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2019 Late November Update

Ford v Ferrari (US/France 2019
Director James Mangold’s dramatization of this true story never idles over its 152 minutes and revs up to full throttle in the climactic racecar showdowns on the legendary Le Mans 24-hours speedway.  In the 1960s the famous Italian brand Ferrari dominated that elite scene when Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) was convinced by marketing whiz Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal) that the Ford name could do with some European pizzazz.  While Ferrari scoffed at the challenge, Ford brought in ace automotive designer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) who would produce the competitive GT40.  The other key to eventual success was Shelby’s insistence on bringing in as lead driver the hotheaded Ken Miles (Christian Bale) who was as stubborn as he was devoted to his wife and young son.  The Texan Shelby and Brit Miles sometimes clashed but together they defied the odds and the hostile skepticism of the Ford company’s conservative upper management.  The famously shape-shifting Bale is back in lean and hungry form, shedding some 70 pounds from his previous role as former U.S. Vice-President Dick Cheney in Vice.  The performances are excellent and the details of this episode are fascinating.  As effective as are the contrasting character studies and personal encounters, the movie really shifts into high gear in the gripping race sequences.  The movie like the driven Miles leaves it all out on the track.  B+   
The Good Liar (US 2019
The multiplex weekday matinee where I saw this was packed with mostly middle-aged and above folks no doubt drawn to the story of an elderly romance and the pleasure of seeing two great British thespians Ian McKellen (80) and Helen Mirren (74) together on screen. They were not disappointed as director Bill Condon, adapting a 2016 novel by Nicholas Searle, makes good use of their star power.  McKellen plays Roy Courtnoy, a roguish con man who, with suave collaborator Vincent (Jim Carter, best known for “Downton Abbey”), preys on gullible investors and lonely widows of means.  Helen Mirren is the affluent widow “Betty”.  The two supposedly connect through an online dating site and confess to innocent little white lies at their first meeting.  The sly Roy affects a limp and before you know it he has moved into Betty’s house despite the disapproval of her grandson Stephen (Russell Tovey) who does research in Germany. From the beginning we are wise to Roy’s game of insinuating himself into Betty’s affections in order to take control of her funds (surprisingly easy through digital transfers on keypads).  But nothing is at it seems, even after Roy’s real identity is unmasked when he and Betty meet Stephen on their first trip together, to Berlin at Betty’s suggestion.  A notorious Second World War backstory leads to even bigger revelations back in Britain.  Revenge is sweet, and in this game of ruses, it’s sweet trusting Betty who turns out to be the better liar.  B+
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (US/China 2019
There was surprise and dismay when Morgan Neville’s justly acclaimed 2018 documentary tribute to Fred Rogers Won’t You Be My Neighbor? was left off the Oscar nomination list. Mr. Rogers was an iconic public television host whose children’s program “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” debuted on PBS in 1968 when the American body politic was afflicted by the trauma of the Vietnam war and violence at home. Rogers was also an ordained Presbyterian minister. The much-loved show ran for over three decades and its approach of kindness and empathy, as forthright as it was gentle, has gained renewed appreciation in the current distemper of Trumpian polarization and rancor. This new dramatic feature directed by Marielle Heller focuses on a particular time in Rogers’ television career when an award-winning reporter for Esquire Tom Junod was assigned to do a brief positive piece on him.  Veteran actor Tom Hanks is compelling in taking on the role of the soft-spoken Rogers.  Matthew Rhys is also very good as Lloyd Vogel, a fictionalized version of Junod. (Junod has written an insightful new essay “What Would Mister Rogers Do?” in the December issue of The Atlantic which you can read online at:  See also the CBC radio interview with Junod:
Vogel comes to the assignment with a cynical dismissive attitude.  He’s also an anxious new father wrestling with personal unhappiness that includes a stormy relationship with his own father (Chris Cooper). In meeting Rogers, Vogel finds himself unexpectedly disarmed.  Vogel not only develops the assignment into a much deeper sympathetic profile of his subject, he experiences directly the healing effect of the Rogers’ touch.  The movie does a compelling job of bringing to life the core elements of the TV show and of showing why Rogers, the private as well as the public person, created a legacy that has been treasured for generations.  B+   
The “Up” films, now nine in all, famously constitute the longest-running documentary series ever produced.   In 1964 Michael Apted was a researcher for an ITV network television program “Seven Up!” that interviewed a group of 14 British schoolchildren from different classes of society. What were their thoughts and expectations?  Although no follow-up was originally planned, the show so captured national attention that it led to a sequel—Apted took over as director for the first, “7 Plus Seven”—repeated ever since at seven-year intervals.  How the childrens’ divergent backgrounds would shape their futures has remained a source of curiosity over the ensuing decades.  Of the original subjects one has now died and several have declined to be interviewed at different points.  There are still 11 of the original participants in this latest feature (the North American release is considerably shorter than the three-hour television version shown in the UK in June).  Apted again delves into each person’s story, home and work life, relationships and family situations, satisfactions and sorrows, the loss of parents, the conditions of advancing age, and current outlooks on society (views on “Brexit” pop up).  Apted also recalls to each the original aphorism “Give me a child until he is seven, and I will give you the man.”  How true is that?  How much of their very different destinies can be foreseen in their childhood selves and subsequent stages of life?  In each case Apted toggles between present circumstances and snippets from past recordings.  The life stories are all engrossing, if not equally so.  The most unconventional is that of Neil who was homeless for a time before becoming a Liberal Democrat elected official and a lay minister.  He’s now alone again after the end of a brief marriage in middle age. Life offers no guarantees.  Apted himself is now 78 so one wonders about the future of this unique project.  Still I look forward to “70 Up”.  A   
The Gift: The Journey of Johnny Cash (US 2019)
Thom Zimny, the longtime editor of many Bruce Springsteen music videos who also helmed 2019’s concert film Bruce Springsteen: Western Stars, has emerged as a master filmmaker of musician biographies, notably HBO’s Elvis Presley: The Searcher. This superb YouTube documentary, which premiered at last spring’s South By Southwest festival, is similarly insightful.  Cash grew up dirt poor in rural Depression-era Arkansas, haunted by the death of a brother in childhood, and immersed in the roots of country music (explored in depth in Ken Burns’ series “Country Music”, available on the Kanopy platform).  After serving in the airforce, Cash developed a distinctive voice and sound that would propel him to the top of the charts.  Drawing on a trove of archival material including audio recordings, the film is also very candid about his struggles with addictions and the failure of his first marriage.  Cash was fortunate to meet June Carter of the legendary Carter Family who became his musical (she wrote “Ring of Fire”) and life partner. There would still be some very dark times ahead.   Cash was passionate about supporting the underdog (including Native Americans), and believed deeply in the power of redemption.  That is most apparent in his iconic 1968 live recording “Folsom Prison Blues” (he had his own scrapes with the law), and in the spirituality that he brought to soulful gospel songs.  Cash also reached out to the folk music scene, befriending Bob Dylan. (Dylan’s 1969 album “Nashville Skyline”, which features a duet with Cash, is among my alltime favorites.)  This film is a gift in bringing to life Cash’s crossover appeal and protean influence on American music over decades.  A



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