprised to find Betty’s invited Steven to join them, especially when the young man takes them to an apartment where Roy must admit what happened there in 1948. Roy says he was in a British Intelligence unit, working with a young German translator, Hans Taub, trying to capture ex-Nazi Martin Geiger (Aleksandar Jovanovic), hiding in Berlin’s Russian sector. In the ensuing melee Roy says Hans was fatally shot, Geiger escaped (for awhile), but Steven’s done extensive research, forces Roy to admit he’s actually Hans (played in the flashback by Laurie Davidson) who took the identity of dead Brit Roy Courtnay (Phil Dunster) in order to escape Germany, start a new life in England. Betty’s surprised by all this but doesn’t see Hans/Roy as a war criminal, is willing to forgive his past actions, all to Steven’s disgust who’s encouraged to leave them alone. Back in England (rest of the trip cancelled), Betty agrees to the plan Roy and Vincent have cooked up, merging their assets (about £3 million each) into an account Vincent says will soon pay hefty dividends for both of them.
⇒Roy’s suddenly "contacted" by his estranged son, Robert (who doesn't exist), asking Dad to come into the city for dinner; Roy begrudgingly agrees, with Betty’s encouragement. When he gets to his old flat, though, he finds he no longer has the keypad needed to access the new account so he rushes back to Betty’s, only to find most of the house bare with her waiting for him, keypad in hand (she’s already moved her money into another account, keeps adding £50,000 of his stash to her trove each time he lies to her). What he hasn’t realized, though, is back in 1943 Berlin she was also a teenager, Lili Schröder (Nell Williams), taking English lessons from young Hans Taub (Spike White)—clear to me she was “fond” of him, as they discuss decades later about terms of attraction—when one day she wasn’t quite ready for her lesson so he wandered into a room with her 3 sisters, became aggressive with them, then cornered Lili, raped her. Even without knowing the full harm to his daughters, Herr Schröder (Daniel Betts) banished Hans from their home, only to be denounced by him soon thereafter as a traitor, hung, with the distraught mother committing suicide, the sisters killed by a bomb just before WW II ended in Europe, then Lili was brutalized when the Russians took over her sector of Berlin. With Stephen’s (not really Betty’s grandson) extensive research skills Betty finally located Hans/Roy, plotted the relationship with him for revenge (including forcing Vincent to work with her), then cleaned out most of the rest of the account (leaving him £100,000 as she prepared to depart for good). He, of course, attacks her, but she’s soon saved by Beni and Vlad who proceed to beat Roy to just short of a pulp. In a final scene he’s in a hospital, visited by Vincent, unable to talk or move much, followed by Betty’s finale at her country estate celebrating with her many children and grandchildren, especially concerned about 3 of the girls, well aware of how life often carries unforeseen dangers which she wants to protect all of them from.⇐ While the OCCU evaluators are much more restrained about ... Liar than Ford ... (RT 63% positive reviews, MC 55% average score)—audiences aren't flocking in either (despite playing in 2,454 domestic theaters) for a quiet total of $11.8 million after 2 weeks in release—I still found … Liar quite enjoyable, surprising in its plot twists (although I felt something had to happen to prevent Roy from just strolling away unscathed from all his devious actions), extremely well-acted by the well-established-stars along with their effective supporting players, something well worth your time if you’re interested in clever intrigue more so than rapid action (or a huge-budget animated musical).
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Here’s more information about Ford v Ferrari:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VGXIvKJVJ0c (22:09 interview
with Matt Damon and Christian Bale)
Here’s more information about The Good Liar:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eMNvXdpjZ10 (31:50 interview with director Bill Condon about this movie and others he’s been involved with) and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AyNIq9z4m20 (5:35 interview with actors Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren with barely-connected-commentary to the content of this movie)
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If we did talk, though, you’d easily see how my early-70s-age informs my references, Musical Metaphors, etc. in these reviews because I’m clearly a guy of the later 20th century, not so much the contemporary world. I’ve come to accept my ongoing situation, though, realizing we all (if fate allows) keep getting older, we just have to embrace it, as Joni Mitchell did so well in "The Circle Game," offering sage advice even when she was quite young herself.
By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile. Ken
P.S. Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker. But wherever the rest of my body may be my heart’s always with my longtime-companion, lover, and wife, Nina Kindblad, so here’s our favorite shared song—Neil Young’s "Harvest Moon"
—from the performance we saw at the Desert Trip concerts in Indio, CA on October 15, 2016 (as a full moon was rising over the stadium) because “I’m still in love with you,” my dearest, a never-changing-reality even as the moon waxes and wanes over the months/years to come.
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