FLAG DAY (2021)

August 19, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. Life is full of choices, however sometimes destiny takes charge and there’s little we can do about it. One’s parents are the most obvious and crucial example. We don’t choose our parents and yet their impact on our lives is unavoidable. Jennifer Vogel’s book, “Flim-Flam Man: The True Story of My Father’s Counterfeit Life”, has been adapted for the screen by the FORD V FERRARI screenwriting brothers, Jez Butterworth and JohnHenry Butterworth. The film is directed by two-time Oscar winner Sean Penn, who also co-stars.

Told through the eyes of Jennifer (played here by Sean Penn’s daughter Dylan Penn, a lookalike of her mother Robin Wright), this is the “based on a true story” of John Vogel, but also the story of Jennifer, who managed to overcome challenges that stemmed from her far-from-ideal childhood. Jennifer’s mother Patty (Katheryn Winnick, “Vikings”) is an alcoholic and has a tumultuous marriage to John, a con man who constantly spews bombast and fabrications (aka lies) as he tries to scam the system and impress his family with his big plans (that go nowhere).

Since the film opens with a law enforcement standoff, and with Jennifer being interviewed by a Federal Marshal (Oscar winner Regina King), we know how John’s saga concludes, and most of the movie is spent in Jennifer’s memories to paint the picture of her dad and her life. Some of these are “flashes” of moments, while others are extended segments where we really get a feel for the father that cluttered a daughter’s mind and life. It’s tough to watch 105 minutes of a guy with little redeeming value.

This is not the place to detail what we see, but it’s at times disturbing to see the memories of a father who doesn’t so much slip in and out of the lives of Jennifer, younger brother Nick (played by Sean’s son Hopper Jack Penn), and mom Patty, as he appears and vanishes in proverbial explosions akin to the Wicked Witch of the West. Given that her mom is equally inept at parenting, high school Jennifer seems destined to follow in her father’s footsteps.

Covering a period from 1975 through 1992, we see Jennifer as a young kid, and then Ms. Penn takes over the role in high school. She is also our narrator, some of which is overwrought for a film that mostly strives to stay grounded in family dynamics, as Jennifer works to overcome. In addition to the previously mentioned appearance by Ms. King, there are also brief yet effective turns by Josh Brolin (as John’s brother Uncle Beck), Dale Dickey (as John’s crusty mother), Norbert Leo Butz (as Patty’s sleazy boyfriend), and Eddie Marsan (near the film’s end).

In addition to overuse of voiceover, director Penn includes a few too many song/musical interludes. Some of these songs are excellent (Cat Power, Eddie Vedder, Glen Hansard), but they feel a bit heavy-handed and forced into the film. In fact, melodrama is chosen over nuance on multiple occasions, but when the film is good, it’s very good. The best scenes are between father and daughter, Sean and Dylan, the latter of which shows flashes of incredible depth. We look forward to more of her work. As for Sean, can you name another actor whose natural look better exemplifies a guy who has had the snot kicked out of him by life (even if he’s made his own bed)? He portrays John Vogel as a con man who believes achieving the American Dream is something he’s owed, not something to earn. His love of Chopin is not enough to excuse his horrific parenting, scamming, or felonious behavior. There are various forms of freedom, and Jennifer must discover freedom from someone who has prevented you from being her true self.

Opens in select theaters on August 20, 2021

WATCH THE TRAILER


FORD V FERRARI (2019)

November 19, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. 7000 RPM. Racing legend Carroll Shelby describes that as the moment of racing bliss in the opening of the film. We are reminded of early test pilots breaking the sound barrier, or explorers reaching the peak of Mt. Everest. What follows is two-and-a-half hours of history, rivalries, egos, and sport. The racing scenes are exhilarating, and the men are driven by testosterone and compelled to be the best. They are throwbacks to a different era. An era that wasn’t about fairness and feelings, but of determination and focus that produced results – either success or failure. There were winners and losers, and the ceremonies awarded no participation ribbons.

Who are these men? They are Carroll Shelby, Ken Miles, Henry Ford II, and Enzo Ferrari. Director James Mangold (LOGAN, WALK THE LINE) takes the 1966 24 Hours of Le Mans and turns it into a rivalry between car makers, a friendship between racing icons, a look at corporate buffoonery that still exists today, and an old-fashioned movie that is fun to watch … regardless of whether you know the first thing about racing or cars.

Matt Damon plays Carroll Shelby, the war veteran race driver-turned-designer hired to push Ford racing into world class status. Shelby is an industry icon who won the 1959 Le Mans before retiring due to a heart condition. He then founded and ran Shelby-American for designing and improving cars. He wore cowboy hats that were only eclipsed in size by his bravura in most situations. Christian Bale plays legendary driver Ken Miles, another war veteran and bombastic friend of Shelby, who can best be described as a race car savant. Contrary to the film’s title, the story belongs to these two men, and the film belongs to these two actors.

Co-writers Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth, and Jason Keller take some liberties with the script and bend a few historical details to make the parts fit a Hollywood production … but for the most part, the story is pretty accurate. Just a few years after the Edsel fiasco, Henry Ford II is agitated at the state of Ford Motor Company, and after a bitter and personally insulting failed buyout of Ferrari, Mr. Ford (played with proper arrogance by Tracy Letts) decides to engage in motor-measuring with the Italian company run by Enzo Ferrari (Remo Girone). He hires Shelby to elevate Ford racing to elite status with one main goal – beating Ferrari at Le Mans. Shelby’s cocksure approach manages to keep Miles onboard despite the internal battles with Ford executives, especially Leo Beebe (a smarmy Josh Lucas). Beebe doesn’t see Miles as “a Ford man”, and in what is all too common in corporate life, prefers style over substance.

The film could have easily been titled Corporate vs Cars. Although the Henry Ford vs Enzo Ferrari segment is quite entertaining, most of the time is spent with Shelby and Miles trying to reach their dream while negotiating corporate obstacles. These two men have a love for racing and each other – in an old school, manly-respect kind of way. They are simpatico in their quest for the perfect car, and as Miles explains to his son (Noah Jupe) in a terrific scene, the perfect lap.

Additional supporting roles include Jon Bernthal as young visionary Lee Iacocca (who died earlier this year), Caitriona Balfe as Miles’ supportive wife, and Ray McKinnon as Phil Remington, the lead engineer on Shelby’s team. Of course, Iacocca went on to become Chairman of Chrysler, where he brought in Shelby to consult on the Dodge Viper, among other models. Supposedly Le Mans racing legend and 6-time winner Jackie Ickx appears in a crowd shot, but I missed it.

There is a stark contrast between the Ferrari factory and the Ford assembly line, but the egos at the top are remarkably similar. A bruised ego lit the fuse for the rivalry, but it was the car guys who made it happen. The racing scenes are adrenaline-packed and the sound in the theatre, combined with Cinematographer Phedon Papamichael (SIDEWAYS, NEBRASKA) close-ups inside the car, allow us to feel the rumble and vibration and speed sensation inside the Ford GT40. Damon and Bale are terrific. Damon struts with Shelby’s confidence, and Bale (after a huge weight loss from his role as Dick Cheney in VICE) captures the cantankerous genius of Miles – plus seeing his yell at other drivers during races is hilarious. There is a comical rumble between Miles and Shelby that will remind no one of Batman and Jason Bourne, but as difficult as it is to make popping a clutch exciting on the big screen, Mangold’s team comes through.

watch the trailer: