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It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Oscar in Theaters

Hope Madden Hope Madden It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Oscar in TheatersPhoto via IMDb
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Oscar hopefuls crowd movie screens across Columbus. The season is upon us and there is much worthy of your attention this weekend. Let us help you choose.

The Irishman

by Hope Madden and George Wolf

In 1973, Martin Scorsese gave us Mean Streets, the tale of a fledgeling gangster contemplating the rungs that could lead him to the top of the NYC mafia. The film takes the point of view of the young man looking forward, and it boasts a supernaturally brilliant performance by Robert De Niro, then 30-years-old. 

Scorsese’s latest, The Irishman, looks at a gangster’s rise through those same ranks, this time with the eyes of an old man looking back on his life. In another performance that will remind you of his prowess, a 76-year-old De Niro stars.

The three and a half hour running time opens patiently enough as Rodrigo Prieto’s camera winds its way through the halls of a nursing home, establishing a pattern. We will be meandering likewise through the life and memories of Frank Sheeran (De Niro), house painter.

“When I was young,” says Sheeran, “I thought house painters painted houses.”

Sheeran’s telling us his tale in much the way the actual Frank Sheeran told writer Charles Brandt (author of Scorsese’s source material) what may or may not have been the truth about his history as a mob hitman (it’s not paint he’s splashing across walls) and his relationship with Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino).

Teamed with acclaimed screenwriter Steven Zaillian (Schindler’s List, Moneyball, Gangs of New York), Scorsese’s sly delivery suggests that he’s interested in what might have happened to Hoffa, sure, but he’s more intrigued by memory, regret and revisionism in the cold glare of time. The result is sometimes surprisingly funny, with a wistful, lived-in humor that more than suits the film’s greying perspective.

DeNiro’s longtime partnership with Scorsese makes it even easier to view Sheeran as an extension of the director himself, taking stock of his legacy in film. 

The decades-spanning narrative could have easily made for a riveting Netflix series instead of one three and a half hour feature, but as the first act blends into the second, the film has you. The grip is subtle but it is more than firm, the epic storytelling and nuanced performances combining for an absorbing experience that takes your mind off the clock.

And what a joy to watch three powerhouses in the ring together.

Joe Pesci, playing against type as Russell Bufalino, the quiet mafia boss who mentors Sheeran, is as good as he’s ever been. Pacino fills Hoffa with an electric mix of dangerous bravado, unapologetic corruption and dogged sincerity. And DeNiro, like that aging fighter reclaiming his title, gives The Irishman its deep, introspective soul. 

And while the trio of legends is commanding the screen, Scorsese uses a small supporting role to remind us he can still speak softly and hit hard. 

As Peggy Sheeran, the elder daughter who has watched her father evolve into the man he is, Anna Paquin is piercing, and almost entirely silent. When Peggy finally speaks, she asks her father a direct question that carries the weight of a lifetime behind it, and serves as the perfect conduit to drive the film to its aching conclusion.

Away from the chatter of Scorsese’s views on superhero movies or the proper role of Netflix, The Irishman stands as a testament to cinematic storytelling, and to how much power four old warhorses can still harness. 

Grade: A

Ford v Ferrari 

by Matt Weiner

Director James Mangold has a knack for turning the comfortable biopic formula into something genuinely gripping, even when it’s not surprising. In the case of Ford v Ferrari, the film manages to be both.

Anchored by contrasting performances from Matt Damon as the legendary racer and auto engineer Carroll Shelby and Christian Bale as his prickly driver of choice Ken Miles, Ford v Ferrari condenses the staid American automaker’s quest to challenge Ferrari’s dominance in sports car racing as a way of injecting the company with a shot of glamor for younger car buyers.

The site chosen for that showdown is the 1966 24 Hours of Le Mans, a grueling endurance race that no American-made car had yet to win. Shelby previously notched a victory with an Aston Martin in 1959 before retiring as a driver due to health problems. 

Although Shelby and Miles were accomplished designers and engineers, the story (by Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth and Jason Keller) uses a light touch when it comes to detailing the actual car building. There’s almost as much time spent in the boardroom as there is on the racetrack.

And the film is all the better for it, as the conflict turns out to be less about Ferrari and more between the misfits Shelby and Miles and the rigid executives at Ford. (The exception is Lee Iacocca, archly portrayed by Jon Bernthal as a budding Don Draper of Detroit.)

But Ford v Ferrari is still a racing movie, and Mangold delivers when the action moves onto the track. In fact he probably deserves extra credit for heightening the tension during a 24-hour endurance race. How many tea breaks were there in Days of Thunder?

There are also the requisite glimpses of danger (this is a biopic), but the script—and especially Bale’s giddy Miles—bring out the meditative joy as well. It hasn’t been this entertaining to hear Bale yell at people in his accent since Terminator Salvation

Miles and Shelby get a bit of the tortured artist treatment, but just a bit. The film is after something that in its own small way is more subversive: the friendship, love and respect these men have for each other. (Yes, the focus is almost entirely on men, boys and their toys, but at least Caitriona Balfe gets to do more than sketch the faintest outlines of a long-suffering wife. Barely.)

The film builds to the race in France, but Mangold is in top form when he’s remixing and interrogating Americana, from country in Walk the Line to the western in Logan. Ford v Ferrari continues these reflections on our most storied icons, and the world-weary characters who must bear those burdens for the myth to survive. 

Grade: A-

Charlie’s Angels

by George Wolf

We’ll know soon enough if there was high demand for a new Charlie’s Angels film. But 16 years after the close of the Drew Barrymore version, Elizabeth Banks apparently thought she could bring the franchise a welcome freshness.

She was right, mostly.

As writer, director and co-star, she’s a Banks of all trades, and just one of the Bosleys assisting a team of Angels. In this Charlie universe, “Bosley” is a rank, not a name, with famous faces such as Patrick Stewart, Djimon Hounsou and even Michael Strahan as some manner of Boz.

But it is Banks’s Bosley that is on the case when Angels Sabina (Kristen Stewart) and Jane (Ella Balinska) must protect Elena (Naomi Scott), a brilliant systems engineer who stands between bad guys and some lethal new technology.

Even with its updated vibe, Banks’ vision seems more in line with the original TV series (12 year-old me was a big fan). Barrymore’s films did bring some charm, but too often treated style as weapon of submission. The feeling this time is more of an easygoing wink-wink, with plenty of callbacks to franchise history and some well-staged battle angel set pieces.

There’s plenty of girl power, too, and while these Angels aren’t first to that party, they fit in quite nicely. They value friendships, they own their sexuality without being sexualized, they’re skilled, strong and always ready to rib each other about awkward flirting or a love of cheese.

Even with the surprises and fake outs it holds, the spy story is a bit too slight to support a full two hours. But, no surprise, it is worth staying for credits that offer plenty of smile-inducing cameos.

Banks deals plenty of hands with Charlie’s Angels, overplaying none but the running time. So while it’s not a laugh riot, it is self-aware and amusing, its action heavy without undue disbelief and it feels like a reboot we needed, whether we realized it or not.

Grade: B-

The Report

by Hope Madden

Admit it. Own up to it. Hold yourself accountable. Then our country can move on. 

Oh right, also, I saw The Report this week.

For his clear-eyed reminder of what post 9/11 America was like, writer/director Scott Z. Burns takes a page from Adam McKay’s book of outrage, leaving both tongue and cheek behind. 

Daniel Jones (Adam Driver, who is having one hell of a year) is a Senate staffer working for Dianne Feinstein (Annette Bening, eerily good). He’s been tasked with investigating the CIA’s post 9/11 “enhanced interrogation” tactics. 

Among the heads of the CIA are Thomas Eastman (Michael C. Hall) and John Brennan (Ted Levine). 

That Burns cast two actors known best for playing serial killers as CIA leaders is slyly hilarious and indicative of the contempt the filmmaker has for those responsible for this shameful page in U.S. history.

The Report brims with rage, justifiably so, but Burns never stoops to melodrama, rarely even preaches. Much of his ire is delivered via Driver’s sullen stare. Driver is characteristically amazing. Though his performance is largely internal, it spills over with the ache and anger of a citizen who loves his country and cannot believe what he sees happening. 

The entire cast—and it’s a big one—impresses, from bewildered CIA staff to opportunists looking to cash in, from battered inmates to White House Chief of Staff. With limited screen time, each performer establishes a character, not a cardboard villain or hero, and the contribution elevates the entire film. 

Burns’ script stumbles periodically over exposition, but given the sheer volume of information he covers, it’s a fault that’s easy to forgive. Somehow he manages to contain in just under two hours what Daniels himself couldn’t fit inside 7000 pages.

Importantly, though the film does look to enlighten us on the corruption, greed and fearmongering that led the U.S. to such sadistic measures, Burns wisely leans more heavily on a larger theme of admission and oversight as the only steps toward regaining self-respect and the respect of the world.

Timely.

Grade: A-

The Warrior Queen of Jhansi

by Hope Madden

My genuine thanks to first time writer/director Swati Bhise for bringing to my attention the Indian freedom fighter and queen, Rani Lakshmibai. The woman was an absolute badass. 

Lakshmibai (Devika Bhise, Swati’s daughter) reigned over the Indian state of Jhansi during the mid 1850s, a time of British rule. In 1857, she took part in a rebellion aimed at freedom from the colonial oppressors.

When I say took part, I mean she wielded swords on horseback, united an otherwise divided smattering of armies and generally kicked all manner of ass.

She was most impressive. 

She deserved a better movie.

Bhise’s approach to this wildly untraditional tale is far too traditional, too restrained, and too afraid to dig into any of the characters, including the lead. More cripplingly, the film is basically a chamber piece until the third act. 

That could work if what we saw was the backbiting and usurping that may have gone on behind closed doors—British or Indian—as a woman took charge. Or if it was strategy and brainstorming that we observed, or if stirring speeches bore witness to the ruler’s inner conflict and motivational charisma.

Instead we get a blandly sanitized soap opera, the warrior queen discussing hair care with her female soldiers as frequently as military tactics. Throughout, Bhise’s direction feels amateurish, every scene stagnating as it drowns in costumes and unconvincing sets.

Dialog fills in for character development, but we also see a lot of the queen sitting silently and thinking. The Warrior Queen of Jhansi depicts lot of pondering, a lot of costumes and very little action. 

“I am no stranger to battle,” Rani Lakshmibai tells whoever might listen, but it’s news to us because we haven’t seen her do anything besides think, talk and change her clothes. Worse still is the single scene of battle practice, where she readies her female forces, not one of whom can convincingly handle a sword. 

The British side of things fares little better, although a smug Rupert Everett  as Sir Hugh Rose and Nathaniel Parker as blowhard Sir Robert Hamilton do inject some life into the proceedings. Everett is the only actor in the entire cast asked to find multiple layers in his character. It’s just two layers, really, but they are a welcome change.

It is a magnificent feat, no doubt, that the story of a 1850s Indian warrior queen has made its way to the American big screen (there are two Indian films, one classic and a second released this year). I wish it was a better movie. 

Grade: C-

Radioflash

by Hope Madden

See the solution, not the problem.

That’s the mantra young Reese (Brighton Sharbino) repeats as she tries to find her way free of an ultra-realistic virtual reality exercise. Back at home, with her multiple screens in front of her, she has a tough time getting that game out of her head, even when her dad (Dominic Monaghan) calls her down for burgers on the dinner table and vinyl on the turntable .

Radioflash is the latest in a tedious line of films to point out that we—our youngsters, in particular—are dangerously reliant on technology, to the point that they barely know how to live day to day in the real world. I mean, what would Reese do if a nuclear pulse took out the power in half the country?

Let’s find out.

Being solution-oriented, she heads to Grandpa’s (Will Patton) shed. As luck would have it, the first book she grabs falls open to the page defining a radioflash. And though there’s no reason on earth to believe this is anything other than a garden variety black out, Reese somehow intuits 1) it is, indeed, a radioflash, and 2) how to get Grampy’s old CB radio up and running via a car battery.

Oh, the conveniences just come scattershot like that through the rest of the film, which is less a journey and more a series of “and then this happens, and then this happens, and then this happens.”

This is not a film that has a high opinion of  humanity. Sure, neither did Cormac McCarthy, but I think he saw civilization surviving more than a single day before his post-apocalyptic nightmare The Road had us eating each other. Not so, writer/director Ben McPherson. Outright cannibalism may be a few days off, but inside of 24 hours he expects to see looting, murder, kidnapping and worse.

Wait, what’s worse than looting, murder and kidnapping? 

Mountain people.

“Only two kinds of mountain people,” says wizened and doomed good samaritan farmer Glenn. “Those chasing a dream, and those that’s being chased.”

Guess whose hands solution-oriented Reese falls into? Here’s an actual piece of dialog, to help you decide.

“Ain’t no finer meat than bear.”

Yes, Reese finds herself with the meanest lot of white trash this side of Wrong Turn

But Radioflash is not a horror movie. (It’s not a Clash song, either, but damn if I can get that tune out of my head.) It’s a lazy hero’s quest adventure flick where the hero learns little and isn’t given much chance to become a hero. 

Grade: C-

Also opening in Columbus:
Everybody’s Everything (NR)
The Good Liar (R)
The Shed (R)

Read more from Hope  and crew at MADDWOLF and listen to their weekly movie review podcast, THE SCREENING ROOM.

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