James Mangold

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

Logan

03/03/17

Like many other cinema-goers, I’m getting close to superhero overload. Much as I enjoyed the output of Marvel and DC in my comic-reading childhood, the plethora of recent movie adaptations is starting to feel oppressive. But the trailer for Logan suggests that writer/director James Mangold’s take on the X-Men saga has something fresh to offer, so I resolve to give it a chance. And it’s largely a good call.

Unlike most other superheroes, Logan – or Wolverine to use his stage name – has only ever been portrayed by one actor, Hugh Jackman. Here, the term ‘super’ hardly applies because we see him towards the end of his career, a battle-scarred, embittered survivor, addicted to alcohol and prescription drugs and barely holding down a job as a stretch limo chauffeur. (A scene where he is called upon to drive a rowdy hen party is particularly effective – has it really come to this?)

Oh sure, he can still sprout a set of quality steak knives from his knuckles when circumstances dictate it but even this causes him considerable pain. His old mentor, Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) is also in a bad way, semi-senile and afflicted by violent fits that cause all manner of problems (and not just for him). The two former X-Men live in a secret desert hideaway, tended by their albino mutant servant, Caliban (Stephen Merchant making a credible stab at a sort-of straight role). Caliban’s super power is that he has a highly developed sense of smell, which let’s face it, as super powers go is somewhat underwhelming, but he’s also a dab hand with an electric iron, which means that Logan always has a clean, pressed shirt to wear for work.

Things get complicated when Logan is introduced to Laura (Dafne Keen) a child who has been transformed by evil scientist, Dr Rice (Richard E. Grant), using genetic surgery so that she’s now a chip off the old adamantium block, with all the same skills as Wolverine and a tendency to kick off at the least provocation. She is, in the weirdest possible way, Logan’s daughter. It turns out that there’s a whole bunch of genetically modified kids on the run and Dr Rice and an army of gun-wieldng henchmen are determined to recapture them. Bred originally as super-soldiers, they have proved to be failures (too ‘human’) and now need to be eliminated. Logan has little option but to lend them his support.

Much running, leaping and fighting ensues. Logan’s habit of shish-kebabbing the heads of his enemies is particularly grisly and the film occasionally hangs on to its 15 certificate by the skin of its teeth, but the various chases and skirmishes are skilfully devised and genuinely exciting, even if it feels as though the film would benefit from being twenty minutes shorter. Like most movies of the genre, it also features a plot hole the size of Sumatra. If Dr Rice is such a genius, why hasn’t he realised that sending in a hundred men armed with conventional weapons isn’t the best way to go when a single adamantium bullet would stop Logan in his tracks once and for all? But that, I suppose, would be a very short and very unsatisfying story.

As it stands, Logan is an effective metaphor for the process of ageing and, in a strange way, an elegy for the superhero concept itself. Mangold has taken some bravura risks with the X-Men format here and they largely pay off, making this one of the most watchable of Marvel’s recent endeavours. I’ve only one real complaint. The trailer uses Johnny Cash’s fabulous version of Hurt by Nine Inch Nails to great effect. As the credits roll on Logan, we’re fobbed off with a different and far less appropriate Cash song and this feels like a bit of a missed opportunity.

But musical misgivings aside, this is well worth your time and money.

4 stars

Philip Caveney