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Posts Tagged ‘James Mangold’

We seem to be going through a period notable for an unusual number of a films supposedly based on true events, and also quite a few for which the paying customer certainly gets their money’s worth (and I’m not even talking about insanely long Argentinian art-house movies which no sane person would contemplate actually watching). These two trends come together for Emmerich’s Midway, and perhaps even more so for James Mangold’s Le Mans ’66 (also trading under the title Ford v Ferrari in some territories). These two films share something else, in that they both seem to be firmly aimed at an unreconstructedly male audience. Fighter pilots! Racing drivers! Can things get any more hetero-normative?

Not that there’s anything wrong with that, I hasten to add. I am guessing that Mangold has been allowed to indulge himself with a two-and-a-half-hour-plus running time more because his last film made over $600 million than on the strength of his track record as a director (which is generally pretty decent, albeit with the occasional significant wobble), but this is – for the most part – one of his more impressive movies.

It must be said that he takes his time setting up all the pieces, though. The film opens in the early 1960s, with the Ford Motor Company experiencing a significant drop in sales. Sales executive Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal) has the idea of making the brand more sexy and alluring by orchestrating a merger with the legendary Italian manufacturer Ferrari, but the wily Italians outmanouevre the American company. In the end the decision is made to boost Ford’s profile by attempting to win the famous endurance race at Le Mans.

To run the new team they recruit Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), a former racing driver and Le Mans winner forced to retire on health grounds. Shelby is a bit dubious about where Ford fully understand just what it is they’re attempting to do, but this is nothing compared to the outright skepticism of the man Shelby brings onto the team as a driver and engineer: Ken Miles (Christian Bale), a fiercely individualistic and contrary British racer.

Development of the new car goes reasonably well, but soon tensions become apparent within the project: Miles views it solely as a racing endeavour, and is his usual uncompromising self, while the suits in the company retain their usual attitude of corporate groupthink and treat it solely as a marketing exercise (which to some extent it is). Shelby finds himself caught in the middle of these clashing worldviews, attempting to reconcile them. And this is before they even go to France…

As noted, this is a film pitching for a certain demographic, concerning as it does motor racing and male friendship (the relationship between Shelby and Miles is at the centre of the film). The only significant female character is Miles’ wife, played by Caitriona Balfe, who to be fair does a good job with the material she’s been given. On the whole the film is quite successful in hitting the targets it sets for itself – the racing sequences are often genuinely thrilling, and the warmth between the two men certainly rings true.

In a sense it kind of reminds me of The Fighter, from 2010 (I qualify this because that’s a film I’ve never actually seen) – Bale was widely acclaimed for the very bold and committed performance he gave in that film, for which he himself gave credit to Mark Wahlberg: without a solid performance at the centre of the movie, Bale wouldn’t have been able to push his own turn quite as far as he did. So it is here as well: Matt Damon, as the world has come to know well, has developed into a very reliable and capable leading man, with impressive chops as both an actor and a movie star. He is on his usual good form here. Bale is also doing his thing to great effect – on this occasion he is almost off the leash as Ken Miles. Never before have I heard the Brummie accent deployed quite so forthrightly in a major studio picture, and Bale finds humour and pathos in his depiction of an immensely talented man who just hasn’t got it in him to play the game in the way he would need to in order to achieve the success he deserves.

Here we come to the crux of the film. You might expect this to turn out to be a fairly grisly 152 minute commercial for Ford Motors – the focus is very much on them, with Ferrari only really touched on despite their prominence in the international title of the film. However, the central conflict isn’t so much Ford against Ferrari as the Ford suits against the drivers and mechanics running the company’s racing team. This is not a very flattering portrayal of Ford management, with the possible exception of Iacocca (that said, for all his prominence in the advertising, Jon Bernthal doesn’t get a lot to do a the film goes on): there’s a real sense in which Ford executives are the bad guys in this film. The message of the film is that individual genius and eccentricity is good, and focus-grouped management-speak group-think is bad.

Well, that would be fine, but I do find the film a little disingenuous on this front. Why is this film called one thing in the UK and another in the US? I am guessing it is because Ford vs Ferrari tested badly with British audiences and has been changed to something perceived to be a bit more appealing. It’s all very well for the film to present itself as being all anti-corporate, but this is just the same as in all those films where stressed out city slickers discover the secret of true happiness is living a quiet bucolic existence out in the countryside. I don’t see many Hollywood studio executives or movie stars chucking it all in to live on a farm, and I imagine we won’t see many Hollywood studios taking the kind of bold risks and employing unpredictable, temperamental talents the way this film suggests motor companies should. It’s just a pose, but I should say the film-makers have cracked how to fake sincerity.very convincingly.

And it is, I should stress, very entertaining stuff, though it feels like many of the best bits have ended up in the various trailers. This is a big, meaty movie, with some good performances, a smart script, and a good sense of time and place. My only real issue with the movie itself is that after being knockabout comedy-drama stuff for the vast majority of its running time, there’s an attempt at a shift in tone right at the very end that feels like it’s trying to edge this film into quality drama territory and potentially turn it into an awards contender. I’m not sure it pulls it off quite well enough, but then I’m not sure it really needs to do something like that anyway. There’s no shame in being a crowd-pleaser, and I think that’s what this will prove to be.

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‘One of the things that prevents superhero stories from ever attaining the status of true modern myths or legends is that they are open ended… You cannot apply [the concept of resolution] to most comic book characters because, in order to meet the commercial demands of a continuing series, they can never have a resolution. Indeed, they find it difficult to embrace any of the changes in life that the passage of time brings about for these very same reasons, making them finally less than fully human as well as falling far short of true myth… Whether [the story of a hero’s end] will actually ever happen in terms of ‘real’ continuity is irrelevant: by providing a fitting and affective capstone to the… legend it makes it just that… a legend rather than an endlessly meandering continuity.’

– Alan Moore, in his proposal for the unmade Twilight of the Superheroes

It’s a little hard to believe that sixteen years have gone by since the first X-Men film made its debut: that’s a fair chunk of time by anyone’s standards, I suspect, and it’s not as if the owners of the property haven’t been busy – six main-sequence films of somewhat variable tone and quality, two spin-offs focusing on the series’ breakout star, Wolverine, inimitably portrayed by Hugh Jackman, and the rather idiosyncratic (and very successful) Deadpool, a kind of comedic deconstruction of the series. But, it seems, even multi-billion dollar franchises must come to an end (or at least a pause prior to a reboot), and so it is with the X-Men.

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Which brings us to Logan, directed by James Mangold, which could be seen as bringing down the curtain on the current series of films with a distinct sense of finality. The film is set in a dystopian America in the late 2020s, where Logan is eking out a rather grim existence, his two hundred years finally catching up with him and his powers (literally) failing. The subspecies homo superior has almost vanished from the Earth – there are, to coin a phrase, no more mutants – the X-Men have gone, and Logan is trying to care for his old mentor Xavier (Patrick Stewart), who is frail and partly senile (and, as you can imagine, when the world’s most powerful telepath is suffering from dementia, it opens up a whole new can of worms). Logan’s objective is to keep a low profile, disappear.

Of course, it’s not that easy, for his path crosses that of a young girl (Dafne Keen), on the run from shadowy military-industrial forces led by Pierce (Boyd Holbrook). It transpires that she is a refugee from a project to clone mutant soldiers, and what’s more, the source of her DNA is Logan himself, making her effectively his clone-daughter. She is heading for a rumoured haven for the few surviving mutants, somewhere in Canada, but she needs a protector…

It’s relatively easy to make a good trailer for any movie, but I think it’s safe to say that expectations for Logan were raised soaringly high by the first trailer for the movie – also known as the one with the Johnny Cash song. The mournful, elegiac tone of the trailer promised a very different, much more introspective kind of superhero movie, and the obvious question is whether Logan lives up to that promise.

Well, there is a Johnny Cash song on the soundtrack, but it’s a different one, and while this is a much more textured and thoughtful movie than the other ones in the series, the thing that immediately makes it distinctive is that it’s a 15-rated movie (R-rated in other countries), presumably because the success of Deadpool (also a 15) has made the producers relax a bit about the prospect of this kind of film. I mentioned this to my sister, with whom I’ve been watching these movies since they started, and she turned rather pale at the prospect – she was quite right, as the fight sequences that punctuate this movie are stuffed with all the graphic stabbings, dismemberments, and beheadings you would expect from an action film about several characters equipped with various razor-sharp claws. This is a ferociously violent film and I’m a little surprised it managed to scrape a 15, to be honest (there are a fair few F-bombings as well).

That said there is some poignancy as well, most of it courtesy of a touching, vanity-free performance from Patrick Stewart as the ailing Professor X. Stewart manages to find the emotion in the story in a way his co-stars mostly don’t, and I’m tempted to say that this just illustrates the difference between a charismatic song-and-dance man and a RSC stalwart. (Also giving a somewhat revelatory performance is Stephen Merchant, playing fifth-string X-Men character Caliban – Merchant finally gets to put his self-styled ‘goggle-eyed freak’ persona to good dramatic use.)

On the whole, however, the story rambles about (this feels like a very long film) without ever quite making the mythic and emotional connections you might hope for. Mangold is clearly interested in the film as a piece of classic Americana – there’s a road-trip through the wide-open spaces, for instance – but his attempts to make it resonate with classic Western themes mostly just result in odd scenes where the characters take a break from the story to sit around and watch clips from Shane. The movie itself is too invested in its own violence for Logan’s self-condemnation as an irredeemably bad man to have any dramatic weight.

Still, at least the ending isn’t just another special-effects-powered clash in a soundstage laboratory or industrial site, and the choice of the final opponent for Logan to take on is an interesting one which they perhaps don’t explore quite enough. Having said that, the climax of the film is so focused on action and the resolution of various bits of plot that it doesn’t really have the emotional impact the script is obviously aiming for – what there is mainly comes from the fact that we’ve followed these characters and actors for so many years and so many films. The fact that it’s actually not very difficult to guess how the film is going to end may not help much, either. Hard to say more without spoilers, of course, whether those spoilers are easily-guessable or not. (By the way: save yourself five minutes and leave at the start of the credits, there’s nothing to wait for.)

Is Logan the movie its initial publicity suggested it might be? Well, no, of course not, but then it’s a rare movie which is as good as its own publicity suggests. Nevertheless, this should not distract from the fact that this is an interestingly bleak and down-to-earth superhero action film, with the usual charismatic performance (or should that be performances…?) from Hugh Jackman, a decently-crafted plot, and some well put-together action scenes. If this is the final film in the current X-Men franchise, then it’s one of the better ones, although there are also glimmers here of a much more interesting film that never quite makes an appearance. As it is, this is certainly a film for adults, but that’s solely because of gory content rather than its theme.

 

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With a concerted effort I have managed to break the Curse of the Vue, which means that this week’s New Cinema Review will cover somewhere totally and utterly new and surprising. Or, to put it another way, another cinema in the same chain as the one I routinely patronise for nine months of the year anyway, for it is another Picturehouse.

Yes, this week I trekked all the way south to the Brixton Ritzy (possibly the highest-scoring movie house in London when it comes to Cinema Scrabble), but the journey was certainly worth it, for this is a lovely place to go and watch films: not only is the biggest auditorium genuinely beautiful to look upon, but the smaller screens aren’t bad either. Best of all, it has its own bar and restaurant for occupying those moments between screenings – all they need is a place to sleep and I can move in. The plumbing facilities are a bit cramped at peak moments but I suppose you can’t have everything. Suffice to say this place is mounting a strong challenge for the title of Best Cinema in Britain.

(And the standard of Code-of-Conduct adherence in Brixton, while not as woeful as in Harrow or Islington, is still pretty bad. Browsing through the Ritzy’s programme I came across the following advert for Autism-Friendly Screenings: ‘During screenings… customers can move around, make noise or take a break.’ I’m not sure why they bother to advertise this as a particular benefit, as it’s what everyone in London seems to do at every screening anyway. Hmmph.)

Onto the first film I watched there: Marvel Comics’ answer to Yosemite Sam makes a proper return to the big screen in The Wolverine. This marks a bit of a moment in superhero movie history, as Hugh Jackman definitely pushes past Christopher Reeve’s record to become the first actor to play the same superhero as a main character in five major movies (to say nothing of his F-bomb-tastic cameo in X-Men: First Class). The last solo Wolverine movie, 2009’s Origins, is not really a well-loved film, but it clearly did enough at the box office to prompt a follow-up. Possibly the most surprising thing about this film is that for a while it was slated to be directed by Darren Aronofsky of Black Swan renown: but he moved on and the actual director is James Mangold.

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As the movie opens, our skeletally-souped-up hero is not in the best of states: beset by guilt over the death of the woman he loved (not to mention over a century of frenzied and largely indiscriminate gutting and maiming), Logan (Jackman) is living as a hermit in the Canadian wilderness. He is drawn back to civilisation by the appearance of Yukio (Rila Fukushima), the young ward of Yashida, a man Logan saved from the bombing of Nagasaki in 1945. Now Yashida is dying and wants to do Logan a great favour before he dies.

So, somewhat against his will, off Logan flies to Tokyo and into a tense situation. In the intervening years Yashida has become a mogul on an immense scale and his business empire is one of the most powerful in Japan. As Yashida’s health fails, powerful forces in his own extended clan, the government, and the Yakuza are all circling – but what none of them realise is that Yashida has no plans to die. The great favour he has in mind is to relieve Logan of his burdensome near-immortality and relentless healing factor, and take them for himself…

The X-Men movies have been running for 13 years now, which is quite long enough for their internal continuity to have become as tangled as those of the original comics: nevertheless, it was still a little bit startling to be presented with a film set firmly in the same continuity as the original trilogy (as opposed to the most recent film, which – if you’re paying attention – is about a different version of the same characters. Some sort of doubtless-unsatisfactory attempt at a unification bout between the two looms for next summer and is unsubtly trailed at the end of this movie). On the other hand, I had sort of forgotten how much I liked Hugh Jackman as Wolverine, and how much undemanding fun those first few films were. So more of the same wouldn’t necessarily have been a problem.

However, and quite excitingly, this film is clearly at least partly inspired by Claremont and Miller’s Wolverine mini-series from the 80s, which had the same Japanese setting and imagery and some of the same characters. That series was acclaimed, partly for simply being very well scripted and drawn, but also for doing something different with Wolverine as a character. This is where the problems with The Wolverine really start to come into focus, unfortunately.

When superhero characters start acquiring definite articles they don’t usually have, it’s usually a sign that an inherently absurd character is being taken very seriously indeed, either by creative types or fans (note the legions routinely referring to The Batman rather than just Batman). I’m not sure what difference this really makes, but there you go. On one level The Wolverine obviously wants to have a bit of heft and gravitas to it – it pulls a trick very similar to the original X-Men, which opened with a scene set in Auschwitz. This film starts with a triple-seppuku and the atom-bombing of Nagasaki (still an incredibly touchy subject in Japan, by the way: curious to see how this plays there), and if something as serious as that’s your big opening you’d better be damn sure you’ve got something solid and thought-through coming up to justify it.

The Wolverine‘s problem is that it really can’t decide exactly what it wants to be – another competent, if by-the-numbers superhero movie? A japonesque action flick? A moody character piece? At various points it has a go at all three, but never really fully commits itself and so isn’t entirely successful at any of them. And whatever qualities it has, dramatic heft and thematic gravitas are not amongst them.

Despite the putative complexity of the story, the plot basically boils down to Wolverine and Yashida’s granddaughter Mariko (Tao Okamoto) on the run from bad guys, from whom they escape via  a series of competently orchestrated action sequences. Given the number of definitively Japanese settings in which this occurs, it looks ominously like cliche-tourism is in progress: we get Wolverine at Tokyo Tower, in a pachinko parlour, on a shinkansen (a preposterous fight occurs on the roof), and in a love hotel. Presumably the sequence set in a karaoke club will be a DVD extra.

However, then the film calms down a bit and we get some proper mood-and-character-based stuff about Logan and Mariko and the relationship that develops between them. There’s a slight problem here in that Mariko always comes across as a slightly drab and passive character compared to Yukio, but Okamoto and Jackman are good enough – just – to make you care about and believe in the romance.

Needless to say, it can’t last, and before you can say onegaishimasu everyone’s off to yet another laboratory built on a soundstage for the CGI-enhanced fight sequence that makes up the climax of the film. Once again, this isn’t exactly badly done, and there’s an interesting new take on a comics character as the final villain, but it’s still a very, very generic conclusion to a film which had the potential to do something a little bit different and a lot more interesting. (I think the climax is, in terms of the drama, quite confused on a number of levels, but unfortunately can’t go into meaningful detail about this without spoiling the movie.)

Let’s be straight about this: Hugh Jackman’s charisma and presence go a long way towards making any movie he does watchable, and cameo appearances from a few other big-name X-Men stars don’t hurt the film either. Unlike Origins, The Wolverine doesn’t just feel like a succession of comics references and set-piece fights. And it’s never offensively dull or stupid (although one is inclined to sigh when jokes from 40-plus-year-old Bond films get recycled) – but it never really dazzles, not with the intelligence of its script, the strength of its performances, or the dynamism of its action sequences.

It’s quite rare for Hollywood to do an action movie this firmly rooted in Japan, let alone a superhero movie: The Wolverine could have been something really unique and memorable. But it feels like every time a key creative decision needed to be taken, keeping the mainstream superhero-movie audience happy and unchallenged was the one and only consideration. For a project attempting to fuse American superheroics with Japanese culture old and new to turn out to just be an okay, vaguely sort of fun, vaguely sort of exotic, just generally sort of vague fantasy action film must count as a bit of a fumbled ball. Zannen desu.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published June 26th 2003:

The ‘all-star cast’ movie has become something of a rarity these days, what with the ballooning salaries our leading actors demand making it financially rather more of a challenge to put one together. Then again, the fragmentation of cinema itself has made the definition of stardom rather broader than once it was – performers like Donny Yen and Bruce Campbell are legendary figures within their own genres, but largely unknown in the mainstream. Even in the old days, though, the really impressive cast-lists were usually restricted to international co-productions normally based on classic novels. Which makes the relatively well-known cast attracted to James Mangold’s quirky new thriller Identity all the more impressive.

On a dark and stormy night, a disparate group of people find themselves stranded in a motel in the Nevada desert. Amongst them are a limo driver (John Cusack) and his diva-ish employer (Rebecca de Mornay), a call-girl who has ambitions to become a market-gardener (Amanda Peet), a cop (Ray Liotta) and the convict he’s transporting (Jake Busey), and some troubled newlyweds (Clea DuVall and William Lee Scott), none of whom are strictly what they appear to be. One of them has been badly injured in a road accident and needs medical attention, but all communication has been cut off with the outside world. And an already grotty situation gets positively foul when it becomes apparent that a murderer is on the loose, and more than willing to hack and slash his way through the cast list…

As seems increasingly common these days, Identity draws from a wide range of sources for its scenario. The script itself obliquely refers to Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, which is the most obvious donor, but there are also references to Psycho and other slasher movies, the post-Tarantino school of plot structure, and even (although I admit this is probably just coincidence) the last series of Sapphire and Steel. But it welds these various influences together quite pleasingly, into an indie-ish style of its own. There’s a lot of frantic cutting back and forth in place and time between various plotlines at the start, which isn’t particularly involving, but with the reassuring appearance of John Cusack the film settles down and rapidly becomes very enjoyable.

Much of this is thanks to a series of impressive turns from the cast, nearly all of whom get their moment to shine. To be fair to them, Cusack and Liotta are largely trading on their stock personae (deadpan laconicism with a dash of sensitivity for Cusack, unstable bullishness for Liotta), but they spark well off each other. Peet is particularly good in a fairly off-beat role, and I would’ve liked to have seen more of de Mornay’s faintly OTT over-the-hill star (hmm, that’s possibly a spoiler…). But Mangold’s direction is assured and atmospheric, and the script – initially at least – builds cleverly and carefully.

However, Identity is flawed – in that it sometimes seems just a bit too keen to clue the audience in as to exactly what’s going on. Mostly this takes the form of a series of apparently unconnected scenes involving a psychologist (Doctor Octopus, or – as I believe he prefers to be known – Alfred Molina) at a legal hearing, but there are lots of other small, revelatory moments that make it clear that something rather peculiar is going on. And most of them come just a bit too early in the film. In the past I’ve complained about good movies ruined by useless twist endings (Frailty leaps to mind as a particular offender) – Identity is a movie with not one but two actually pretty decent plot twists, the second of which actually half-surprised me (and this from a man who guessed the ending of The Sixth Sense). It’s just a shame Mangold and scripter Michael Cooney couldn’t have arranged their story so the surprises weren’t so obviously foreshadowed. (And I have to say that while I found the main twist to be engagingly innovative and quirky, it may just seem annoyingly silly and implausible to those of a less forgiving bent.)

But anyway. This is a fun and well-made film, loaded with solid performances and with a plot that it’s actually moderately tricky to guess the truth about. And any film where somebody says ‘You know, that story’s so far-fetched it just might be true’ immediately gets some goodwill from me. Enjoyable, in a low-key don’t-worry-about-the-details way.

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