Tag Archives: Academy Awards

Ford V Ferrari speeds to the Oscars on the intensity of racing and its rivalries

Ford V Ferrari burned rubber screeched into 2020 major awards season, nominated for a slew of categories. One of those categories for the 92nd Academy Awards is Best Picture. While the movie is very good, and definitely ranks among the best racing films made within the last several decades, it’s nomination for Best Picture is a bit of a surprise.

The story centers around the Ford Motor Company’s attempt to resurrect its brand by showing it could compete with Ferrari, the world’s most advanced, high-performance car manufacturer. The prospect is remote, although the company’s boss, Henry Ford, II (Tracy Letts), seems committed. He retains legendary race car driver and personality Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) to design and build the car. Unfortunately, a heart condition keeps Shelby out of the race car. In his place, Shelby coaxes the brilliant, caustic, and personally volatile Ken Miles (Christian Bale) to join forces with him. As Miles goes about alienating everyone he runs into, it’s up to Shelby to play the corporate politics and keep him on the team.

The setting for the ultimate showdown is the LeMans 24 hour race in France in 1966. The location is legendary in racing circles. The track is full of twists and turns. In other words, it’s an ideal setting for a slick, well edited movie like Ford V Ferrari.

The movie is well acted, anchored by authentic yeoman performances by Damon and Kelly. The supporting cast is also strong, ensuring that the film overall can showcase the talents of the two stars. Other characters don’t get the same latitude, defaulting into more two-dimensional roles. 

The plot is also predictable and straightforward. The story properly focuses on the dynamic between Shelby and Miles. While corporate politics plays an important role in the story, the script has little nuance or layer. The entire rivalry appears to be driven by the ego of Henry Ford as he responds to a personal insult thrown by Enzo Ferrari (Remo Girone). Shallow business types more interested in show and marketing glitz insert themselves at key points at predictable points to keep the story moving. Historically, this story line does a disservice to Henry Ford II, who is recognized as a strong innovation-focused business leader and critical to Ford’s economic rebound after World War II. The movie is reduced to a simple formula of Shelby, Miles, and Ford’s personal quest to win LeMans.

Nevertheless, Ford V Ferrari is a story of an authentic rivalry and actual conflicts between colorful real-world legends. As a movie about racing and personalities, Ford V. Ferrari delivers. While its nomination as Best Picture is a bit surprising given the strength of other contenders in the field, the intensity and polish of the racing scenes buoyed by strong acting by Damon and  Bale give it a real shot of taking home the Oscar statuette for film editing, sound editing, and sound mixing.  

Ford V Ferrari has been nominated in the following categories for the 92nd Annual Academy Awards:

  • Best Picture
  • Film Editing
  • Sound Editing
  • Sound Mixing

The Two Popes rises on Oscar Worthy performances

Christians are likely to come away from The Two Popes with two reactions : The Catholic Church finally sold out its dogma, or the Church is finally finding its compass in a world wrought with change and conflict. The filmmakers clearly land on the side of a progressive Church, one that changes with the realities of contemporary times while trying to avoid compromising on its theology. But getting to this place at the end of this drama is not an easy journey.

The Two Popes is a strong, well executed drama that takes its subject and the Catholic Church seriously with Oscar worthy performances. Anthony Hopkins plays Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, a doctrinal traditionalist, elected pope after the death of Pope John Paul II. In the Catholic Church, about 120 cardinals are selected from among more than 5,000 bishops. These cardinals have the responsibility for electing a new pope once the position becomes vacant. Bishops serve in a variety of leadership positions in the Church around the world, but only a few serve as cardinals. While some, including Ratzinger, are located in Rome, the vast majority serve dioceses and congregations around the globe. 

As a cardinal and bishop, Ratzinger is a strong proponent of taking the Church back to fundamentals. He argues that the weakening of doctrine is one of the primary reasons for the Catholic Church’s decline across the globe. In opposition to Ratzinger’s call are more progressive bishops who believe doctrine and Church policy need to be updated. Argentine Cardinal and Archbishop Jorge Mario Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce) is among this group. Bergoglio is a Latin American priest noted more for his humility and devotion to the flock than a desire for power and authority.

The two cardinals are as different in temperament as they are in philosophies about the application of doctrine. Ratzinger believes the Church’s salvation will be through strong, disciplined leadership that ensures priests and congregations follow strict Catholic doctrine grounded in fundamentals. Bergoglio is more worldly, believing that Catholic teachings need to be updated to reflect the times and circumstances. Only by connecting to realities of Catholic followers to Catholic doctrine can the Church keep its legitimacy and grow.

Despite Bergoglio’s protests, a group of progressive cardinals support his election to become John Paul II’s successor. Ratzinger, however, wins out and becomes Pope Benedict XVI. Bergoglio is dismayed, but returns to his native Argentina. Ultimately, he decides to resign his position as archbishop. He no longer believes he is qualified to lead the church given its new direction. Bergoglio, however, cannot resign unless Pope Benedict XVI accepts his resignation. As he is about to leave for Rome to personally ask for his resignation, the pope invites him to the Vatican. 

Bergoglio becomes increasingly frustrated as Benedict seems to delay and avoid discussing his resignation without explanation or reason. What follows is a series of conversations about God, doctrine, and contemporary threats facing the Catholic Church. The dialogues are punctuated with conflict and humor, as the styles and personalities of the two church leaders search for some common path. Benedict holds his cards close to his chest, as if he is testing and probing Bergoglio. Bergoglio, for his part, simply wants to be out and return to the life of a humble priest.

Both Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Price give Oscar worthy performances. Adapted from a play by Anthony McCarten, The Two Popes is surprisingly engaging for a movie that would be just as effective as a stage play. The themes are highly relevant to the challenges currently facing the Catholic Church and how, if even possible, a two thousand year-old institution can adapt to contemporary times, attitudes, and values. Audiences, secular and religious, will learn a lot from the exchanges. They will likely come away with a much greater appreciation for the complexities faced by the Catholic Church, how experience grounds our individual understanding of spirituality, the motivations of those who lead the Church, and the challenges of reconciling religious dogma with a contemporary world view.

The Two Popes had a brief run in theaters in November 2019 and currently streams on Netflix. (I viewed the movie on Netflix in late December 2019.)

The Two Popes has been nominated for Academy Awards in the following categories:

  • Best Actor (Jonathan Pryce)
  • Best Supporting Actor (Anthony Hopkins)
  • Adapted Screenplay

And the Oscar goes to….

I’ve provided links to my reviews of the 2018 movies nominated for the 91st Academy Awards in the most widely recognized major awards categories. Winners are in bold italics.

I’ve focused on the categories where I was able to review most of the nominated movies. I will also update this blog post with the winners after the show.

Best Picture
Black Panther
Bohemian Rhapsody
The Favourite
Green Book
A Star Is Born

Best Director
Spike Lee, “BlacKkKlansman
Pawel Pawlikowski, “Cold War”
Yorgos Lanthimos, “The Favourite
Alfonso Cuarón, “Roma
Adam McKay, “Vice

Lead Actor
Christian Bale, “Vice
Bradley Cooper, “A Star Is Born
Willem Dafoe, “At Eternity’s Gate”
Rami Malek, “Bohemian Rhapsody
Viggo Mortensen, “Green Book

Lead Actress
Yalitza Aparicio, “Roma
Glenn Close, “The Wife
Olivia Colman, “The Favourite
Lady Gaga, “A Star Is Born
Melissa McCarthy, “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”

Supporting Actor
Mahershala Ali, “Green Book
Adam Driver, “BlacKkKlansman
Sam Elliott, “A Star Is Born
Richard E. Grant, “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”
Sam Rockwell, “Vice

Support Actress
Amy Adams, “Vice
Marina de Tavira, “Roma
Regina King, “If Beale Street Could Talk
Emma Stone, “The Favourite
Rachel Weisz, “The Favourite

Adapted Screenplay
“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” Joel Coen , Ethan Coen
BlacKkKlansman,” Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott, Spike Lee
“Can You Ever Forgive Me?,” Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty
If Beale Street Could Talk,” Barry Jenkins
A Star Is Born,” Eric Roth, Bradley Cooper, Will Fetters

Original Screenplay
The Favourite,” Deborah Davis, Tony McNamara
“First Reformed,” Paul Schrader
Green Book,” Nick Vallelonga, Brian Currie, Peter Farrelly
Roma,” Alfonso Cuarón
Vice,” Adam McKay

“Cold War,” Lukasz Zal
The Favourite,” Robbie Ryan
“Never Look Away,” Caleb Deschanel
Roma,” Alfonso Cuarón
A Star Is Born,” Matthew Libatique

Film Editing
BlacKkKlansman,” Barry Alexander Brown
Bohemian Rhapsody,” John Ottman
Green Book,” Patrick J. Don Vito
The Favourite,” Yorgos Mavropsaridis
Vice,” Hank Corwin

Sound Editing
Black Panther,” Benjamin A. Burtt, Steve Boeddeker
Bohemian Rhapsody,” John Warhurst
“First Man,” Ai-Ling Lee, Mildred Iatrou Morgan
“A Quiet Place,” Ethan Van der Ryn, Erik Aadahl
Roma,” Sergio Diaz, Skip Lievsay

Visual Effects
Avengers: Infinity War
“Christopher Robin”
“First Man”
Ready Player One
Solo: A Star Wars Story

Roma shines with a little help from Mexican history

At first blush, Roma is the kind of movie critics and industry types love. Most American filmmakers can probably tick off with ease the reasons why Alfonso Cuaron’s film is destined to become an industry classic. The cinematography is fantastic, the frame-by-frame attention to detail is stunning, the director’s decision to film in black and white was bold, the existential approach to telling the story (using the point of view of a young domestic servant’s life — Cleo, played by Yalitza Aparacio — as a live-in maid and nanny to a upper middle class family in Mexico City) evokes empathy and reflection. The fact that Cleo is also of indigenous ethnic origin, and apparently Aparicio is the first indigenous woman to be nominated for a Best Actress Academy Award, is icing on the cake.

For (American) audiences, however, here’s the rub: The movie is slow moving, appears to meander, and borders on boring. The film has very little action, and even less plot. Roma appears to be about the characters and their arc over the course of the film.

Not surprisingly, critics are heaping praise while audiences are less enthusiastic. At Rotten Tomatoes, 96% of critics rate Roma fresh while audiences are less enamored, with just 73% giving it similar ratings. If audiences had more backstory, their appreciation for the movie might improve. A little Mexican political and economic history, almost all of it ignored by most American reviews (which describes it as a semi-autobiographical film) helps us understand why Roma is, in fact, much more.

Roma is more than an art movie.

Set in 1970 and 1971, the movie takes place ten years after the PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party) started Mexico’s “Dirty War”. The government repressed leftist organizations, students, and anti-PRI political opponents as it used increasingly authoritarian tactics to maintain control. The tactics were violent, leading to hundreds of deaths and thousands of injuries as the PRI become more authoritarian. Most notable for Roma’s story may the Corpus Christ massacre in June 1971, which becomes a critical plot point.

This background is actually fundamental to understanding the movie. I could see more clearly the human drama unfolding in the scenes. Cleo’s passive role (and understated acting) in the family, despite her central role as its anchor, is more fully understood. The relationship between Cleo, her host family, and her co-workers reflect the socioeconomic (and political) tensions of the time. Cleo is from a poor, indigenous village, but she works in Mexico City for a well-educated professional family. The father is a medical researcher and doctor, and the mother is a biochemist. Cleo’s role at the center of the family dynamics is put in stark contrast to her impoverished, less sophisticated and uneducated background. At the same time, we see the importance of Cleo supporting her own family through her work in the city.

Meanwhile, wealthy land owners (and relatives to Cleo’s host family) are working with, or at least complicit in, the government’s land expropriation policies directed at poor indigenous villagers and small farmers. The conflicts and tensions between rural and urban ways of life play out in important ways as the middle-class family dynamics deteriorate and Cleo is faced with a traumatic choice that will alter the future of her life and relationship to her host family. Several scenes specifically draw on the repression and chaos surrounding the events of the Dirty War, and how government policy played out in class tensions, inequities in political power, and the fragile nature of property rights in Mexico. Understanding this, Cuaron’s imagery is even more salient and crucial to the film.

I will not be surprised if Roma takes several major awards during Oscar night, including Best Picture and Best Director, most of them well-earned. While the inspiration for Cleo is in fact drawn on Cuaron’s family and his life growing up in the Colonial Roma neighborhood of Mexico City, and he no doubt drew extensively on his personal experiences growing up in the neighborhood, the film is a very subtle and sophisticated use of visual storytelling to engage in social commentary. I just needed to know more about Mexico’s political history to really appreciate full breadth of what Cuaron accomplished on the screen.