Mans

I had a few hours to kill yesterday morning, and although I knew it wouldn’t be for me, I had heard only good things about Le Mans 66. I will spoil it, or try my best at least.

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I am not a car person. More a snowflake beta-cuck than a mans man. I picked my car up from a service last week and when the cost was 4 times what I had expected, I skimmed the list of parts and services, acted like I knew what what they were and just handed over the money. I feel threatened by people who know what they are talking about and feel there is some expectation that I should too.

Man and Machine

The relationship between men and cars is a strange one. There seems to be some disjunct between humans and technology as expressed in the film. Henry Ford II creates cars on a mass scale, factory lines of machines all making the same product. Ferrari is idolised for it’s sports car, we are told looking around the factory that each part is hand-made, which makes it that much more intimate – there is more of a craft, a relationship between man and machine.

When Ford initially try to produce a sports car in competition, they load it with data logging machines and sensors that apparently can’t detect the problems that are picked up by it’s very human driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale). He makes a claim that disputes the robot, rips it out and makes his point by sticking wool to the outside of the car. He is the motor-whisperer. He uses a female pronoun when talking about the car, and it feels genuinely more sensual than possessive. He has tapped into its potential, he knows that she wants to go faster. It honestly sounds like he wants to fuck it.

Precious Egos

Story goes: Ford try to make a deal with Ferrari, but are used and then insulted. Italian grandfather-figure Enzo Ferrari sends a message to Henry Ford II that he is fat and that his wife is a whore. This is motivating factor for Ford to want to win the prestigious 24 hour race in Le Mans, almost foaming at the mouth when he says that he wants to win.

They employ previous winner and driving celebrity Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) to manufacture the car, and he in turn hires the emotionally volatile Ken Miles as driver, to talk to the car, grease her up and find out her secrets.

The film opens with Matt Damon waxing spiritual in voice-over about the point at which a driver experiences transcendence, apparently around 7000 RPM (which to me feels just as arbitrary as Doc Brown’s 88mph). At this point apparently, the car ceases to be and the man is just floating in space. Or something to that affect. It sounded like a float tank.

Religious Masculinity

Ken’s wife is introduced in the film playfully roleplaying as a stranger at his garage, knowledgable about cars and turned on by the whole culture. They have a son (Noah Jupe), with whom Ken talks about cars mostly, they sit beneath the stars pondering the existence of the ‘perfect lap’. Young Peter plays with Scalextric, has model cars around his room and later his father’s trophies under his bed – the ultimate phallic prize for winning this manly competition of racing.

This 12 year old becomes my surrogate as he crudely sketches out the course of Le Mans and has his dad trace over each turn in the road explaining his method. In any other film I would feel patronised, here this is my lifeline. The connection between father and son through cars feels quasi-spiritual, this scene feeling similar to Four Lions when the father tries to explain martyrdom to his son through the analogy of The Lion King.

Any scene where I’m left alone with the grown ups makes me feel lost. They talk about parts and models, they make quips that make the men in the audience chuckle. When things get technical, I imagine those in the know, the manliest of men, are hypnotised with desire. The first 2 hours of the film felt like a segment from Strickland’s In Fabric.

The actual race in the last half-hour I did really enjoy. After Le Mans, we watch Ken get into a fatal accident and then skip ahead to Shelby visiting his family. He takes with him a symbolic gift: the wrench that Ken had thrown at him before winning a race. Before handing down this phallic baton, he explains in the most masculine of ways, that it is more consoling than words, it is a tool that can fix things.

Vroom Vroom

The sound of the engines roaring are a constant throughout the film. They hum and vibrate with varying intensity, growing with the tension of each race, effectively working just like the score.

More than this though, at one point the noise is used as a practical tool. A slimy executive is locked in a glass walled office and his shouts are drowned out by the revving of an engine.

In the final moment of the film, as Shelby returns to his car after giving the wrench to Ken’s son, he is still for a moment and tears form in his eyes. As one falls down his cheek, there is the abrupt grief-cancelling noise of the engine, as he wipes away his sadness, drops his sunglasses and drives off.

This is why you never see your father cry

Honey Boy (2019)

Written for RAF News November 2019

Loving affection overshadows the abusive relationship between a child actor and his father.

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Written by Shia LaBeouf as a ‘therapy project’, Honey Boy is set around the point in his life when he was the star of a Disney show, captured here as 12 year old Otis (Noah Jupe). Achieving success that would soon bloom into a film career the film focusses instead on the damage of these formative years, jumping back and forward through time to reveal the beginnings of what would later be diagnosed as PTSD.

Opening with a dizzingly assembled montage tracking the successes and exploits of Otis in his 20s (Lucas Hedges), the line is blurred between the person on and off screen. It appears that LaBeouf aims to explain his tabloid notoriety of being drunk and disorderly (arrested for such behaviour as late as July 2017 when shooting recent release Peanut Butter Falcon). The point of both trauma and inspiration appears to be Otis’ father James Lort, a hardened rodeo clown with a a chip from AA and a permanently blocked nose from cocaine abuse, played with phenomenal depth by LeBeouf himself. James is a performer who never made it, belittling his son’s achievements whilst being completely dependant on them, pocketing the per diem and leaving Otis to steal food from the catering on set.

Acting as his son’s vicious cheerleader, there is a fascinating dual quality at play. Young Otis represents the vulnerable and rage-filled child who desperately wants his father’s love, trying and failing to hold his hand in public. Constantly confronted by his failures, LeBeouf, that same little boy grown up, captures the shameful but dedicated part of the father, closing the gap of understanding by putting himself in the role. Our awareness of the actor and the material adds such complexity that the catharsis is palpable.

The chemistry between Jupe and LaBeouf is incredible, at once reviled and idolised, theirs is a complicated relationship that requires much empathy. Filled with comedy and darkness, more often than not holding one within the other. It reminds of last years Ladybird, and perhaps it’s director Alma Har’el that lends a tenderness that creeps in and takes over.

Lying and Stealing (2019)

Written for RAF News November 2019

Beautiful people Ivan and Elyse combine their charm and guile in a con job that aims to get them both out of trouble.

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Symmetrically handsome art thief Ivan (Theo James, Divergent Series) owes mob boss Dimitri (Fred Melamed) for the debt of his deceased father. Apparently only two jobs away from his freedom, things seem too good to be true until a local murder and the appearance of the FBI parked outside his apartment.

Added to this, Ivan’s bi-polar brother (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) with the same genetic sticky fingers moves in from rehab, and there’s the addition of wily bombshell Elyse (Emily Ratajkowski), an actress disgraced from Hollywood for rejecting the approach of a lecherous producer, trading favours and taking an interest in our mumbly monotonous hero.

Lying and Stealing does not wait around, it’s a quick 100 minutes that establishes its stakes early on, telegraphs the good guys and the bad, and lets you enjoy the heisty action in shot snappy scenes. It doesn’t set up the method of the job, or lean on tension whilst its playing out, you’re simply dropped into the moment to enjoy the satisfaction of someone stealthily applying their craft and using gadgets without detection.

Some way into the film the directorial style comes out of nowhere and it feels like its suddenly appealing to an older audience in both its language and violence. Largely though, it plays as a crime caper with the twists straightened and the style ironed out. It doesn’t get bogged down in the usual double-crosses and plays pretty straight for the most part.

The story is simple and the template shows itself in the details (the big bad known as ‘The Greek’), but there is something to be said for not trying to be too clever and having your grasp exceed your reach.

It could have been more complex or humorous, but it wasn’t, and that’s fine.

The King (2019)

Written for RAF News October 2019

Shakespeare’s Henriad plays become a modernised historical epic but pared down to a few characters and fewer battles. The King appears more as a toothless morality play about the compromise that comes with power and the inevitability of war.

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Timothée Chalamet is Prince Hal, the wayward son of King Henry, a drunken Lothario albeit with perfect curls. His reluctance to fight his father’s war loses him favour and the crown. But when his father (Ben Mendelsohn) is unable to keep peace within the country it seems rebellious young Hal might just be what England needs, as a series of events lead him to become King Henry V.

A self-proclaimed pacifist, the new King resists trivial provocations from France but with council in his ear speaking of politics and ‘the mood of the people’, he finds himself drawn in. Co-written and directed by David Michôd, you might expect harsh and unflinching violence, what with his debut Animal Factory. The King bides its time however, and for the most part consists of Henry trying to avoid battle, deliberating with his advisor (Sean Harris) and the Archbishop (Andrew Havill). When violence eventually creeps into the film, and war is waged against France, it appears at various stages to mark the compromise of Henry’s stance, it’s graphic depiction marking each lost foothold with gruesome impact.

This aspect of the film appears original, but serves only to highlight the larger parts of the film which are all too familiar and dramatically played out. The Battle of Agintcour interestingly begins messy and unclear, suffocating under the weight of clattering armour down in the mud, until King Henry’s right hand man Sir John Falstaff stands and takes off his helmet so we can follow along.

Joel Edgerton, who shares a writing credit, is Falstaff: bulky and burly with a Yorkshire affectation – one that stands up against Chalamet’s impressive but sometimes waining English and Robert Pattinson’s double-barrelled French accent, as the almost moustache twirling Dauphin.

It is entertaining at times, original in moments, but for the most part The King is just flat with some interesting performances thrown on top.

By the Grace of God (2019)

Written for RAF News October 2019

Based on true accounts and a scandal that is currently going to trial, Francois Ozon’s dramatisation looks at a group of child-abuse victims who band together as adults to speak out against their abuser and the system that allowed him to act with impunity: The Catholic Church.

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The film begins with Alexandre (Melvil Poupaud), a devout Christian family man who is moved to action when he sees that the priest who abused him as a young boy is back in Lyon working with children. Bringing back traumatic memories, he becomes determined to prevent Father Preynat (Bernard Verley) from doing further damage and to make the church a safe and morally responsible place for children such as his own.

The first third of the film sticks closely to the shared correspondence between Alex and different figureheads from the church, formally written and delivered as voice-overs to shots of him with his family and Preynat with his congregation. This measured approach only gets so far before being met with closed doors, and so a disconsolate Alex files an official complaint which becomes the flap of the butterfly’s wing that leads to a previous case being reopened.

François had a similar experience to Alexandre but his confrontational approach is far different. Continuing a police investigation and gaining the interest of the press, he forms a support group that becomes an open forum for victims, eventually receiving an overwhelming number of similar child-abuse testimonies of kids 30 years ago. From here the group put a case together against the Priest and now renowned Cardinal Barbarin (François Marthouret), who kept the cases from being reported to civil authorities.

There is a definite reminder of recent Oscar winner Spotlight, but By The Grace focusses on the victims as opposed to the journalists reporting the story. And rather than maintain a sorrowful and sympathetic tone, it allows the characters to be normalised: they have flaws and a sense of humour like anyone else. It doesn’t impact their deserved empathy, it makes them feel more real.

The length of time spent with each character could lessen the immediate impact, but Ozon has made a bold film that gives insight to the varied long-term affects of abuse.

Peanut Butter Falcon (2019)

Written for RAF News October 2019

Zak is a 22 year old with Down Syndrome and no guardian, making him a begruding patient at a retirement home. That is until roomate (Bruce Dern) helps him escape through the barred windows late one night, leaving him greased up with no clothes or possessions, just a dream of making it to a wrestling school run by his hero The Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Hayden Church).

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Finding shelter in a small docked boat, Zak wakes to find himself on the move, being chased by some frenzied fisherman. Tyler (Shia LaBeouf), the driver of the boat, has evidently ruffled some feathers and is looking to make an escape himself. This is the meet-cute for our soppy looking buddy movie: two unlikely outlaws on the lamb in the indie film Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Tyler is gruff and grumbling, aggressive out of the gate and unsympathetic towards the near-nude joy-rider he finds under tarp on deck. That is until he discovers that he is also a runaway on a mission, with care worker Eleanor (Dakota Johnson) hot on his tail. And so it seems that this trouble starting crab fisherman has found himself an accomplice and an alibi as they head together to find this wrestling school in the middle of nowhere.

The moral lesson and shape of the story might be clear from the outset but the charm of the actors and their chemistry is utterly disarming, even when it crashes into  narrative convenience or cliche. There is a rhythm to the dialogue that feels less filmy thanks to non-actor Zack Gottsagen, lending itself perfectly to the reality of the relationship, bringing out the humour as well as the pathos.

Tyler is aloof initially but as he becomes buds with Zak he makes a point of being intentionally unpatronising and non-coddling, which makes the moments of kindness and flashes of vulnerability resonate.

Funny and earning its sentimentality, Peanut Butter Falcon is a charming film that is hard not to like.

Photograph (2019)

Written for RAF News July 2019

Photograph sees an unlikely relationship develop between Rafi (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), who takes photos of tourists by the Mumbai Gateway, and a fleeting subject (Sanya Malhotra) who he talks into posing for a quick snap before she floats away in a crowd, before even taking her polaroid.

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Hearing that his grandmother has stopped taking her medication, despairing over the fact that he has not found a partner, Rafi sends the polaroid – which so delights her that she comes to visit, so that she may meet this fictional girlfriend.

Rafi finds solace in the fabricated relationship with the girl in the photograph – giving her a name and fantasising about her perfection. But this isn’t enough, he must find the girl and convince her to join in the charade and convince his hypercritical grandmother (Farrukh Jaffar). Her real name is Miloni, an accounting student with such promise that she is front and centre on billboards advertising the school that she attends. Their fate is marked on their first meeting, and the film will gently and gradually pull them together.

Miloni agrees to play pretend as recompense for having left him at the gates – this is a classic comedy set-up but it is used to bring out empathy and understanding. Through grandma’s insults and anecdotes, Rafi appears meek and sensitive, qualities that Miloni seems to admire or at least to which she can relate. Both introverted and with domineering parents, they share a tenderness.

Conflict comes in the shape of class difference, shown by their living situation, education and careers. At one point Miloni joins in eating some street food, which makes her ill. Grandma doesn’t understand, insisting that they are fine and that she’ll get used to it. Small observed details help to paint the picture, in their preferences of Cola and Kulfi for example, details which are not surprising coming from Ritesh Batra, the writer/director of The Lunchbox – a Mumbai love story communicated primary through food.

Photograph is almost a throwback to a classic love story, sentimental but grounded in small expressions and details.