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CHARLIE’S ANGELS

Producer: Elizabeth Banks, Doug Belgrad, Elizabeth Cantillon and Max Handelman
Director: Elizabeth Banks
Writer: Elizabeth Banks
Stars: Kristen Stewart, Naomi Scott, Ella Balinska, Elizabeth Banks, Patrick Stewart, Djimon Hounsou, Sam Claflin, Noah Centineo, Jonathan Tucker, Nat Faxon, Chris Pang and Luis Gerardo Mendez
Studio: Sony Entertainment/Columbia Pictures

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Did we really need another iteration of “Charlie’s Angels”? The original ABC series about a trio of gorgeous female detectives might have been thoroughly brainless, but it ran from 1976 to 1981, made Farrah Fawcett a star, and left behind a recognizable title and a high-concept premise that could easily be recycled. So it’s hardly surprising that in the early 2000s, when Hollywood studios were busily unearthing old TV shows for feature treatment, two “Angel” movies starring Drew Barrymore, Cameron Diaz and Lucy Liu were produced and drew sizable audiences. An abortive effort to reboot “Angels” as a TV series in 2011 bombed, but the title was still out there for reclamation.

Now Elizabeth Banks has taken up the challenge of remolding a concept that frankly reeks of seventies jiggle for the “Me Too” era. She does so in words—one of the Angels actually says “Girls can do anything”—and by making the three kick-ass types who take no guff from anybody and prove up to handling every dangerous situation. That’s made immediately evident in a prologue in which Sabina Wilson (Kristen Stewart) and her cohorts, overseen by their handler John Bosley (Patrick Stewart, no relation)—one of a number of Bosleys with different Angel teams–bag notorious smuggler Jonny (Chris Pang) and his minions. Banks also populates the picture with a stream of other self-sufficient girls and women.

But Banks also, perhaps inevitably, succumbs to cliché. The major driver of the plot is that there’s a mole in the organization undermining the Angels’ mission. Who could it be? That hokey device is conjoined with another one—the newbie who has to get on-the-job training as the team goes through its paces in unmasking the villain and retrieving the MacGuffin at the center of things.

That MacGuffin is the Calisto, a Rubik’s Cube-style piece of technology developed by a company headed by Alexander Brock (Sam Claflin). The device can somehow generate clean energy, but engineer Elena Houghlin (Naomi Scott) has discovered that it can also be programmed as a terrible weapon. When she tries to inform Brock of that, she’s put off by her R&D superior Peter Fleming (Nat Faxon), a sleazy sort who’s out to sell it himself.

That leads to Elena trying to get a warning out via the Angels organization, which leads to her—and a Bosley (Djimon Hounsou)—being targeted by a Terminator-like assassin named Hodak (Jonathan Tucker). Elena is saved by Angel Jane Kano (Ella Balinska), now partnered with Sabina under the leadership of Rebekah Bosley (Banks), the replacement Bosley for John, who’s retired.

Elena joins Sabina and Jane to infiltrate the Brock lab and steal the Calisto prototypes, but they are too late: Fleming has gone off with them to Istanbul, where the Angels now repair to retrieve them. In a melee at a rock quarry they again fail, but survive further attacks to confront and defeat the villains at a lavish party Brock is hosting in his massive villa. A postscript shows Elena in training to become a full-fledged Angel—clearly opening the way for a sequel.

While including everything expected in a modern action adventure—protracted (indeed, overly so) combat sequences, absurd escapes and lots of jokes and swagger—Banks takes pains to add a feminist vibe to it all, especially via the characters of Sabina and Jane, whom Kristen Stewart and Balinska strive to give the necessary dash and sass. Scott, on the other hand, tries to bring an Anna Kendrick-like sense of bumptious naiveté to fluttery Elena, while Banks, perhaps preoccupied with her directing chores, makes a bland Bosley.

By contrast Patrick Stewart is his usual pompous, stentorian self, and while a couple of the males in the cast—Luis Gerardo Méndez as the Angels’ multi-tasking resident housemother and Noah Centineo as Langston, Elena’s assistant at Brock—are engagingly laid-back, most of the others are pretty nasty specimens, especially Tucker’s Hodak, who might remind you of Robert Patrick’s Terminator single-mindedly targeted on John Connor.

The craft credits are fine, given that this female-centered action movie wasn’t given the huge budget those with male casts get: under the circumstances, Aaron Haye’s production design, Bill Pope’s cinematography, and especially Kym Barrett’s glitzy costumes make for tasty eye candy. Editors Alan Baumgarten and Mary Jo Markey could have trimmed a bit from the two-hour running-time without loss (the action sequences seem to go on forever), and Brian Tyler’s music is generic.

So in answer to the original question, no, we didn’t need another “Charlie’s Angels.” Banks has tried to give the tired old property a different spin, but in the end the movie is just typical action fare, and the gender of the heroes isn’t enough to save it.

FORD V FERRARI

Producer: Peter Chernin, Jenno Topping and James Mangold
Director: James Mangold
Writer: Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth and Jason Keller
Stars: Matt Damon, Christian Bale, Jon Bernthal, Caitriona Balfe, Tracy Letts, John Lucas, Noah Jupe, Remo Girone, Ray McKinn on, JJ Field and Jack McMullen
Studio: 20th Century Fox

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In a sense the title of James Mangold’s film is oddly reflective of its quality as well as its subject. “Ford v Ferrari” has the spit and polish of a top-of-the-line sports car from a technical perspective, but in dramatic terms it’s more like a conventional model that’s just rolled off an assembly line.

The background is the competition that erupted between Italian luxury sports car manufacturer Enzo Ferrari (Remo Girone, appropriately gruff) and American auto titan Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts, channeling the American character actor Edward Andrews in full tyrannical mode) in 1963, when Ferrari, pressed by financial difficulties, spurned a purchase offer from Ford and his up-and-coming VP Lee Iacocca (John Bernthal, bland) and entered a merger with Fiat, insulting Ford in the process. Furious, the American determined to undertake a crash program to create a car that would win the French Le Mans, humiliating Ferrari, whose hand-crafted beauties seemed invincible. The result would eventually be the Ford GT40.

But realizing Ford’s obsession was a difficult road. Iacocca hired Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), the owner of innovative Shelby Automobiles and himself a former driver who had won Le Mans in 1959 in an Aston Marti but been forced to retire because of heart trouble, to head the effort. Shelby put his team to work and selected Ken Miles (Christian Bale), a Brit who was an old friend but a hothead, as his preferred driver, but Ford and his minions saw Miles as not having an image suitable to the company, and initially resisted using him—until his skill on the track proved indispensable to the project.

That’s the overarching trajectory of the plot, at least as told (with some license) here, but the emphasis is actually on the volatile friendship between the more practical, accommodating Shelby and the perfectionist, rebellious Miles. Damon and Bale play these characters to the hilt, with the former giving Carroll a deep-southern-drawl and let’s-get-along manner that conceal a spine of steel, and the latter endowing Ken with a spiky, take-no-prisoners air that doesn’t even subside in his relations with his steely wife Mollie (Caitrona Balfe) and adoring son Peter (Noah Jupe). The combination of occasional confrontation—even roughhousing—and mutual admiration that ensures they’ll ultimately have each other’s back that the actors bring to their scenes together is satisfying enough, even if it often seems dramatically contrived.

The supporting cast—apart from Letts, who seems to be having a high time, is less impressive. While Bernthal is merely forgettable, Josh Lucas is positively irritating as Leo Beebe, the villain of the piece, who encourages his boss Ford to undercut Shelby and Miles at every turn, including at the end of the final race, when Miles is effectively robbed of the triumph he’s earned to score PR points. (That’s Lucas’ job, of course, but he’s too much of a buttoned-down milquetoast to make you want to boo him.) Ray McKinnon does a nice job as the head of Shelby’s engineering staff and pit crew.

For many, of course, the raison d’être of the movie will be the racing sequences, and the crafts team pulls them off without being able to give them the excitement and sense of imminent danger they would ideally have. (Knowing how things wind up in historical terms and how them must in dramatic ones doesn’t help.) Still, the action is well captured by cinematographer Phedon Papamichael, and editors Michael McCusker and Andrew Buckland handle things spiritedly, even if at two-and-a-half hours the movie seems to be aiming for an epic feel it never earns. The visual effects supervised by Olivier Dumont, which clearly play a big role here, are fine if not always completely convincing, and the musical score by Marco Beltrami and Buck Sanders does its job in pumping up the action.

What we’re left with is a David vs. Goliath—or more accurately Goliath vs. Goliath—story that in the end comes down to a tale of personal friendship that Mangold handles competently but unimaginatively. When Gerald Ford assumed the presidency after Richard Nixon’s resignation, he memorably said that he was “a Ford, not a Lincoln,” referring to Ford’s luxury car. Mangold’s movie can be described as a cinematic Ford—and not a GT40—rather than a Ferrari.

But at least it’s not—to cite another of Henry Ford II’s projects—an Edsel.