Ford v Ferrari

Let me start by saying, I am not a fan of racing. I have nothing against it but the idea of watching cars travel at high speeds is attractive to me for about five minutes. After the first thrill, it seems like a lot of waiting around. I know I am an exception because NASCAR is incredibly popular and the Indy car circuit has been around for more than a century. The same can be said for formula one racing which enjoys international enthusiasm that I can’t muster. With that out of the way, I can say I am a fan of  racing films. Several years ago, I listed “Rush”  as my second favorite movie of that year. Earlier this year I enjoyed “the Art of Racing in the Rain“. I even liked the Stallone racing film and “Days of Thunder”. So how is it that I ended up liking this film so much?

My appreciation for a film about a subject that I am not well versed in or passionate about comes down to the simple fact that film making is all about controlling the audience perspective. As an illustration, I posted a list a few years ago of my favorite sports films, three of the ten films were hockey movies. I’ve never been to a hockey game, I’ve never watched a whole hockey game on television and the idea of a sport played on ice is appalling to me, I hate the cold. Film makers however, are not worried about the contest, they know the outcome already. They don’t worry about the rules, they can ignore them or alter them to suit their purpose. What screenwriters and directors do care about is the audience, what is it we want out of the experience? That is the thing that makes a movie like this work for us.

In “Ford v Ferrari” we see the races from the best angles. We focus on the key moments and not all the drudge work that gets to those points. Best of all, in a racing film we are in the cockpit and we see the race from the perspective of the driver as well. That creates the drama that keeps us focused on the story of watching someone drive a car. In this film Christian Bale plays driver Ken Miles and his character is one worth following. He is a hothead who also happens to be an excellent driver. His volatile relationship with the car designer and the corporation that is backing the team is emphasized not just in scenes played out in garages and offices, but while he is driving the vehicle they are all counting on. I think he nails the English accent spot on [those of you who don’t get the joke are excused from making a comment on my ignorance]. He has to act opposite a big movie star, a child and a piece of machinery. He makes each of those relationships work in a realistic way.

My friend Doug is a big race fan and he will tell you how there is a better story somewhere else, or how the film is not accurate is some way that matters to race fans. The rest of us don’t have to worry about that because we know what we are seeing is a fictionalized version of the events. Like all story tellers, the three screenwriters and the director, exaggerate to make a joke work or emphasize a dramatic beat with a piece of information that we need just at the right moment. The film does center on racing, but most of Matt Damon’s work is in the garage or board room rather than behind the wheel. The background on the Ford Company attempt to purchase Ferrari may not have happened in the sequential order that the film presents but that presentation makes the rivalry more meaningful and interesting. You could easily be fooled into thinking that Christian Bale also played Henry Ford II, since the portrayal is a mirror image of the Dick Cheny performance he was responsible for last year.

Since the events depicted are based on real historical incidents, you will be aware of the outcome of some of the suspenseful moments, but James Mangold manages to make them suspenseful anyway. Having worked with Christian Bale in “3:10 to Yuma”, Mangold probably felt comfortable in the casting of Bale and Damon in parts that were originally scheduled to go to Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt. While I would have enjoyed seeing those two reunited on screen, I think this pairing works really well. The loyalty but pragmatism of Damon as Carrol Shelby is a good counterpoint to the flashier Ken Miles and it is to Damon’s credit that he lets Bale drive not only the vehicle but the film as well.

Logan

The X-Men franchise has been going pretty strong for the better part of two decades now. Both Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart have grown older in their roles as Wolverine and Professor Xavier. I don’t know how they will replace Jackman, but Stewart has been gracefully edged aside for James McAvoy in the last few outings, including a dual casting in “X-Men: Days of Future Past“. The two of them have been cast in this capstone film, which basically cements their exits  from the franchise. This episode is tonally very different from any of the other films, including the last outing for Jackman which was “The Wolverine” back in 2013.

Most of these films have been cartoony super hero stories with a new “big Bad” to fight against in each edition. There is some subtext about ethnicity/sexuality and culture but usually it comes down to some big action sequences that everyone is looking forward to. “Logan” has plenty of action scenes but they are mostly a series of mutants versus mercenaries, and usually involve a car chase or two. No stadiums are lifted into the air, the Statue of Liberty is not at risk, and the wold does not seem to teeter on a single moment. The darker subtext here has to do with genetic manipulation for intentional purposes. Since the film is set ten years in the future, it is safe to make some jokes about GMO crops and GMO humans. The Frankenfood that most alarmists are worried about is mocked, but the human process is the thing that provides some depth to the movie.

 

Let me share a quote with you from my review of the 2013 film: “ I know the film is PG-13 because we get only one f-bomb, and the blood from all the fighting and evisceration that is taking place, stays mainly on the characters. Body parts don’t come flying off the screen, there are no fountains of blood spraying the walls, and the violence remains mostly in the imagination.” Apparently, director/writer James Mangold felt the same way, or else he read my comments and decided to fix this deficiency. “Logan” is R-rated for blood and language. It’s not a surprise that when freed from some contractual restrictions, Wolverine would find colorful uses for the f-adjective. What is a little more of a shock is the degree to which the claws get set free. The number of times the three prongs end up in the head, throat, or chest of a bad guy rivals John Wick’s kill count. It gets a little wearisome at times. Let’s throw in another character with claws, and the dismemberment, decapitations and general viscera is way up. If you have trouble with violence that looks really violent, then this film may not be for you.

I mentioned that the tone of the movie is different. Both Charles and Logan have medical issues in this movie. In a different X-Men Universe, there would be brilliant blue furry mutants and mystic scientists working to discover solutions for their problems. Instead, we have a pair of overworked caregivers who are struggling to get by while hiding from the world. Some vaguely hinted at disaster has made the X-Men disappear. Getting the pill count and schedule is hard enough, but some characters also need assistance in going to the toilet. That’s not something you will see in the comic books I bet. Another thing that will show how different and dark this world is, no one is spared in the story. Sympathetic characters die and often in gruesome ways. I thought we were being set up at one point for a secondary character to use some skills that are human based, but no. As soon as we hear about those accomplishments and start thinking of how they might be used, the character is dead. The warmth of friendship or humanity is held out only long enough to make us feel something when it is snatched away.

Overall I liked the movie quite a bit, but I have my reservations. The violence is continuous without the self awareness of a movie like John Wick. There is background missing that would make the story a little more interesting, and just as we get some monologing to  explain it, a bit of violence jumps in and cuts it off as if to say “That’s not the story we are telling here.” This is really an elegy for the X-Men characters we have known and a passing of the torch to new mutants. It feels like the studio has set up the whole franchise for a second reboot since they got started. The Deadpool 2 teaser at the start of this film has nothing to do with this movie except for a brief reference to Logan as a joke. The mood of the opening teaser is incredibly different from the movie that follows it. The final tip off for where this is all going to end up is contained in the use of a Johnny Cash song in the trailer and a different Cash song in the end credits. The dire and desperate voice of Johnny Cash is a natural for Mangold to use. He was after all the director of “Walk the Line”. It is also a Cliff Note sized clue that this movie is a tragedy and not an adventure.