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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

Marriage Story wins with poignant realism and tight screenplay

Marriage Story is a poignant, grounded tale of a marriage in crisis and disintegration. Now streaming on Netflix, the screenplay by director (and producer) Noah Baumbach is tightly written, includes realistic dialogue, and driven by plot points most people who have experienced divorce will recognize. 

Marriage Story Benefits from Realism

The movie is notable for a number of reasons beyond is six nominations in major categories — the most of any film — at the 2020 Golden Globes. For one, Marriage Story is one of the few recent movies produced by Hollywood that aspires to true art while drawing exclusively on from the tension and conflict of everyday life. Baumbach builds the experiences of real world couples and marriage into the plot, and he keeps the story focused. The characters are real, not caricatures. Baumbach has shown enough drama exists in the divorce of two people who still care for each other and still love their child to drive a powerful movie. 

Trigger warning: For those who have gone through the emotional trauma of divorce, Baumbach’s movie may cut too close to the bone. The dialogue is realistic, the plot points draw on real decisions, fears, and trade-offs, and the emotionally soul-tearing effects of divorce are front and center.

Realistic Plot Drives a Realistic Story

In terms of plot, Charlie (Adam Driver) is a director in New York’s city’s avant-garde theater scene who is on the cusp of becoming nationally recognized for his work. Nicole (Scarlett Johansson), an actress, was born and bred in Los Angeles. She was a rising film star when she met Charlie, but still moved with him to New York City for his career. Her star power is one of the factors that helps Charlie get his theater company off the ground off Broadway. The cultural and artistic conflicts between movie-oriented Hollywood and theater-oriented New York is palpable, and a source of conflict within their marriage. Nicole still yearns to be in movies and be close to her LA-based mother and friends.

Charlie’s professional dedication has taken a toll after ten years of marriage, now complicated by their young son, Henry. They both deeply love Henry, although they have different approaches and attitudes toward parenting. They also agree to put the interests of their son first in their divorce, prompting them, unsuccessfully, to try mediation rather than engage the legal divorce process. This works, at first. But their hopes for an amicable settlement quickly begins to disintegrate despite the fact neither has substantial financial or physical assets. 

Marriage Story is notable for its particular take on a failing marriage. The divorce does not begin in epic or existential conflict. Rather, Marriage Story is about relational disintegration under the weight of the innocuous sounding “irreconcilable differences,” the peculiarities of state divorce laws, divorce law attorney tactics, and the inevitable suspicion and fear that accompanies the process of splitting up a household. 

Marriage Story Deserves the Accolades

Marriage Story also benefits from an outstanding supporting cast, including Laura Dern as Nicole’s LA-based divorce attorney, Julie Hagerty as Nicole supportive but conflicted mother, Ray Liota as an aggressive attorney Charlie considers to handle his case, and Alan Alda as an older realistic but compassionate divorce attorney who Charlie first engages to help him navigate the complexities of California’s divorce laws. 

Marriage Story led the 2020 Golden Globes with six nominations, with Laura Dern winning Best Supporting Actress in a Drama for her role as Nicole’s aggressive divorce attorney. The movie also was nominated for Best Film (Drama), Best Actress (Johansson), Best Actor (Driver), Best Screenplay (Baumbach), and Best Score (Randy Newman). Marriage story deserved all these nominations.

A Hidden Life is a majestic, artistically brilliant meditation on life, ethics, and spirituality

A Hidden Life is Incredibly moving drama about an Austrian conscientious objector during World War II. Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl) is a farmer working the fields of St. Radegund, a tiny village on the hillsides of the Austrian Alps on the northern-most border with Germany (north of Salzburg).

On the eve of World War II, Franz and his wife, Fani (Valeri Pachner), hope they and their three young daughters can remain untouched by Hitler’s ambitions and Nazi thugs. But the village quickly falls in line with the Nazis. Austria was “annexed” by Germany in 1938, and their friends  and family believe Hitler has restored pride and sense of national identity.

Franz and Fani resist the calls to fall in line. Franz sees the brutality of Hitler’s war, and his Catholic beliefs and conscience lead him to resist. Their friends and family put enormous pressure on them to accept and support the Nazi regime. Their family is increasingly ostracized in the village. But Franz continues to resist. When he is conscripted into the Germany Army, Franz and Fani must grapple the prospects of an inevitable execution for resistance to the Nazi regime. 

American writer and director Terrence Malick (The Thin Red Line, The Tree of Life) has crafted a brilliant, subtle, and deeply spiritual story. The vistas of the countryside and mountains transcend their beauty to help tell the story of a conscientious objector trying to reconcile his quest for inner and familial peace in a violent, brutish, and unforgiving time. The attention to detail, mood, and context bring a texture to the movie that will fully immerse audiences. 

Using minimalist dialogue, Malick convey’s story is conveys the Jägerstätter family story through expression, action, and human connections. The visuals and structure of the scenes convey mood, meaning and plot. Narrations of letters sent between Franz and Fani supplement the action and the dialogue. Notably, working with a German and Austrian cast, Malick has shunned subtitles even as the movie alternates between English and German. Yet, non-German speakers will not struggle to understand the meaning of the German dialogue, its implications for Franz’s decisions, or the intent of the actors.

Artistically breathtaking, A Hidden Life is a magnificent movie about real-life hero and martyr. Prepare to be immersed in a three hour meditation on family, ethics, and spirituality. 

Franz Jägerstätter was executed as a conscientious objector, martyred by the Catholic Church, and ultimately beatified by Pope Benedict the XVI in 2007. 

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker provides satisfying bookend to the original saga

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is a much better movie than many critics say. While not a great film, the movie successfully bookends the series started by George Lucas in the 1970s.

Director J.J. Abrams brings a pace to the film that at times seems disjointed, but not altogether haphazard. It’s more like the first half of the movie is speed skipping from story line to story line. But the story comes together and ties loose ends up in ways consistent with the trajectory of the characters and main themes. Most Star Wars fans should find this a satisfying experience. 

The early story jumping is a bit jarring. Nevertheless, Abrams is clearly trying to pull audiences together onto one story line by drawing on different threads left over from earlier movies. Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) has consolidated his hold on the empire, known as the First Order. The resistance has been defeated, but still limps along in hiding as it tries to regroup. General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) continues to train Rey (Daisy Ridley), the last of the jedi. But events pull Rey away from her training as the necessity of confronting the First Order and Ren becomes overwhelming.

Despite the hectic pace, the plot points become necessary dots that connect familiar story lines. Most viewers can probably stay with the pace. As the movie slows down, Abrams brings more clarity to the movie and its story lines as begins to focus more on the characters and their relationships. Even the bit parts by older characters — most notably Luke (Mark Hamill), Han Solo (Harrison Ford), and Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams) — are weaved into the arc of the story reasonably well. 

Some critics see the abundance of characters, new and old, as well as the frenetic pace as a filmmaking flaw. To some extent, they have a point. The character arcs for the newer characters Finn (John Boyega) and Poe (Oscar Isaac) are notably thin. Starfighter mechanic Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) is elevated to pilot, but her role is little more than a cameo. 

The pacing, however, is intentional and prepares the audience for the final third of the movie which carries the weight of the story. We find out what the relationship between Ren and Rey really is all about, and the supposedly dead Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) has a nasty surprise in store for our heroes and the resistance. A few interesting characters are introduced, even if they play subordinate roles, which mixes up the story a bit. 

The Rise of Skywalker is a film made for the big screen, and the producers leveraged every element of special effects they could in the final episode. Greatness may be an unrealistic expectation for these movies given the unevenness of The Rise of Skywalker’s predecessors in the canon. But Abrams has done a yeoman’s job of telling a story to reach the core Star Wars base. While The Rise of Skywalker my bookend the original nine episode Skywalker saga, rest assured more Star Wars movies will be speed skipping into future theaters even if they are not at light speed.

Clint Eastwood in top form with Richard Jewell movie

The debut of Clint Eastwood’s newest movie, Richard Jewell, has been marked by controversy. Ironically, this controversy is not focused on the quality of the movie itself. On the contrary, Richard Jewell shows why Eastwood is a master craftsman of modern cinema. Eastwood has given life to a story about an unremarkable person (Jewell) who was put in a remarkable position by doing nothing more than being the hero he authentically aspired to be. 

Story background

Richard Jewell was the private security guard who discovered the pipe bomb that killed one and injured 111 during the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta. (Eric Rudolph later arrested for abortion clinic bombings in 2003 and confessed the the Olympic Park bombing in a statement in 2005.)  Jewell was a former cop with a checkered but not criminal past, with professional troubles rooted in the misdirected self-righteousness that sometimes comes with imposing a strict personal moral code on others. While working as a college campus security guard, he pulled over people he suspected of drinking while driving, resulting in a charge of impersonating a police officer. He also received complaints from students who objected to the college’s no alcohol policy which Jewell strictly enforced. His inability to keep a steady job meant that he lived on the economic margins of society in an apartment rented by his mother, Barbara.

The movie, directed by Eastwood and based on a screenplay written by Billy Ray (Hunger Games, Captain Phillips, Terminator: Dark Fate), follows Jewell’s personal descent into hell when he is publicly tagged as the prime suspect in the bombing. Working off a vague profile of previous bombing and arson arrests, the FBI targets Jewell because he was a loner, aspired to be taken seriously in law enforcement, and believed he wanted the public notoriety of being a hero. For 88 days, the media vilified Jewell as the FBI and state police tried, and failed, to identify the Olympic Park bomber. The press jumped the gun based on a lead secured by hard-driving and ambitious Atlanta crime reporter Kathy Scruggs. 

But is the movie any good?

In Richard Jewell, Clint Eastwood demonstrates his mastery of his craft. The movie’s pace engages the audience from beginning to end even though Jewell’s personality is low-key and understated. Eastwood carefully builds the story around Jewell’s character, both his virtues and his flaws. Indeed, it’s Jewell’s flaws that make him seem most sympathetic — he wants to do the right thing, and does, but his personality makes it difficult for him to interact smoothly with others. Overweight and out of shape, others around him are dismissive of his aspirations and abilities. 

Most impressive in Richard Jewell, however, are the performances (another tribute to Eastwood as director). They are uniformly stellar and nuanced. Paul Walter Hauser (BlacKkKlansman, I, Tonya) plays Jewell with compassion, subtlety, and understanding. Easy to dismiss and trivialize because of his soft spoken demeanor, we see Jewell slowly engage his understated intelligence, common sense, and resolve as he becomes jaded by the FBI’s dubious investigative tactics. Kathy Bates (Misery, Fried Green Tomatoes, About Schmidt) provides an Oscar worthy performance as Jewell’s mother Barbara who is caught up and overwhelmed by the maelstrom of media attention. Sam Rockwell’s (Frost/Nixon, Vice, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) turn as Jewell’s reluctant attorney (Watson Bryant) adds an important edge to the story that is both advocate and foil for Jewell as his good-natured instincts lead him into traps. John Hamm (Mad Men, Beirut, Baby Driver) shows why he is establishing himself as one of Hollywood’s leading actors in his role as lead FBI investigator Tom Shaw (a character that is a combination of several agents engaged in the investigation). Olivia Wilde (Booksmart, Tron: Legacy, Drinking Buddies) plays the troubled, tenacious, “work hard play hard” reporter Kathy Scruggs with nuance and depth. 

Richard Jewell is more than an excellent example of filmmaking. It’s also one of the few movies that takes an honest look at the human implications of a public rush to judgement that unfairly maligns innocents. In fact, the injustice was perpetrated by the federal government and the media — sometimes referred to as the “fourth estate” — may play into the anti-authority cynicism of libertarians and conservatives, but confronting the excesses in both institutions is critical to a well-functioning democracy. Narrative film, when done well, helps provide this balance.

Why the controversy?

The controversy over the film was apparently hatched by the very media that ignited the firestorm that under girds the movie’s main theme — a public’s rush to judgement. In the case of the movie Richard Jewell, the media is now claiming a foul by Eastwood for allegedly misrepresenting the very reporter (Scruggs) who everyone (including the media) agrees was at the center of the controversy.

While many in the media (and many movie critics) believe Eastwood (and by extension Ray) unfairly maligns Scruggs (who died in 2001 from an unintentional drug overdose), the director and screenwriter are well within artistic conventions. Directors, producers, and screenwriters often modify characters and plot points to fill the dramatic needs of their film.

Unfortunately, in order to avoid significant plot spoilers, this issue will be taken up in much more depth in a subsequent post. (Hint: Eastwood, Ray, and the actors should be crying foul on their media critics.)

In the meantime, as a narrative drama, Richard Jewell is timely, relevant, and well worth the time spent in the movie theater.

Knives Out mystery entertains with excellent acting and a complex plot

Knives Out is a funny, well produced, and entertaining mystery comedy. The movie succeeds, in part, because it doesn’t take itself too seriously.

When mystery writer and Thrombey family patriarch (Christopher Plummer) is found dead with his throat cut, local police think suicide. But world-renowned private detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) believes foul play is involved, and the suspects multiply quickly. Everyone has a secret, and their entitled boorish behavior is grating, complicating the investigation. But no one seems to have a motive for murder either. Blanc’s reasons for being engaged in the case are as mysterious as the complicated web of relationships, loyalties, and insecurities that keep this movie running at a quick clip. 

At the center of the mystery is Thrombey’s nurse, Marta Cabrera (Ana de Armas), whose Latin ethnic heritage is played for comic and dramatic effect throughout the movie. As Thrombey’s primary caregiver, she is also a suspect. Ana de Armas plays the role to the hilt, keeping audiences guessing on just how involved — and intentional — her actions were leading up to Thrombey’s death. 

Writer-Director Rian Johnson does an excellent job managing a well-known cast in a complex plot in “Knives Out.” Among the actors appearing in critical roles are Jamie Lee Curtis as Linda, Thrombey’s daughter and self-made millionaire, Don Johnson as Linda’s wife, Michael Shannon as ne’er do well son who also controls Thrombey’s lucrative publishing empire, and Toni Collette as the widow of Thrombey’s son, and Chris Evans as the entitled grandson who loves to poke and prod his family into arguments.

Those looking for a more modern and updated Agatha Christie type mystery will enjoy Knives Out. Superb acting and attention to detail allow this “who done it” to rise above mediocrity. While the movie provides lessons about humility, independent, and personal responsibility, Rian Johnson doesn’t let the movie get bogged down in too much moralizing. The bratty adult behavior does enough on its own. 

Despite Flaws Last Christmas entertains on strength of Emilia Clarke’s performance

Emilia Clarke gives a top-shelf performance in Last Christmas, a holiday movie about a young woman’s struggles with her dysfunctional immigrant family and the lasting psychological effects of a life-changing surgery a year earlier. Unfortunately, too many plot holes create an uneven story that will strain credibility even for very forgiving Christmas movie fans.

Clarke plays Kate, the daughter of a family who migrated to London to escape the bloodshed triggered by the break-up of Communist Yugoslavia (in the 1990s). Unable to find work as an attorney, her father now drives a cab in London to support his family while the matriarch (played by Emma Thompson who co-wrote the screenplay) presses her daughters to be successful in their adopted homeland. Kate (and her sister) struggles with her Yugoslav family ethnicity and the demands of her hard-driving mother. 

Kate is not handling the pressure well. She continually slips into destructive personal behavior, including drinking, casual sex, and carelessness that (humorously) results in the killing of a Lionfish, a friend’s model of a wooden sailing ship, and other assorted minor personal catastrophes. Eventually, she is cast out by her friends and forced to move home.

Along the way, Kate meets Tom (Henry Golding), a mysterious but apparently happy-go-lucky type of guy. He is smitten by Kate, and he encourages her to appreciate the unappreciated, like well-kept hidden alleys and urban gardens tucked away behind houses. He admonishes her to “look up” and take note of the little things of wonder all around her, such as birds nesting in the awnings of shops. Predictably, Tom begins to wear down Kate’s cynicism. 

As Kate struggles to find her way, she works as an elf in a London Christmas store owned and operated by a Chinese woman (Michelle Yeoh) nicknamed “Santa.” The banter between Santa and Kate is entertaining, while the setting adds an element of magical realism that helps excuse obvious plot points and a few implausible plot twists. This is a Christmas movie, after all.

Gradually, Kate begins to cope with her own demons and begins to make amends with those she has wronged. She begins to grapple with the real trauma underlying her surgery. Her work at a homeless shelter becomes an important vehicle for this transformation as she begins to understand the joy of helping others. As we might expect, Kate eventually finds her way, but not without real heartache that shakes her to the core. 

Last Christmas has many moments of humor and poignance. The scenes where Kate confronts the real trauma created by her surgery are particularly heart wrenching. Clarke’s performance in this scene is particularly gripping. Clarke, Golding, and Yeoh also have real chemistry on screen, and this helps save the film. Unfortunately, it’s not quite enough to take it to the level their performances warrant. Nevertheless, the core message, that we fulfill ourselves by doing good for others, is the truth that becomes the glue that holds this story together. 

Overall, I found Last Christmas to be a pleasant diversion anchored by an outstanding performance by Clarke. The movie highlights Clarke’s versatility as an actor, exploiting natural comedic timing and expressiveness that many of her fans from Game of Thrones might not recognize. Last Christmas may be the perfect vehicle for pulling her out of any type-casting that might have come from playing The Dragon Queen, Daenerys Targaryen.

Martin Scorsese ushers up another epic in The Irishman

Martin Scorsese ushers in another epic gangster movie in the The Irishman, now streaming live on Netflix. The movie stars Robert De Niro as Frank Sheeran, a small-time truck driver who becomes a confidante and hitman to a crime boss Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) and Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). Hoffa is the legendary and ruthless head of the Teamsters trucking labor union. The movie covers the long arc of their relationship, from the first serendipitous encounter between Frank and Russell through the tense relationship between Hoffa, the Italian crime families, and the federal prosecutors who try to lock them up. The Irishman also includes a slew of top-quality supporting performances, and they all weave in and out of the complex relationship between the three major players.

Throughout the movie, Scorsese uses the decisions forced on Frank by his crime boss and union boss to explore the morally and ethically ambiguous world of organized crime. One highlight is a face off between Hoffa and a rising star in the Teamsters. They find themselves in prison together and begin arguing over whose criminal conviction carries more moral weight. Bufalino argues that fraud, which involves simply stealing funds from the union pension, is more defensible than extortion, which includes a physical threat against a person. Yet both sides use violence and threats as part of their standard trade practices. These exchanges set up critical dilemmas for Frank, and become important plot points. 

Fans of Scorsese and organized crime movies will find a lot to love in The Irishman. Produced by De Niro, Scorsese has paid his characteristic attention to the details of the period. Each scene reflects the craftsmanship that has earned him a well-deserved reputation as a film master. The casting is also superb, as each supporting player plays an intentional role in furthering the plot and adding dimension to the main characters. The “aging” (or, more appropriately, de-aging) of the lead characters over what amounts to a forty-plus year period will likely earn The Irishman major award nominations as well. De Niro, Pesci, and Pacino seem to evolve from youth to old age seamlessly and naturally.

Clocking in at three and a half hours, The Irishman would have likely had a tough slog in wide release in commercial theaters. Despite its execution and craftsmanship, the movie’s pacing is slow, even plodding at times. Audiences will need some patience to make it through to the end. For this Scorsese epic, the value is in the journey, not the destination. 

Terminator: Dark Fate adds humanity to a long-running franchise

Terminator: Dark Fate is surprisingly good for a movie that lines up as the sixth in the Terminator franchise. (Full disclosure: I saw T1 and T2, but missed all the others.)  Produced by James Cameron and directed by Tim Miller, Dark Fate brings back Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor and Arnold Schwarzenegger as an older model terminator with the human name Carl. The movie also introduces Latina actress Natalia Reyes as Dani Ramos, a Mexican teenager who has been targeted by the future as the newest threat to the machines of the future by dispatching the newest model terminator (a Rev 9 played by Gabriel Luna). Mackenzie Davis plays Grace, an uber warrior of the future — an augmented human — sent back in time to protect Dani.

For those that have seen T1 and T2, Dark Fate is supposed to be a chronological sequel. The plot picks 28 years after the events of T1, and Sarah Conner is a one-woman terminator hunter and destroyer. Connor mysteriously receives text messages that give her to coordinates of terminators as they arrive from the future, and she destroys them. This becomes an important plot point but telling more would reveal a bit too much for a movie that just opened in theaters and is destined for a long run. 

On the one hand, “Dark Fate” is a pretty standard terminator movie in terms of plot and action. The plot twists are important, but it’s the action that keeps forward momentum in the story. What distinguishes “Dark Fate” from T1 and T2, is the layers screenwriters David Goyer, Justin Rhodes, and Billy Ray bring to the characters in this sequel. In contrast to the terminators, which show no emotion — they are robot killers, after all — the trauma experienced by Sarah Connor and Dani Ramos is palpable in their characters. Their arcs are well crafted, logical, and break through the expected (and exceptional) CGI and other special effects. Both characters experience dramatic breaks although Dani’s trajectory is more linear.  Linda Hamilton’s experience as an actor shines as she effectively casts important levels of reflective humanity into the deeply scarred character of Sarah Conner. That’s no small feat for a hard-core action film. Even Schwarzenegger is given more latitude as an actor, despite being a machine from the future, adding yet another subtle but important dimension to the story and film franchise.

Linda Hamilton has talked in interviews how female characters have evolved to the point where they can be tough and feminine at the same time. I have written about this as well, specifically as it relates to how Sarah Conner was scripted in T1 (see the link to my article in the comments section). Hamilton is right on Dark Fate. Sarah Hamilton is tough, but layered, and it’s great to see this character become more three dimensional and fleshed out. 

Overall, terminator movie fans should be entertained Dark Fate. Those looking for good acting, good stories, and character arcs should also find plenty to satisfy them as well.

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