Christian Bale

Le Mans ’66

20/11/19

It’s strange the way cinema can reel you in to subjects that would normally leave you as cold as the proverbial stone. To me, the idea of watching a real-life 24-hour sports car endurance race rates only slightly higher than listening to the collected speeches of Nigel Farage. But Le Mans ’66 actually manages to engage me – indeed, in places, it has me perched on the edge of my seat, holding my breath and crossing my fingers.

This based-on-real-events movie, scripted by Jez Butterworth (among others) and directed by James Mangold, focuses on the rivalry between the Ford Motor Company and Ferrari in the mid 1960s. It culminates in the famous racing event of the title. (In America, the film is known as Ford vs Ferrari, which – to my mind – feels much more on the button, but we’ll let that one go.)

Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) is a former racing driver, reluctantly forced to seek out a  safer occupation (sports car salesman) because of a dangerous heart condition. He is close friends with another driver, Ken Miles (Christian Bale), a cantankerous, tea-swilling Brummie, who – once behind the wheel of a motor car – transforms into an invincible force. Meanwhile, Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) is fed up with his cars being regarded as dull. He starts to think about taking on Enzo Ferrari (Remo Girone) at the sport the latter dominates, with particular regard to the world’s most gruelling race, Le Mans. Shelby is approached to helm the project, but his choice of Miles as his head driver ruffles a few feathers, not least those belonging to Leo Beebe (Josh Miles), a character so oleaginous, he virtually leaves a trail of slime behind him.

The titular racing event beckons, but there’s a lot of work to be done before Shelby and Miles can even get to the starting line, and most of their problems originate from the interfence of  ‘The Suits’ who run Ford.

There are plenty of things in this film’s favour – not least a dazzling turn from Bale, who offers us one of the few truly sympathetic characters in this story. Damon gets the trickier role as the man who has to bottle up his raging inner demons as he tries to maintain the status quo between Miles and his image-obsessed employers. This is the 1960s and it’s still very much a man’s world, so there’s some major league dick-swinging going on from most of the players. Catriona Balfe is therefore a welcome presence as Miles’ wife, Mollie, and young Noah Jupe offers yet another lovely performance as his hero-worshipping son, Peter. But there are perhaps too many scenes where male characters in business suits stubbornly assert themselves, because… well, because they think they know best.

And… with a running time of two hours and thirty-two minutes, it’s hard to prevent the motor racing sequences from feeling a little bit like an endurance test for the audience. It doesn’t matter how brilliantly they are filmed – and trust me, they are – it’s sobering to emerge from the lengthy onslaught of Daytona ’66 only to realise that the film still hasn’t reached the climactic event after which it’s been named. How much punchier would this be if the running time came in at under two hours?

Still, petrolheads are going to have an absolute field day here – and a quick Google search assures me that the catalogue of awful decisions that are arbitarily thrown at Ken Miles really did happen as depicted here. Little wonder he was so cantankerous!

And, if a committed pedestrian like me can emerge from Le Mans ’66 feeling entertained, I’m pretty sure that plenty of others will too.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney

Vice

16/01/19

Those people who look at the current political landscape in America and despairingly ask themselves, ‘How could this ever have come to pass?’ should pop along to a showing of Vice at their earliest opportunity, where all will be explained. This is the story of how a taciturn bit-player in American politics cleverly advanced himself into a position of unprecedented authority, becoming the power behind the throne in the administration of George W Bush, and ushering in the kind of rampant corruption that would reach its apotheosis under the tiny thumb of one Mr Trump.

When we first meet Dick Cheney (Christian Bale), he’s a hopeless case: a University dropout with a drink problem, taking menial work to make ends meet. After a confrontation with his long-suffering wife, Lynne (Amy Adams), he vows to straighten himself out and enrols in a political internship, where he finds himself assigned to Republican congressman, Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell in his by-now-habitual good form). Largely by nodding his head a lot and saying very little, Cheney’s career progresses in leaps and bounds – and, when he finally has the chance to play Vice President to the very naive George W Bush (Sam Rockwell), he spots an opportunity to seize the kind of power normally reserved for the President himself.

Adam McKay’s film certainly has the potential to be yet another dull political biopic in the mould of The Front Runner, but it’s lifted way above this level by the playful nature of the storytelling. Whenever there’s any danger of events beginning to drag, McKay has a way of enervating proceedings – a Shakespearian parody here, a sly aside to the camera there – and the repeated analogy of Cheney’s skills as a fisherman are brilliantly exploited as we watch him quietly reeling the next sucker into his control. (When the sucker in question is the President of the USA, it’s particularly chilling.)

There’s also an inspired device where everyman narrator Kurt (Jessie Plemons) keeps popping up to offer his insights into what’s happening, informing us that he and Cheney are somehow ‘related,’ a mystery that’s finally explained in a moment so shocking it nearly has me leaping out of my cinema seat.

Of course, I can’t review this film without mentioning Bale’s Oscar-nominated performance in the lead role. We may be a little jaded by his insistence on physically occupying his chosen subjects, but theres no doubting the fact that he has once again achieved a stunning transformation, as shocking in its own way as what he did to his body in The Machinist. But it’s more than just the look. Bale conveys the character’s traits in every shrug, every grimace, every sly glance – and remember, he’s impersonating a character who’s so impassive there’s very little to work with. It’s a superb central performance in a very assured film.

Make sure you don’t leave the cinema too early – there’s an amusing post-credits sequence that brings matters bang up to date. I emerge feeling as though my eyes have been well and truly opened – and uncomfortably aware that the double meaning of the film’s title is all too apparent.

4.8 stars

Philip Caveney

Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle

20/12/18

You have to feel a little bit sorry for Andy Serkis. This film was his brainchild and he worked on it for something like five years, only to find himself pipped at the post by Jon Favreau’s (admittedly, impressive) live action Jungle Book, made for Disney. After that, the projected release dates for Mowgli were repeatedly pushed back by Warner Brothers, who clearly believed the public wasn’t quite ready for yet another version of such a familiar tale – and then, of course, along came Netflix, waving a chequebook and everything changed.

The first thing to say about Serkis’s film is that it’s a much darker and more feral beast than either of the Disney incarnations. This has a 12 certificate, so those parents thinking of sitting their toddlers down in front of it while they get on with the Christmas dinner might want to think twice. Screenwriter Callie Kloves, for the most part, sticks closely to Rudyard Kipling’s original short stories, so within a few minutes of the film’s opening I’ve witnessed the slaughter of Mowgli’s parents by man-eating tiger, Shere Kahn (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch), a scene that little children may find too red in tooth and claw for comfort. Kipling’s story was always a brutal one, reflecting the abandonment he felt as a youngster when his parents left him in the care of ruthless guardians while they headed back to India, and this film reflects that wildness.

Baby Mowgli grows up to be young Mowgli (Rohan Chand), who lives with wolves headed by Akela (Peter Mullan), but he never feels as though he’s a full member of the pack. As he grows, he is tutored by good-natured bear, Baloo (Andy Serkis, and by stern black panther, Bagheera (Christian Bale), both of whom try to teach him the basic laws of the jungle. (Happily they achieve this without ever bursting into song, something that Favreau’s version couldn’t quite resist.) Meanwhile, Mowgli can’t help casting an enquiring eye in the direction of the ever-encroaching humans, who day-by-day are venturing closer to the wolves’ hideout.

It’s when Mowgli visits the human’s village that the biggest changes to the original story occur. The presence of big game hunter, Lockwood (Matthew Rhys), is clearly intended to be a comment on white imperialism (though why it was decided to give this character the same name as Kipling’s father remains an enigma). Lockwood gives the impression of being a benevolent saviour, always ready to hand out gifts to the local villagers, but his home is full of grisly hunting trophies, one of which provides the film with its most poignant moment. Ultimately, Mowgli learns that while he isn’t an animal, he isn’t exactly a human either. He must somehow be the bridge that unites the different species and the only way to achieve this aim is for him to take on his greatest foe.

Once again, here’s a Netflix Original that really deserves to be seen on the biggest screen available. There are lush landscapes, stunning aerial shots and dramatic chases. The animal characterisations are particularly interesting, eschewing the photo-realistic approach of Favreau’s effort in favour of more stylised creatures that really do reflect the expressions of the actors that play them. Cate Blanchett as Kaa, the snake? She’s right there and, weirdly, you can tell it’s her.

Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle is a remarkable creation in its own right and one that deserves to exist proudly alongside those earlier screen versions of Kipling’s classic tale. But be warned, this has teeth and isn’t afraid to use them.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney   

Howl’s Moving Castle

12/04/18

We had thought that the final film in the Cameo Cinema’s Studio Ghibli season had eluded us – but, luckily for us, they have scheduled a Thursday lunchtime screening of Howl’s Moving Castle and I’m delighted they have, because this is surely something that deserves to be viewed on the big screen. For its sheer visual impressiveness, it’s certainly the best-looking film of the season. Based on Diana Wynne Jones’ 1986 novel, Hayao Mizayaki’s sumptuous animation creates a stunning, steam-punk flavoured world, that contrasts charming Victorian imagery with futuristic depictions of flying machines and the horrors of warfare. Unlike the earlier films in the season, the version we see is dubbed and voiced by Western actors, but hey, you can’t have everything.

Eighteen year old Sophie (Emily Mortimer) is a shy, unassuming girl, who works in her late father’s hat shop. She’s always thought of herself as plain and listens enviously as the local women discuss the mysterious Howl (Christian Bale), a powerful (and devilishly handsome)  magician who dwells in the eponymous moving castle. It is said that if he falls for a beautiful woman, he will devour her heart – so Sophie assumes herself safe from his predations. But then she does have an encounter with him and, shortly afterwards, is cursed by one of his rivals, the Witch of the Waste (Lauren Bacall), who transforms her into an old woman. Desperate to find a cure for her condition, Sophie heads into the Wasteland, hoping she will find a wizard powerful enough to help her, but meets up instead, with a very helpful scarecrow. Pretty soon, she finds herself taking refuge in the moving castle itself, employed as a cleaner and constantly having to tend to wisecracking fire demon, Calcifer (Billy Crystal), who manages the travelling building and makes sure that everything runs smoothly for Howl.

As I said, the world-building here is absolutely spectacular, encompassing scenes that will make you gasp at the sheer beauty and ingenuity displayed on the screen. Rather less convincing is the needlessly complicated storyline, which is at times hard to follow. I am also less enthusiastic about the fact that Sophie’s age changes from scene-to-scene (the older Sophie is voiced by veteran actress, Jean Simmons); though this is, at first, an intriguing move, it eventually seems to lack a consistent logic – why is she young in this scene? And old in this one? And… middle-aged here?

However, the  sheer splendour and invention of the film overpower me in the end. It’s an extraordinary achievement and, up on the big screen, it glows like a collection of precious jewels.

4.5 stars

Philip Caveney

Hostiles

05/01/18

It’s often been said that, in times of political uncertainty, Hollywood revisits the Western – and it’s certainly true that this once moribund genre has recently enjoyed a bit of a renaissance, not least through Netflix’s superb series, Godless, which offers a refreshingly feminist view on the subject. Scott Cooper’s bleak and savage vision of the Old West seems designed primarily to remind us what an unpleasant era it was in which to eke an existence. Which is not to say that it isn’t a fascinating film. It is – even if it occasionally makes for uncomfortable viewing.

The film starts in New Mexico in 1892, towards the end of the infamous ‘Indian Wars.’ Captain Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale), a seasoned cavalry officer, finds himself presented with an assignment he really doesn’t relish. He is to escort his old adversary, a captive Cheyenne warrior called Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi), to Montana. The old man is stricken with cancer and wants to return to his ancestral burial grounds to end his life. Blocker makes no secret of the fact that he hates Yellow Hawk and has no intention of burying an axe unless it’s in the back of the old man’s head, but the US President has decreed that he must fulfil his obligations, so he rounds up a detachment of men and sets off on the long and arduous journey. (Watch out for a cameo role from young Timothee Chalomet currently being talked up as a potential  Oscar contender for his role in  Call Me By Your Name.)

Soon, Blocker and his men stumble across a harrowing tragedy in the shape of Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike), who has just witnessed her entire family being massacred by a Comanche war party. Blocker has no option but to take the widow along for the ride, hoping that he can drop her off somewhere safe along the way… but as the journey progresses and a series of disasters unfold, it becomes clear that Blocker and Quaid’s  lives are to become inextricably entangled.

Cooper paints an unpleasant picture of the West: a world where gunfire and rape seem to lurk around every corner; where most of Cooper’s men are suffering from what was then called ‘the melancholy’ but which we now label as PTSD; where irrational hatred begets ever more hatred; and where women are seen as a commodity to be taken and used at any man’s whim. Bale is excellent in the central role, managing to convey his internal agony with little more than a look and a shrug – whilst Pike, whose character goes through a living hell in this film, is also memorable.

More than anything else though, the film serves as a comment on what’s happening in Trump’s America right now. It helps you to understand the entrenched Republican values that makes Americans so resolute on the right to bear arms – and why the country is inevitably heading for such devastating sorrows.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

The Big Short

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31/01/15

Another day, another Oscar nominated film. The Big Short appears to be a lot of people’s favourite to lift the best movie gong this year and it’s certainly accomplished. It takes a long hard look at one of the most shameful periods of recent American history – the years leading up to the American housing crisis and the subsequent crash of Wall Street’s biggest banks. More specifically, it homes in those individuals who saw the crash coming and made millions by betting that it would happen.

The first person to spot the looming bubble is Michael Burry (Christian Bale) an autistic Capital Hedge Fund Manager, who invests heavily on what he believes is a certainty. Others soon follow suit, including Mark Baum (Steve Carell) whose own self-loathing makes it difficult for him to exploit the opportunity, but he does it anyway, mostly at the behest of wheeler-dealer Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling). There’s even a couple of enterprising kids who want to have a punt and who call on ex-trader Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt) to get them into the game. The witty script does a great job of explaining complicated (and it must be said, quite boring) financial manoeuvres in a way that everyone can understand and I liked the way that characters often break off in mid conversation, in order to talk directly to the camera. But if there’s a major problem with the film, it’s this – it’s very hard to root for characters who are self-serving assholes looking to make their fortunes from the misfortunes of ordinary people. OK, I appreciate these are the nearest to ‘good guys’ we’ll find in this story, but they only seem reasonable because the bankers they’re up against are so utterly and irredeemably despicable. And if that concept rankles, then this may not be the film for you.

When the crash eventually comes, the fallout is terrible, but even worse is the fact that the guilty parties don’t go to gaol, as they clearly should, but instead pay themselves massive bonuses and then look for other ways to exploit their customers. The Big Short is doubtless an important film and one that hits its intended targets with ease, but it’s also a hard film to like. For the big prize, I’d love to see Mad Max: Fury Road (unlikely) or The Revenant take the best movie gong. Could The Big Short be the one to win it? Get your bets in now, before the odds begin to shorten.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

Exodus: Gods and Kings

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30/12/14

Ridley Scott is perhaps the closest thing we have to a director of the stature of David Lean. Unabashedly old school he is never happier than when commanding armies of extras on a massive scale, so perhaps it was inevitable that he would eventually take on a biblical subject – the story of Moses. Here, the great man is played by a scowling Christian Bale who at the beginning of the film is fighting the Hitites alongside his ‘bessie mate’ Ramses (Joel Edgerton.) But when Ramses becomes pharaoh, word gets out that Moses is actually an adopted hebrew, a fact that gets him banished from Egypt and sent back to join ‘his people’ where before very long he is instructing them to seek their freedom.

There has already been some controversy about this film which features two caucasian actors in the lead roles and Scott’s reply (that it was all about getting funding and who would pay to see Mohammed Whatever in the lead role?) was understandably badly received, but I’m going to put that matter aside and concentrate on what’s on the screen, which really is a great big curate’s egg of a film. This being a Ridley Scott production, there are scenes of incredible cinematic splendour – the construction of the pyramids is amazing, the Plagues of Egypt are particularly jaw-dropping and the climactic parting of the waves is nail-biting stuff – but along the way we have to endure too many turgid scenes of people standing around in temples talking in (suspiciously contemporary terms) about fairly boring subjects. And one has to wonder why Scott bothered to engage the services of Sigourney Weaver when he wasn’t going to bother to give her anything to say. What I did like was the daring treatment of many of the accepted fantastical elements of Moses’ story. The parting of the waves is quite clearly a tsunami, we see Moses himself carving the ten commandments onto stone tablets and most contentious of all, ‘God’ is depicted as a scruffy kid with a bad haircut. Some will hate this, but what was the alternative? A white haired, bearded old geezer speaking in a stentorian voice? A bit too Life of Brian, methinks.

in the end, Scott does it his way and God help anyone who stands in his path. Overall, I enjoyed this, but those slow lengthy passages dragged down the final score somewhat. One thing is clear. When it comes to epic cinema, nobody else comes close to the majesty that is Ridley Scott. On a sad note, the film is dedicated to his brother, Tony, who took his own life in 2012.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney