“Ford vs. Ferrari”

Two former Hoosiers, executive producer Kevin Halloran and screenwriter Jason Keller help to make a true car-racing epic fire-up the screen. Plus, “Ford and Ferrari” has an over-arching theme of friendship and admiration that makes the heart soar along with the cars. And Oscar-worthy performances by Christian Bale and Matt Damon are reasons enough to see this film on the big screen! Tracy Letts as the grandiose Henry Ford II and Caitriona Balfe as Ken Miles’ savvy wife are equally remarkable in supporting roles. The film is a “don’t miss”.

High whines and racing sounds set the pace for an re-enactment of the French 1966 Le Mans race where corporate intrigue, mechanical perfection, and individual decision-making keep the wheels spinning until they don’t.

The plot is emotionally resonant. Ken Miles (Bales) is the British mechanic, who marries the girl who likes the smell of wet gasoline. Their son Peter (Noah Jupe) is just as enthusiastic in his support. Miles is centered (even though he talks to his cars), driven to drive, and honorable. Carroll Shelby (Damon), is the Texan car designer, who admires him. Shelby has wit, swagger, and a sense of even play ( though he cops a couple Italian stop watches). All in a matter of fun, Shelby also likes to mess with the psyches of the Italian pit crew.

The photography with its reckless spins, u-turns , 7000 rpms, and rainy night maneuvering is worthy of a 100 million dollar production. Director James Manfold keeps his road-racing champions dear. If Ken is ” difficult” he also embodies an artistry not often celebrated: the genius mechanic cum intrepid racer. One terrific scene has him alone in the garage tinkering. As Miles listens to a race, he innumerates every part failure and mechanical wrong that transpires before the car is even pulled off the track. In the midst of his accounting, his wife enters his sanctuary with a picnic basket dinner. They dance to lyrics “you are mine”. Such an understanding and cohesive couple has not graced the screen in awhile. Another quiet moment is when Miles tracks the race on his son, Peter’s course diagram. These personal interludes work well for character development as they balance the pace of life on and off the race track.

In France, excitement and adrenalin flow as the drivers sprint to their cars and the French tri-color goes down. One handsome Ferrari driver gives the “ smoldering, European stare” and the American “can do” spirit is ratcheted up a notch. There is a little “trash talking” through side windows and plenty of torque. There is American ingenuity in the idea of switching out the brake system. A part is a part, and it is not against the rules Shelby maintains. There is more competition than the Enzo Ferrari team, however. The Ford Motor boardroom is full of powerful egos trying to make their mark.

The sound track tempo is grand. The human psychology resplendent.

“Downsized”

How an imaginative idea with such promise for comedy could turn into a sappy, moralizing mess is the truly sad tale. “We are meant for something bigger” turns both greedy needies and noble problem-fixers into a tale that switches tone after twenty minutes and loses all semblance of intent. The writers Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor are at fault. “Five years later” and “ten years later” is jarring, even star Matt Damon looks lost. This sci-fi satire can itself be satirized.

“Downsizing” ’s premise seems simple enough: overpopulation has made the earth unsustainable. Volunteer to be a “miniputian” and have every cell reduced. Humans are reduced to 4 or 5 inches. The only side effect of going small is minor dehydration. The pluses are waste reduction and the elimination of financial anxiety. The procedure is irreversible.

After four years, thirty-six downsizers hold all their refuse in half of a regular-sized garbage bag. 152,000 dollars in home equity translates to 12.5 million in “Leisureland”, where diamond jewelry  dazzles and utility bills are low. Reduced human scale is explained in a TED talk. Motivational posters dot the walls at a high school reunion. Paul and Audrey Safranek ( Matt Damon & Kristen Wiig ) are interested since they are struggling financially and a few “reduced” former classmates are doing well and laud the procedure. With megaphones the size of toothpick they chant cheerleader fashion:  “Go get small!” The first twenty minutes are funny. I especially liked the keepsake marriage bands and the transitional therapy sessions, and the mass reduction chambers, the small group Tai Chi . There are worries about small people being able to get into the country. The movie’s concept is clever. Downsizing makes sense, but the film’s conclusion does not.

Audrey bows out at the last minute, but not before her husband is shrunk. Silly apologies and divorce ensue. A year passes and Paul begins dating a single mom. We learn that Leisureland has no birds or insects yet, and no chervil ! Then the film falls apart. Nineteen seventies disco parties with drugs and nudity are supposed to help cheer our little man from Omaha. Christoph Waltz, as the rich, partying neighbor, Dusan Murkovic, plays his part to the hilt. Pool scenes are boring, but when Paul is slipped a drug and starts dreaming of his ex, viewers are snoring. Paul passes out only to see the cleaning people enter in the morning. One cleaning lady has a limp, and Paul tries to help her. Asian actress Hong Chau plays Ngoc. The stereotyped syntax is cute, but bordering on racist. “ You come with me. help my friend, now”. “Leisureland people too selfish.”

As a Vietnamese dissident, she has lost her leg below the knee. Ngoc ministers to her community, outside of the resplendent Leisureland. Her friend, Gladys, dies and butterflies hold symbolic import. Cliches abound. Paul carries Ngoc up seven flights of tenement stairs, removes her peg leg, massages her thigh, and falls in love. They go back to Norway to the original small people colony.

There is more environmental danger. Methane gas is destabilizing the world. Only three-percent of the world has heeded the call to downsize. Nobel Prize winning scientists tell us that it will take 8,000 years for the Earth to stabilize. An underground, geo-thermally powered vault becomes Noah’s Ark. Not even lovely shots of fjords in Norway can save this picture, now. Middle Earth reigns. On the positive side, you will remember Ngoc’s bossy questions and orders. “ What kind of fuck do you give me?” “ You go down stupid hole!”

The ending spouts bromides like: “ When you know death comes soon, you look around more closely.” Get ready for the butterflies…no kidding.

Watch the trailer, and skip the movie. And, as the film says, “Don’t get short with me.”

“Jason Bourne”

Hacking camps, invading malware, generational politics, CIA secrecy, and motorized chases in numerous cities all  await you in the most recent Bourne film. Idealism that wishes to take down corrupt institutions that control society is a theme, and whoever can type the fastest has  a heads-up. The arching question may be “who is a patriot?”  Could it be anyone who believes in the free flow of information ?

“Jason Bourne” starts slowly as Matt Damon continues his soul search in the form of Captain David Webb. The former CIA operative seems to enjoy hand to hand combat in the boxing ring when not seeking his recruitment history and his assassinated father’s part in it.

Tommy Lee Jones, as CIA head Robert Dewy, does his best to squash all Bourne’s efforts. His motivations  of absolute power weigh in heavily. Enjoy counting how many times doors open and close.

Dewy’s protégée is the lovely Alicia Vikander. As Heather Lee she provides another engaging subplot to the many. She wants Bourne back in the game and knows Dewy has lied about giving her full operational control. Her tight neck bun bolsters her one line orders, “Pull it up.”, ” Copy that.” and “Enhance.” Is our Cyber  Division Head overly ambitious or does she have a more principled vision for the CIA ? In any case, the morality of one life versus that lives of many rationalizes untold deaths.

The fight over freedom of information surfaces in a young Stanford grad’s Facebook-like company called “Deep Dream”. Our government has funded his start-up and wants full data access to keep America safe. An Italian mercenary is hired to kill any embarrassment to the agency. We are reminded that Jason’s father did not want his son to turn into a killer, but killing seems to be that name of this game.

Julia Stiles plays Nicky Parsons, a former operative turned  public informer. Director Paul Greengrass has her deliver with a strikingly powerful strut and windswept hair. Women make their mark in this film. It is noted that her hacking group’s postings could be worse than Snowden’s public releases. This Bourne film is  issue current. (The first film ” The Bourne Identity” was released in 2002. ” The Bourne Supremacy” in 2004, “The Bourne Ultimatum” in 2007, and “The Bourne Legacy” in 2012 followed.)

Damon’s Bourne is a  hunk and a smooth operator. Deft at picking up whatever he needs ( be it a cellphone, weapon, key , or the latest gadget) ,  he deposits tracking devices and  voice recorders as effortlessly as the X-filers flick on their flashlights. He shuffles through passports with aplomb and wrestles with his demons alone. And I can add that he survives five story jumps.

My favorite line, ” Meet me at the statue of Athena.” would have me following. Enjoy this high-summer fare.

“The Martian”

Matt Damon is Watney. He is a botanist stranded on the Red Planet with botanical powers. In just fifty-four days, he has grown green potato sprouts where nothing grows. Fifty million miles away from home, he is psychologically a cool problem-solver. Being left for dead on Mars,he tells us that he is “going to have to science the shit out of this.”

Much of “Martian” shows Damon taking inventory,doubling battery life,moving modules,making H2O by using wood shavings from a crucifix to create fuel and vapor condensation. He is spirited and funny. He needs a radioactive isotope, and he plays Donna Summers disco music, “hot stuff”, “I need hot stuff!”.

If constant communication is the hallmark of NASA,Damon works hard to reconfigure the signal. Using an old 1997 Pathfinder engine,he sets up a still frame camera and a spinning alphabet wheel to send “yes” or “no” answers and crude code. Damon chuckles that there will be no snappy repartee.

Jessica Chastain plays Captain Lewis, the person responsible for leaving Watney behind. She plays responsible well,but is not a very intriguing character. More collegial camaraderie comes from Martinus( Michael Pena),who quips that the Hermes is a lot roomier without Watney.While Watney sprinkles Vicodin crumbles over his baked potato, he videos Lewis to tell his parents that he has done something big and beautiful,bigger than himself. Director Ridley Scott gives NASA a public relations’ boost.

“Martian” is also a great promo for “doing the math”. The ending is much more exciting than last year’s’ space movie “Gravity”. Here a math whiz named Rich ( Donny Glover) in Pasadena adjusts a course that allows the original crew to pick up Mark Watney. With red ribbons flying,the hook-up is intense drama. Smarts and ingenuity win out. Chiwetel Ejiofor,Kristen Wiig and Jeff Daniels support from below, and Kate Mara boosts spirits from above. A film that champions brains and the astronaut training program and an up-beat can do spirit.