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Telluride 2019: Ford v. Ferrari, Uncut Gems, Marriage Story

It’s warmer than usual at this year’s Telluride Film Festival, which kicked off for the 46th time on a distinctly muscular note on Friday with the world premiere of James Mangold’s “Ford v Ferrari,” a '60s-set adrenaline rusher with top-shelf technical craftsmanship. The ever-versatile filmmaker Mangold has tried his creative hand at many a genre; from Westerns (“3:10 to Yuma”) and musical biopics (“Walk the Line”), to rom-coms (“Kate & Leopold”), superhero films (“Logan”) and beyond. In “Ford v Ferrari,” which tells the true story of Ford Motor Company’s building of an unassailable race car to take on Ferrari at “24 Hours of Le Mans,” the world’s oldest and most prestigious sports car race, he pulls from his diverse chops in heaps and delivers something both old-school-Hollywood and state-of-the-art, with deafening sound design, brisk editing and Phedon Papamichael’s often sun-baked, knee-weakening lensing being the real stars.

At the heart of the film is a bromance between the legendary car designer Caroll Shelby (Matt Damon, at ease with his character’s confidence) and hotheaded, wisecracking driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale, heavily accented and humorously arrogant). The former is a poised and polished artist and engineer, hired by Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) to beat Ferrari and bring the company’s young vision to life for competitive survival. The latter is an often-curt war veteran and not quite the wholesome image Ford would like to wear on its sleeve. But convincing the corporation’s hotshots that Miles is the only man who can drive the brand-new roaring machine, the duo embark on a classic sports movie journey where male egos get bruised to a sometimes-laughable extent (the whole Hollywood-ized ordeal starts because Henry Ford is insecure about being “the second”) and families face the threat of irreparable turmoil.

While it’s instinctive to compare “Ford v Ferrari” to the likes of “Le Mans” or (the far superior) “Rush,” shades of “Apollo 13” and “Rocky” (especially “Rocky IV” with the over-pronounced national pride in Mangold’s movie) seem more visible here, with a story that sees family and father-son dynamics of equal importance as the eventual outcome of the race. Unfortunately, the camaraderie between Shelby and Miles goes underdeveloped in its emotions—the snappy-one-liner-heavy script from Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth and Jason Keller reaches only so deep when it comes to this key relationship. Yet refreshingly, the trio gives Caitriona Balfe’s (overdone but realistic) supportive-wife-at-home character a pair of unforgettable moments; one, involving a fierce case of reckless driving. And the final act at the unforgiving Le Mans tracks alone makes a case for the survival of big-screen entertainment and brings Mangold’s latest to a splendid finish line, at least visually.

Equally fast and furious in this year’s Telluride lineup is “Uncut Gems,” a constantly-on-the-move urban thriller from the New York filmmaking duo Josh and Benny Safdie. Over the years, the brothers have developed a distinguished and recognizable cinematic language, redefining the typical “New York Movie,” or rather, inventing their very own by unearthing overlooked communities and individuals in various corners of the relentless city. The filmmakers’ latest, hinted by a brilliantly double-edged title, is a manic plunge into the city’s Diamond District. While it’s an overused cliché, it wouldn’t be inappropriate to call this thoroughly on-steroids film an edge-of-your-seat experience, as it truly earns the saying. With a serious and surprisingly hectic Adam Sandler in the lead, “Uncut Gems” knowingly agitates one’s senses as soon as the first bloody image from a distant African country takes over the screen, before the story makes a leap to New York City. From this point on, we’re gloriously suffocated in dark alleys, grimy bachelor pads and the florescent-lit backrooms of jewelry stores, which Darius Khondji’s restless camera captures on film, with apt grit and grain.

Co-written by Ronald Bronstein, the Safdies’ latest carries deposits of both “Heaven Knows What” and “Good Time” in the way the risk-taking camera frantically moves with the backdrop of an alarming, electronic score (composed by Daniel Lopatin of “Good Time”) and self-sabotaging characters with poor judgment routinely make bad decisions in moments of severe crisis. And as was the case with “Good Time,” there are traces of noir classics and New York thrillers, too, with “Mean Streets” being among the most fitting comparison points. Here, we follow a semi-neurotic businessman/scammer named Howard Ratner (Sandler). In the midst of a crumbling marriage (his wife is played by a mesmerizing Idina Menzel, who should really be in more movies) and an escalating scheme that involves a valuable stone as his newly acquired precious possession (the opening scene pays off disturbingly), Ratner goes to extremes in trying to keep a predictable tragedy at arm’s length.

But both the longevity of his business and his physical safety get buried deeper in threat, and it wouldn’t be a spoiler to say the inevitable eventually arrives, though perhaps more violently and shockingly than anyone could imagine. Dark, disturbing and gloriously rich on cultural details—especially in portraying Ratner’s Jewish background and customs—“Uncut Gems” is easily among this year’s best titles in the festival line-up, with well-conceived side characters (played by the likes of LaKeith Stanfield and Kevin Garnett portraying himself) as memorable as Sandler in a demanding, career-best performance.

Another career-best comes from writer/director Noah Baumbach in the form of “Marriage Story,” his masterpiece that made the long, strenuous trip from Venice, Italy to the mountains of Colorado over the weekend. Paired with an Adam Driver tribute award at the festival, “Marriage Story” already left a deeply poignant mark as a near-definitive relationship and divorce drama, akin to Robert Benton's “Kramer vs. Kramer” and Ingmar Bergman’s timeless “Scenes from a Marriage.” If Baumbach has scratched the surface of maturing romantic relationships before with “The Squid and the Whale” and “While We Were Young,” he peels off their skin here, exposing all the flesh-and-blood secrets of coupledom, painful and joyous. In the midst of your laughter and tears (they will be well-earned), you will wonder if someone had secretly eavesdropped in your bedroom that you share with your significant other and somehow possessed the power of seeing through your unspoken thoughts. How else could a movie throw such accurate wisdoms at your face, casually identifying that “everything is like everything else in a relationship” (sex and conversation for instance) or comparing the demise of a marriage to death; to a funeral without a body?

But this is what the best of movies do; they see us as we truly are. In “Marriage Story” the two parts of the we are Nicole and Charlie, played by Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver, both at the height of their craft in bringing to life a couple once in love, now in rapid decline. They are New York creatives: an actor who gave up her feasible Hollywood dreams and an on-the-rise avant-garde theater director, respectively. They have a young son, whose cross-country custody battle would soon briefly dehumanize the pair’s vision of each other. But they had been in-synch once; we hear all the reasons why and how they became a “we” in a joyous opening. And it’s all been in the details: she knows how to buy and wrap a good present. She knows how to listen and make people feel at ease. He keeps things in order. He is a great father. He saves energy and turns the lights off. (If you are married, or tied in an otherwise committed bond, I dare you to watch this sequence and not draw similarities to your own relationship.)

It’s tough to do justice to “Marriage Story,” hilarious and heartbreaking in equal measure, in capsule form. But suffice to say that this is perhaps the most compassionate and smart film I’ve seen on marriage and divorce, elevated by Randy Newman’s heartbreaking score, and precise craftsmanship that approaches lengthy monologues, interior spaces, and the visual contrast between LA and NYC with the majesty and precision that they require. Between Laura Dern’s feisty LA attorney (facing lawyers played by a kindly Alan Alda and ruthless Ray Liotta) and Julie Hagerty’s pitch-perfect free-spirited mother, the joys, grace notes and riches of Baumbach’s latest are endless. But its greatest triumph is its generosity in refusing to leave you shattered in pieces, even after putting you through an exquisitely written and acted scene of marital strife. Sometimes, you say the most hurtful, even shameful things in the heat of the moment. But being alive means learning to move on, with bruised heart and spirit still intact.

Tomris Laffly

Tomris Laffly is a freelance film writer and critic based in New York. A member of the New York Film Critics Circle (NYFCC), she regularly contributes to, Variety and Time Out New York, with bylines in Filmmaker Magazine, Film Journal International, Vulture, The Playlist and The Wrap, among other outlets.

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