‘Ravage’: Can’t Keep a Good Woman Down (Guest Review by Alycia Ripley)

Very excited to have Alycia Ripley back on the site with a review of Ravage. -C.S.

Several things stay with you long after watching Teddy Grennan’s Ravage, but one is for sure — you’ll never look at a cow the same way again. 

Ravage is a thrill-ride plucked from the grindhouse era of the 1970s, infused with its paranoia and wilderness foes, but topped with 2020 feminism. Even its title card refers back to days of gritty revenge thrillers. Although gruesome in plot, the filmmakers maintain a rare sense of restraint that elevates the material and engages the viewer. The nastiness remains mostly off-screen and out of focus but we deal with its ramifications alongside our heroine. Regardless of Ravage‘s visual subtleties, your manicure may remain in serious jeopardy. The 84-minute runtime is a nonstop, full-throttle charge that’ll have you biting your nails and jangling your legs. 

Harper Sykes is a nature photographer comfortable in the wilderness. Whether her survival skills are learned on the job or taught by family isn’t shared — when you’re chased by a group of killers after witnessing a brutal murder, there’s little time for backstory. Ravage may not re-invent the wheel but it presents its woman-in-peril story from a very different perspective. Visiting a remote valley to photograph a rare stag, Harper is in touch with only her editor and boyfriend. Unlike films in which the heroine struggles with opening a can yet progresses to expert handling of automatic weapons, we’re confident in Harper’s abilities from the get-go. We see her shark through the water in a canoe, scurry through ravines, and make smart decisions that would’ve delivered her to freedom had she not found herself in a horror movie. For the first time since 1984’s The Terminator, the local police station holds no sense of comfort or safety. It’s surreal and still and as in Ravage‘s ancestral grandfather, Deliverance, we’re unsure of who can be trusted. Harper is soon captured and brought to a nearby farm. Led by an excellent Robert Longstreet, the killers exhibit banal evil and delusional motivation. After an initial brawl-call to exhibit her might and a mercifully off-screen rape, Longstreet’s group ties Harper up and leaves her alone to complete an errand. Bad move. She uses materials at her disposal to escape and plan against her enemies. Revenge fantasy though it is, Harper is focused on survival. The valley wilderness is vast and boasts exit points the killers know well. To get out, it’ll be through rather than over them. 

Calm, capable, and brave, Harper elicits our admiration and sympathy and Annabelle Dexter-Jones plays her with relatable real-girl sensibility. But lest you forget, she’s a real girl who apparently paid extra attention in Girl Scouts and 4H. We follow Harper through harrowing locations beautifully shot by Christopher Walters, and Jacques Brautbar’s cacophonous score indicates Harper’s inner state. A key moment, sure to be an audience favorite, is Harper’s interaction with an older man living in a beautiful, remote home, in need of frequent, self-administered medication. He’s played by the inimitable Bruce Dern with hypnotic ambiguity. Their entire scene plays across Dexter-Jones’ face like a light-meter. Between Dern’s words and set decoration riddled with foreshadowing, Harper recognizes that the complicated chess game she’s now in has many players and a long, long history. 

Although I’ll never understand the need for film heroes to expose their knowledge and plans to the villains, our girl makes up for it with inventive elimination strategies. Opening in several cities for a drive-in experience, followed by a VOD release the following week, Ravage nails the point home that in Harper’s situation, many of us would be more up the creek, no pun intended, than we’d like to admit. Watching this smart, resourceful woman utilize her environment to her favor allows us to experience survivalism from the comforts of our cars or homes. 

Ravage‘s opening audio and first glimpse of Harper walking, shotgun in tow, across a sunset landscape carries a retro aesthetic of 70s grindhouse cinema. Both then and now, women hold a certain resilience under pressure. You won’t be sure of much in Ravage—the film holds many surprises — but very little, including a cow (hold tight for the pure insanity of the third act) can keep Harper down. Some people refuse surrender with a little more force. Survival is more prescient a concept to some. Harper doesn’t just push back — she pushes over, under, and through. Stay through the entire credit sequence. The main theme is there, immortalized in its very last shot. 

Girl power isn’t a catchphrase — it’s what lies in the heart of a woman who refuses to be tossed aside, digested, and forgotten by those who feel threatened by her very existence in their wilderness.

Capsule review: 1BR is a nasty good time

This year has seen some strong horror flicks — Relic and The Beach House come to mind. While 1BR is not as impactful as those aforementioned, more artful chillers, it is still a nasty, clever good time with a touch of Shyamalan. (In a good way!) This story of a young woman who discovers her apartment complex is, well, not what it seems, is involving, well-acted by newcomer Nicole Brydon Bloom, and genuinely frightening. It’s also a bit too brutal and upsetting to want to watch more than once. The film’s final shot, with echoes of Karyn Kusama’s The Invitation, adds a nice Twilight Zone touch. It will be fascinating to watch what’s next for Brydon Bloom and writer/director David Marmor.

Watch the trailer here.

Grade: B-

The Cuban: If memory serves (guest review by Alycia Ripley)

Still from The Cuban.

Alycia Ripley is one of the most creative and prolific writers in Buffalo, and she’s also a passionate lover of film. I’m excited to feature a review Alycia has written of The Cuban, starring Louis Gossett, Jr. -C.S.

Its opening credits scatter like colorful ink blots, an early hint to the importance of memory to the plot and themes of writer Alessandra Piccione and director Sergio Navarretta’s film, The Cuban. Mina, a young pre-med student, begins working in the nursing home in which her Aunt Bano, played by the always-elegant Shohreh Aghdashloo, serves as administrator. Bano was a doctor in her previous life in Afghanistan, and has now dedicated her life to ensuring her niece succeeds with advantages she lost once coming to the United States. We sense an ambiance of entrapment, one character assuring others that they alone know what’s best. Bano may have unwritten rules for Mina, but Bano’s relatives feel they know what’s best for her, especially regarding Bano’s living arrangements. They give their own daughter zero independence, arranging a marriage with someone from the old country she’s never met rather than considering the boy she loves and who loves her back with honor. 

Mina meets Luis Garcia, a resident with vascular dementia, who rarely speaks, often refuses to eat, and is wholly unaware of his surroundings and current life. He receives no visitors and his room, ‘the sunshine room,’ as Mina sarcastically refers to it, has no personal details. Our first look at Luis is unsettling because of the actor playing him. Academy-award winning Louis Gossett, Jr., a legend of stage and screen, is known for characters who mean business. This is the man who helped stop terrorists in Toy Soldiers, mentored a wayward teen in Iron Eagle, built a misfire of a theme park in Jaws 3D, put Richard Gere in line in An Officer and A Gentleman. He’s known for vitality, charisma, and a beautifully-delivered monologue. The sight of Louis Gossett, Jr. in a wheelchair, unable to speak, disconnected from the world, is startling and uncomfortable, which may be precisely why Navarretta was determined to cast him. This is a film about how we treat elderly citizens in this country, how their stories and histories, once rich and intricate, fade away without someone to remember or care. Those in our own lives may be destined for the same fate, relying on the kindness of strangers. Mina takes to Luis immediately, realizing that his lone decorative poster implies a love for and connection to jazz. Before long, she is playing him jazz music and cooking authentic Cuban food to replace bland hospital meals. Luis comes alive, speaking, gesturing, and sharing snippets of stories we see through flashback, colorful memories that illustrate how Luis remembers his life, a fluidity of beloved past and trustworthy present.

The friendship with Luis opens Mina up to Kris, a boyfriend who helps with Luis and is frustrated by her inability to assert herself to her family. It also exposes Mina to the watchful eyes of nursing home staff less inclined toward progressive treatment such as Nurse Baker. Baker is played by Lauren Holly as a probable descendant of Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest but imbued with only a tad more warmth. Everything about the nursing home and its staff is colorless, bland, diffuse, similar to the apartment Mina shares with Bano. In Luis’s memories, we are inundated by color and stunning cinematography by Celiana Cardenas—colored skies, red lips, leaves of deep green, shoes of yellow, bright orange cars, even the vibrant, shiny blacks of a venue stage. Luis isn’t just a music lover but a musical legend in the world of Cuban jazz. Mina delves in to learn about his history: the places at which he played with his band, the dynamics amongst its players, and his long-lost love, Elena, who he often replaces with Mina in his daydreams. Mina wants Luis to live his life rather than waiting to die and disagrees with Nurse Baker who states that patients like Garcia simply want ‘peace and quiet.’ 

Navarretta’s entire point seems to be about caring, and how few actually do. Lives have meaning when shared and the film ruminates on memory, identity, the passing of time, and how a life’s worth is determined. Even Bano is presented with photos that force her to consider and remember who she was before coming to this country. 

The film is also about music and the glorious way it connects us and sparks love and joy. Its fantastic soundtrack vibrates the film with life. With music comes re-connection—for Luis and an old friend who owns a club, Luis with himself, and the special bond between Luis and Mina, played by Ana Golja with a natural charm and infectious smile. We know trouble is brewing when it’s discovered how she substituted Cuban food for hospital fare but the film treats her admonishment differently than we expect. It glides from this setback into a deeper look at breaking free from tradition, from our mental and physical rooms, and toward a love of life, a discovery of identity through examining where we’ve been. Gossett, Jr. is as dynamic a performer as ever, creating a character literally from the inside out of Garcia’s confused, dying body, a special role in a versatile career reminding us he’s one of our best.  Kindness is what we have to offer others. Our great loves are sometimes real only to ourselves but our stories are for sharing and to untap our potential at any point in life. The Cuban is about Luis’s life but a springboard for Mina’s to take a different, more diverse direction. And one for viewers to remember how many stories remain untold and to feel inspired to tell them.

Catching up with my latest efforts: Books on Parasite and Dune, new virtual cinema, and … Showgirls!

I haven’t been quite as busy with film writing in recent months as I was during the winter, but I’ve done enough to warrant a roundup.

First is SHOWGIRLS, of course — well, a documentary about SHOWGIRLS, that is. YOU DON’T NOMI is a new film about the curious afterlife of Paul Verhoeven’s much-maligned T&A extravaganza, and it’s a blast. It’s now available as a North Park Theatre virtual cinema selection — check out my review for The Film Stage at https://thefilmstage.com/you-dont-nomi-review-the-life-dea…/.

Also new for The Film Stage is my latest roundup of books about cinema, including explorations of PARASITE, David Lynch’s DUNE, the great PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE, and more: https://thefilmstage.com/you-dont-nomi-review-the-life-dea…/.

I’ve also written a few recent virtual cinema roundups for Buffalo News Gusto, featuring films available through Dipson TheatresNorth Park Theatre, and The Screening Room Cinema & Arts Cafe.

First is a look at MR. JONES, JUDY AND PUNCH, THE FEAST OF THE EPIPHANY, and A WHITE, WHITE DAY: https://buffalonews.com/entertainment/recommended-virtual-cinema-soviet-history-infidelity-marionettes-and-murder/article_4d830066-050f-565c-9801-9877bf1ba1a1.html.

Next is my analysis of TOMMASO, MILITARY WIVES, SHIRLEY, and SPACESHIP EARTH: https://buffalonews.com/…/new-virtual-cinema-military-wive…/.

And before that I covered DRIVEWAYS, CORPUS CHRISTI, SORRY WE MISSED YOU, ZOMBI CHILD, and DEERSKIN: https://buffalonews.com/…/virtual-cinema-5-picks-include-d…/.

Quarantine cinema, part two: Latest capsule reviews feature Flanigan, Feldstein, Coogan, Scooby, and more

I continue to watch quite a bit during COVID-19, as evidenced in past posts, as well as for The Buffalo News. Here is another roundup of recent home views. You can also check out my Letterboxed and Rotten Tomatoes pages for more updates. Thanks for reading! And watch for more to come …

Never Rarely Sometimes Always: A-

It is possible, when 2020 comes to a close, that Eliza Hittman’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always will rank as the year’s most impactful film. Anchored by two of the most natural performances from young actors in recent memory — lead Sidney Flanigan plays a teenager who journeys to New York City for an abortion, while Talia Ryder plays her cousin — Never Rarely is, quite simply, a stunner. It also features a moment that has already achieved iconic status, a somber, unbroken shot in which Autumn is questioned by a clinic employee. It’s a beautiful sequence, wonderfully acted by Flanigan. (Interestingly, Flanigan is a Buffalo native and resident, while Ryder was born in Buffalo as well.) This is a film which should be required viewing for teenagers. It is a conversation-starter, to be sure, but also an involving character piece. Hittman, Flanigan, and Ryder deserve worldwide applause for this achievement. 

Watch now

How to Build a Girl: C+

I was bummed to miss How to Build a Girl at both the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival and the 2019 BFI London Film Festival. As a die-hard anglophile and Britpop obsessive, this is one that had intrigued me from the get-go. A teenage girl becomes immersed in the U.K. music press during the mid-90s? Come on! Sadly, however, the film itself left me rather disappointed. Beanie Feldstein gives a fine performance — although her British accent is at first rather distracting; were there no actual British actors available? Still, she brings her usual wit and charm to the role. But the film is far too predictable, and never quite as funny or moving as it should be. That being said, it’s difficult for me not to at least partially like a film that A) revolves around the British music press and B) hinges on a life-changing Manic Street Preachers concert. How to Build a Girl is worthy of a watch, but do not expect a coming-of-age classic.

Watch the trailer

The Trip to Greece: B+

The fifth and (supposedly) final film in Michael Winterbottom’s Trip series might be the best yet — uproarious and moving. Once again, British comedians Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon play versions of themselves on a road trip tour of fine restaurants. This time, the duo hit the luscious landscapes of Greece. They discuss BAFTAs, trade Olivier impressions, and then are forced to confront mortality. It concludes with resigned acceptance of its characters’ stations in life; Coogan, the more commercially and critically successful performer, suffers through loss and sadness, while Brydon is left in ecstasy with his wife. Is this a judgmental finale? Maybe. Maybe not. Perhaps The Trip to Greece is simply accepting the trade off that occurs in order to achieve commercial success. Either way, it is a sharp, hilariously funny, emotionally satisfying film. All hail Coogan and Brydon. Please do one more, in America. 

Watch the trailer

The Roads Not Taken: C

Here is a film whose heart is in the right place. But despite good intentions and a stacked cast of heavyweights, this story of a man reviewing his choices as the end draws near simply does not work. When looking at the talent roster, that might seem shocking. How could a film directed by Sally Potter (Orlando) and starring Javier Bardem, Salma Hayek, and Elle Fanning be so unmemorable? The answers lie with a script that fails to provide any fresh insight to the “what-if?” trope. Fanning, especially, gives a strong performance; coupled with her role on Hulu’s wild and woolly series The Great, she’s on a nice tear. The acting makes The Roads Not Taken a drama worth watching for fans of Bardem and Fanning. But do not expect to remember the film a day later. 

Watch the trailer

The Wild Goose Lake: B-

The Wild Goose Lake is hugely acclaimed, and it’s easy to see why; there are moments of devastating beauty in this Chinese gangster drama. For me, its story, of a small-time criminal who accidentally kills a police officer, simply did not quite land. But it’s still a stunningly photographed ride, one that is never remotely dull and often heads into unexpected terrain.

Watch the trailer

Blood Quantum: B

Canadian zombie flick Blood Quantum is down, dirty, and legit terrifying. Its final few minutes, especially, are genuinely devastating. Smartly setting its story of ravenous zombies on a First Nations reserve, it has an unhinged, anything-goes feel. It’s no wonder Blood was so acclaimed at the Toronto International Film Festival. It makes Jeff Barnaby as a director to watch.

Watch now

Scoob!: D+

Ugh. I paid $25 for to buy Scoob! since paying $20 to just rent it seemed wasteful. The animated film, which famously skipped cinema for a home debut, never feels like a Scooby Doo story. Rather than a mystery, the story involves superheroes and a journey to “the Underworld.” Oh, and Simon Cowell, for some reason. Dull, overlong, and never remotely involving, Scoob! makes the silly Matthew Lillard-starring live action films seem rather quaint and joyful by comparison. Something worth noting, however: While my kids were not particularly invested in the film when we watched it as a family, they’ve since watched it at least two times. Now, they’re fans. Maybe the $25 wasn’t such a waste after all …

Watch now

Quarantine cinema: Latest capsule reviews

One of the side effects of COVID-19 for many has been lots and lots of time at home. That means an opportunity to watch lots and lots of films. While cinemas worldwide are closed, streaming, video-on-demand, and “virtual cinema” selections have gone into overdrive. Here’s a roundup of some recent films I watched from home. 

Bacurau: A-

I recall hearing much discussion at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival about Bacurau, a Brazilian film from directors Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles. The hype was more than justified. Part midnight movie, part timely exploration of haves-and-have-nots, Bacurau is fierce, darkly funny, and unforgettable. A pleasurably evil Udo Kier plays the leader of a group of mercenaries intent on wiping out the denizens of a small Brazilian village. Let’s just say they get more than they bargained for. There’s no question that Bacurau is one of 2020’s finest films. 

(Now available as “virtual cinema” through the North Park Theatre)

And Then We Danced: A-

Levan Akin’s Georgia-set tale of art and yearning is both beautiful and moving. Levan Gelbakhiani stars as Merab, a closeted young dancer training for a spot in the National Georgian Ensemble. When a new dancer joins the group, Merab falls in love. But what follows tests his physical and emotional limits. And Then We Danced is a superb drama, and a big-hearted exploration of one young man’s desire for escape and liberation.

(Now available as “virtual cinema” through the North Park Theatre)

Swallow: A-

Haley Bennett gives one of the most compelling performances in recent cinema in Carlo Mirabella-Davis’ disturbing, often-hilarious, wildly idiosyncratic Swallow. Bennett plays Hunter, a wealthy, pregnant housewife living a life of quiet suffering. She soon develops a disorder that causes her to swallow inedible objects — think thumbtacks (gulp). The act provides freedom and a strange solace, while also upturning her life. Swallow is often difficult to watch, but always emotionally affecting.  

Resistance: C

While an admirable effort from all concerned, the wartime story of iconic mime Marcel Marceau falls flat. Part of the problem is the way the story is told — one example is an odd framing device featuring Ed Harris as General Patton — but the greatest issue is casting. Jesse Eisenberg deserves some credit for taking a role far outside his comfort zone, but his essential … well, Eisenberg-ness is distracting. Never, for one second, does this character onscreen seem to be Marcel Marceau. That’s a problem, and it makes Resistance a worthy attempt that misses the mark.

(Released on March 27)

Vivarium: B

When will Imogen Poots become a star? That’s a question I’ve pondered for years while watching her give strong performance after strong performance. Vivarium won’t change Poots’ fortunes, but certainly serves as more evidence of her talents. In this mysterious, quasi-sci-fi thriller, Poots and the aforementioned Jesse Eisenberg play a young couple trapped in a neighborhood of look-alike houses. Their world grows even stranger when a fast-growing child arrives. While Lorcan Finnegan’s film is not altogether satisfying, it’s mostly a smart, memorable descent into suburban madness.

(Now on digital, available on Blu-ray on May 12)

True History of the Kelly Gang: B-

Does the world need another Ned Kelly story? Perhaps not, and that over-familiarity with the Australian outlaw is an issue while watching True History of the Kelly Gang — if, that is, you’ve seen the character portrayed by Heath Ledger or Mick Jagger, among others. Still, while overlong and a tad overstuffed, Justin Kurzel’s film is full of grit and verve. It also features another strong performance from 1917’s George MacKay and gives Russell Crowe one of his juiciest roles in years. 

Sea Fever: B+

BAFTA-winning director/writer Neasa Hardiman makes her feature debut with this claustrophobic sci-fi/horror film. Sea Fever was an under-the-radar hit at TIFF19, and deservedly so. The standout in a strong cast (including Dougray Scott and Connie Nielsen) is certainly Hermione Corfield, who plays a young marine biology student spending a week on a fishing trawler. When an infection takes over the boat, she and the others must fight for survival. While it never entirely breaks free of genre tropes, Sea Fever counts as pleasant surprise — intimate, intense, and genuinely harrowing.

Endings, Beginnings: B-

Full disclosure: I was fully prepared to despise Drake Doremus’ Endings, Beginnings. On paper, it sounds like yet another weak-kneed indie drama: A single woman in her thirties becomes romantically involved with two friends. But the plot proves mostly engaging thanks to star Shailene Woodley. Her Daphne is believably flawed, and her relationship with friends Jack (Jamie Dornan and Frank (Sebastian Stan) is surprisingly involving. Endings is not a great film, but it’s a solid romantic drama featuring standout work from Woodley.

Coming soon: Thoughts on Never Rarely Sometimes Always, The Whistlers, How to Build a Girl, The Trip to Greece, and more. 

Catch these ‘Cats’: A sweet film from Japan (review)

The North Park Theatre in Buffalo recently screened a small-scale, sweet film from Japan called “Island of Cats.” Here are some thoughts, originally for BuffaloSpree.com.

Full disclosure: I’ve never been much of a cat person. (I know, I know — I’m a jerk.) But a lovely 2019 film from Japan titled Island of Cats might have swung me. It’s a sweet, simple story of an aging widower, his beloved cat, and the various folks who inhabit a small island. 

And in wonderful news for both cat fanciers and Buffalo film fans, it screens twice — at 7 p.m. on Feb. 29 and Mar. 1 — at the North Park Theatre (1428 Hertel Ave.). Island does not have an American distributor yet, meaning this is an exclusive booking for the North Park. 

Actor Shinosuke Tatekawa plays Daikichi, a contented man who spends most of his time accompanied by his cat, Tama. He moves slowly these days; his son would like his father to move in with him in Tokyo. 

Director Mitsuaki Iwagô’s camera moves at a leisurely pace, appropriate for a film whose characters are in no hurry. The many cats inhabiting the island hop about, while Daikichi and his similarly aged friends putter about. Excitement arrives when a beautiful newcomer opens a trendy cafe. 

Stories are told, friends fall ill (and worse), and Tama and his four-legged friends watch, wide-eyed. Island of Cats is not a film of action, but it’s never dull, either. It’s a knowing, warm-hearted drama unlike anything else currently playing in American cinemas. 

Screening before Island is Cat Video Fest 2020, making this a weekend sure to please fans of all things feline. 

Visit https://www.northparktheatre.org/ for tickets or more info on both films. Remember, it might be impossible to see Island of Cats again any time soon. Don’t miss this chance to see it at the North Park.  

Scorsese’s somber, sensational ‘Irishman’ is a devastating masterpiece (review)

I was thrilled to review “The Irishman” for The Buffalo News after seeing it at the BFI London Film Festival. I also wrote a feature on the film playing in Buffalo and did an interview with one of its stars, Buffalo native Patrick Gallo. It was all part of a Gusto cover story. Here’s my four-star review of one of the year’s finest films.

Time is relative — on screen and off. In Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman,” an epic exploration of American crime and politics, time shifts suddenly, and often without warning. The result, however, is always the same: either violent death or guilt-ridden decay.

Grim endings are often the case in Scorsese’s films, especially his 1990s and 2000s gangster dramas — “Goodfellas,” “Casino,” “The Departed.” “The Irishman” feels different, though. It’s a film that could only have been made at this point in the careers of Scorsese and stars Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci. (A special local note: the film co-stars Buffalo-born actor Patrick Gallo.)

Creating “The Irishman” required a maturity that only comes after a lifetime of cinematic excellence, and an ability to acknowledge that there is nothing more devastating than regret.

The makeup of this story — a truck driver turned hit man named Frank Sheeran tells of his friendships with Mafia kingpins and his role in the disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa — includes elements of the kinetic energy of “Mean Streets” and “Goodfellas” and the epic, going-to-hell tapestry of “Casino.” But more importantly, it also has the end-of-life solemnity of 2017’s “Silence.”

The result is a late-period masterpiece for Scorsese. A sterling cast, fascinating story and the use of de-aging CGI effects make the film a genuine, modern cinematic event. That “The Irishman” is being released by Netflix and available for streaming after a small theatrical release makes it even more newsworthy.

Charles Brandt’s “I Heard You Paint Houses” — the title refers to murder — was a nonfiction account of Frank Sheeran’s life, featuring the words of Sheeran. Fittingly, “The Irishman” opens with an aged Sheeran, deftly underplayed by De Niro, telling his story. Much of the dialogue is taken directly from Brandt’s gripping book. 

Sheeran developed an ease with killing as an American GI during World War II, a talent that served him well years later. He moved from a truck driver and low-level enforcer to one of crime boss Russell Bufalino’s most trusted men. Bufalino is played by Pesci, in a welcome, quietly fearsome return to the screen.

Bufalino introduced Sheeran to Hoffa, the Teamsters president whose fame, Sheeran explains, cannot be overstated: “In the ’50s, he was as big as Elvis; in the ’60s, he was the Beatles.” Hoffa is played with noisy relish by Pacino, working here with Scorsese for the first time.

Sheeran grew close to Hoffa, putting himself in a tricky position. After all, mob figures like Bufalino used the Teamsters pension fund as a quasi-bank, with Hoffa’s approval. For a time, that is. When Hoffa and the mob began to battle, Sheeran was caught in the middle. He ended up with a key role in the headline-grabbing and still unsolved Hoffa disappearance.

It’s a dense story, full of shifts in time and touching on events like the Kennedy assassination. The CGI work used during these changing time periods is at first jarring — most notably the first meeting of Sheeran and Bufalino. But thanks to De Niro and Pesci’s skillful, soulful performances, it quickly becomes barely noticeable.

Pacino gives one of his strongest performances in years, while Harvey Keitel, Ray Romano and Bobby Cannavale are strong in support. Accompanied by a murderers’ row of behind-the-camera talent — screenwriter Steven Zaillian, longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker, costume designers Sandy Powell and Christopher Peterson, cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto — Scorsese has crafted a drama of startling emotion.

This should be no surprise. As he has throughout his career, Scorsese has expertly chronicled human nature and violent behavior. The pace of “The Irishman” is far, far different than his earlier crime classics but the resonance is just as great, if not greater.

“The Irishman” is the logical culmination of Scorsese’s career-long exploration of masculinity, violence and the effects of both: no one gets away clean.

TIFF19 review: ‘Ford v Ferrari’ (for The Film Stage)

I quite enjoyed FORD V FERRARI at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival; I gave the film a B+. Here is my Film Stage review.

James Mangold’s Ford v Ferrari is, in a word, sturdy. It’s the kind of airtight drama that could never be called groundbreaking or even original. But it offers ample pleasures in performance—from stars Matt Damon and Christian Bale—and design. While it could be a bit nastier, this is unquestionably intense grade-A Hollywood entertainment. The racing sequences are genuinely thrilling, and even the boardroom and back-office battles are compelling. 

While the story itself—the Ford Motor Company hires auto racing legend Carroll Shelby (Damon) and brash driver Ken Miles (Bale) in an attempt at taking down Ferrari’s dominance at the legendary Le Mans—will be new to some audiences, the structure is undoubtedly familiar. That is an issue, especially at 152 minutes. But Mangold and screenwriters Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth, and Jason Keller keep this baby humming–there’s little time to ponder structural issues when we’re moving too quickly to care.

This sense of storytelling efficiency is present from scene one, in which we watch Damon’s Shelby win the grueling, 24-hour Le Mans in France. Soon, however, health issues left the driver unable to race, and he moved into auto sales and a behind-the-scenes racing role. Beyond one shot of a messy trailer, we learn next to nothing about Shelby’s personal life, yet the film spends plenty of time on that of Ken Miles, a Brit racer struggling to keep his repair shop afloat. While the audience gets to know Miles’s wife (Outlander star Catriona Balfe, who gives a fine performance) and son, and hear of his wartime heroics, Ford v Ferrari is not very interested in its characters’ pasts.

It instead immerses us into the crucial collision of these people in the 1960s. The legendary Ford Motor Company, led by the literally and figuratively heavy Henry Ford II (a scene-stealing Tracy Letts) was in dire straits. Executive Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal) developed a plan to make Ford appealing to younger drivers, and it hinged on gobbling up the sexy but struggling Italian kingpin Enzo Ferrari. He rebuffed the offer, setting into motion a new plan: strike back by winning Le Mans. 

The brilliant, passionate Shelby was an essential hire, but just as important was the driver. It is clear from his first onscreen appearance that Miles is an uncontrollable hothead, but a hothead who can drive, making him the subject of frequent battles between Shelby and an ever-annoyed Ford executive (Josh Lucas). As the design and testing process and eventual early races make clear, there is no driver better suited for the arduous task. It all culminates in La Mans, and this lengthy sequence is pumping with adrenaline. It features some of the best work of director Mangold’s career.

It is interesting to note that Michael Mann was originally set to direct a film with Bale as Enzo Ferrari. That project never came to fruition, and now Mann is listed as a producer, and Bale plays a different role. It is rather intoxicating to wonder what the Collateral director would have done with racing sequences like those found in Ford v Ferrari. Yet Mangold’s work should not be taken for granted. He will never be confused with Mann’s visceral touch, but the Walk the Line, 3:10 to Yuma, and Logan director’s track record is remarkably consistent–a feat that continues here.

The director brings a dependable mix of strong characters in physically intense situations, aided by splendid cinematography (by Phedon Papamichael), full-throttle editing (by Michael McCusker and Andrew Buckland), and especially Marco Beltrami’s stirring score. Bale has the showier role here, as a man seemingly on the verge of eruption at all times. (Ford v Ferrari is the rare film in which his actual voice appears.) Surprisingly, though, it is Damon who stands out. He’s the rock of this story, the figure who must navigate a minefield of relationships and keep the ultimate goal top of mind. 

Ford v Ferrari is an easy film to scoff at; there is nothing new here, and there is no debating that fact. Instead, we have a compelling story told in simple, intelligent fashion. It deserves a spot on the list of great racing dramas, and the list of the year’s most entertaining dramas.

TIFF19: Ranking this year’s films (from BuffaloSpree.com)

In my thirteen years attending the Toronto International Film Festival, I’ve never seen as many genuinely great films as I did in 2019. And I’m not the only TIFF19 attendee saying that. From world premieres (Knives OutA Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood) to hits from other festivals (ParasiteWavesMarriage Story), the consensus is that this was one of the strongest TIFFs in recent memory.

Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver star in MARRIAGE STORY.
Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver star in MARRIAGE STORY.

(Read the original post at BuffaloSpree.com.)

Below is a rundown of the nineteen films I saw this year. I may watch a few more from home before all is said and done. Visit tiff.net/films for summaries and trailers for these and more. 

  1. Parasite
  2. Waves
  3. Marriage Story
  4. Uncut Gems
  5. Knives Out
  6. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
  7. Jojo Rabbit
  8. Ford v Ferrari
  9. The Report
  10. Bad Education
  11. The Lighthouse
  12. Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and the Band
  13. Red Penguins
  14. Just Mercy
  15. Clifton Hill
  16. Joker
  17. Weathering With You
  18. The Truth
  19. Seberg

It was such a strong year that some very good films — Bad EducationThe Lighthouse — that would ranker higher in any other year are instead a bit far down the list.