Days of Thunder (1990)

Days of Thunder

I don’t expect I’ll see too much of him except in my rear view mirror.  Hot tempered budding stock car racer Cole Trickle (Tom Cruise) is recruited by a big brand headed by Tim Daland (Randy Quaid) but meets with an accident which seriously injures his team mate Rowdy Burns (Michael Rooker). However, when he returns with the help of his mentor Harry Hogge (Robert Duvall) and an attractive young doctor Claire Lewicki (Nicole Kidman), he has to face an ambitious adversary Russ Wheeler (Cary Elwes) who not only wants to defeat but also disable him… He’s destroyed both my cars! The Top Gun team reassembled to bring Cruise’s need for speed to the racetrack which he’d tasted with acting buddy Paul Newman and decided to cement on the big screen with a story he dreamed up with the help of Robert Towne. Hated by critics and not particularly insightful about the motor racing world (and it has to be said that the NASCAR series just doesn’t have the romance of Formula One’s European trackside dramas) this is nonetheless a loud, colourful, fast-moving blast as you’d expect from director Tony Scott. Duvall is superb as the mentor, it’s fun to see Kidman when she still looked like herself (and prior to marriage to Cruise) and the final showdown is well done.  It’s distinguished by Hans Zimmer’s score and the songs which include Maria McKee’s Show Me Heaven. Co-producer Don Simpson appears as racer Aldo Benedetti. For fans of this sporting sub-genre, John C. Reilly would get his kicks sending it up with Will Ferrell years later in Talladega Nights:  The Ballad of Ricky Bobby.  It may not reach the heights of Howard Hawks’ movies about professional male groups but this marked the beginning of a long collaboration and friendship between Cruise and Towne, which I’ve written about in my book ChinaTowne: https://www.amazon.co.uk/ChinaTowne-Screenplays-Robert-Towne-1960-2000/dp/1695887409/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=elaine+lennon+chinatowne&qid=1587925465&s=books&sr=1-1.  You are selfish, you are crazy and you’re scared

Stirling Moss 17th September 1929 – 12th April 2020

That great racer Stirling Moss has gone to the Silverstone of the skies forever more. A sad day for petrolheads the world over, Sir Stirling may have never won the Formula One championship – he was runner-up four times, took third place three times and was victor in 16 of his 66 races – but he was the racer’s racer, across so many formats, between 1948 and 1962. Vroom in peace. Better to lose honourably in a British car than win in a foreign one

Steve McQueen: The Man & Le Mans (2015)

Steve McQueen The Man and Le Mans

We had the star, we had the drivers. We had an incredible array of technical support, we had everything. Except a script. The story behind the making of Le Mans, Steve McQueen’s dream project – a realistic film about motor racing set around the great 24-hour endurance race in 1970. He planned a documentary-style production starring himself and made by his own company Solar in collaboration with Cinema Center Films, but it went over budget and schedule. He disagreed with and fired Thomas Crown Affair/Bullitt writer Alan Trustman (who he says in an audio recording knew him like nobody did); and he also fell out with his Magnificent Seven/Great Escape director John Sturges, who walked out; then Cinema Center tried to replace McQueen – on his own film!- with Robert Redford. McQueen agreed to a pay cut. I don’t think there’s any racing drive who can tell you why he races. But he can show you. The film was plagued by crashes, the worst involving David Piper, whose leg was amputated. Charles Manson was on his killing spree at the time and McQueen discovered he was on his hit list and became paranoid, taking to carrying a handgun. His marriage to wife Neile broke up when he found out she had finally paid him back for his multiple infidelities with one of her own. He crashed a car late at night with his young Swedish mistress actress Louise Edlind and blamed it on a 21-year old set assistant who was on his first day at work on the film. McQueen didn’t bear a scratch from the incident. When the film came out in 1971 it received ‘mixed’ reviews … We were winging it. Gabriel Clarke and John McKenna’s film tells an inglorious tale of ego, hubris and racing too close to the sun, a paradoxical move for the coolest man to ever walk the earth. You better believe in what you;re doing. I believe in what I do. It’s stylishly directed, with a plethora of remarkably beautiful clips retrieved from private collections and unfinished on-set documentary footage as well as boasting terrific new interviews (and some from the previous 2001 doc Filming at Speed) which suggest that this was a devastating experience for McQueen, a turning point from which he may never have truly recovered. With Trustman and Sturges on board it was the dream team but McQueen was both stunningly indecisive and doctrinaire. He felt responsible for the racers, above all, but never visited Piper following an accident that only occurred because a scene was shot twice owing to the absence of a script. They never met again. The film reveals to Piper that McQueen had written to the powers that be to release the premiere’s takings to Piper for his medical treatment – they did not; but Piper is pleased at the revelation. He had something hidden. McQueen’s long business relationship and friendship with Bob Relyea was sundered. He was trying to capitalise on his stardom but clashed with the studio ethic of storytelling in the classical style in an ironic bid to strip away filmmaking tricks and falling victim to excess. When he wanted to give back Hollywood wasn’t there for him. Essentially he wanted to build his own empire while also attempting to obtain creative control. Instead he wound up skipping the premiere and quitting racing for good. Yet it’s the film he had shipped to Mexico a decade later when he was receiving treatment for the cancer that would kill him, showing it to fellow patients. It transpires that the asbestos that caused his cancer is the type used in racing suits in the Sixties. In many ways it seems this film was the time when McQueen’s luck finally ran out. This is a visceral experience for the viewer, almost tactile in its power. Smell the fumes and feel the need for speed. Gripping.  I am too old and too rich to be putting up with this type of shit

S is for Stanley (2015)

S is for Stanley

Aka S is for Stanley – 30 Years Behind the Wheel for Stanley Kubrick, S Is for Stanley – Trent’anni dietro al volante per Stanley Kubrick. He was fast. Filmmaker Alex Infascelli came across Emilio D’Allesandro upon the publication of his memoir, Stanley Kubrick E Me and decided to make a documentary about the man who was the auteur’s driver and assistant for more than a quarter of a century. Emilio relates to camera and over montages and home movies his story of emigration – he took the train from Italy to London in 1960 and made a splash driving at Brand’s Hatch but needed to make money for his new family with English wife Janette and became a taxi driver. One night in 1970 when the firm couldn’t get anyone else to take ‘an object’ to a house outside London he was the only driver brave enough to go in a snowstorm. He was greeted at the front door by Kubrick who had a newspaper cutting about him in his pocket and asked if he was the same man who had driven at the famous racetrack and whether he drove that quickly on normal roads. Emilio said, no, he did not drive fast outside races and started working for Kubrick the following day, using his own car. He found that his new employer loved cars as much as he did and particularly Mercedes because he believed the German marque was the safest. He asked Emilio if he could drive an imposing truck constructed to withstand immersion in water. Emilio said if it had a steering wheel and four wheels he’d give it a try. There was a house move, from Abbots Mead (owned by Simon Cowell’s father!) near Elstree Studios to Childwickbury Manor, a huge country house ten minutes away that had enough stables to serve as production offices and vast lands for rescue animals to roam. The place was a zoo, Emilio sighs and photos show him on the back of a poor sad donkey. The documentary is a feast of information, with Kubrick’s many notes and letters narrated by Clive Riche, and they are a marvellous insight into his working method and his home life with wife Christiane and their three daughters. He believed in labels and lists  – one of which dominated the house:  Basic Training. It starts, If you open it, close it. There are 11 further lessons to live by. The meticulous approach, as detailed by Emilio, and some of which is catalogued in the many archive boxes in his own garage filled with memorabilia, is known to Kubrick’s fans but its application domestically, including pet care – he took in all the dogs and cats that came into his purview and housed them and took care of them and left particular notes on each of their needs – demonstrates the mindset that was above all utterly practical. The first production Emilio was directly involved in was Barry Lyndon, to be shot in Ireland. He would fly from London to Dublin as many as four times a day, back and forth, with highly confidential items. He recalls being asked to find a candle manufacturer that could produce candles for three years straight:  he would discover later that Kubrick planned on shooting the film by candlelight. Emilio had a run-in with Jack Nicholson on the set of The Shining and when he told Kubrick, I would like to stay away from him, the director understood and it was not a problem.  His home telephone always rang at meal times. When Emilio said it wasn’t fair to Janette, Kubrick asked if it would be alright to install a separate line for his calls at their home. Emilio recalls having call Federico Fellini on Kubrick’s behalf to find out how he achieved a certain effect. Kubrick’s calls were lengthy, and even Fellini finally had to make his excuses and hang up. Why did they do this to me? asked Kubrick in the wake of his daughter Anya’s marriage and the other two girls moved to London. He was a gregarious sort, a devoted spouse, father and family man and he felt abandoned. Emilio declares bemusedly that only Christiane and all those animals were left at the house. While Emilio and he were driving one day Kubrick spotted an abandoned gasworks that would serve as the main location for Full Metal Jacket and Emilio was like another father to Matthew Modine, the star. In 1991 when Emilio was turning 50 and his parents were ageing and infirm he wanted to return to Italy. He gave Kubrick three years’ notice, during which his father died. On the eve of departure, Kubrick asked him to stay two more weeks. He and Janette suffered when their racer son had to have his leg amputated following a crash and Kubrick sent them to the best doctors, taking care of the bills. What do you do during the day? Kubrick asked Emilio when he had finally gone home to Italy. Emilio remembers, I started watching the films and that was when I realised what a genius he was. Kubrick asked him to return to England for a fortnight. Janette believed it was a trick to get Emilio back working again but knew her husband was happier working with Kubrick. When he and Janette went for afternoon tea he asked the director about his current film and Kubrick responded he couldn’t do it without him. If you tell me you’ll come back I’ll do it. Emilio and Janette stayed in England and Kubrick shot Eyes Wide Shut half an hour away from home, at Pinewood Studios, where Greenwich Village was reproduced. He made the film partly in tribute to Emilio – he had him in the film at a news stand where Tom Cruise buys a paper;  and a café is named for him (Caffé Da Emilio); he found every possible way to include him. Love, Stanley.  After editing the film Emilio found Kubrick in need of assistance one day as he tried but failed to break a tablet in two for one of his pet cats. Kubrick regularly needed oxygen and was exhausted from the film. His beard had turned white and he was utterly drained. He died that night, one week after a screening for Warner Brothers in New York. In the present day, Infascelli drives Emilio back to Childwickbury, where a Private sign hangs on the closed gate. Emilio doesn’t want to enter. (Kubrick is interred there, along with Anya).  It’s a gentle and touching recollection of things past, a lovely personal account of a long-lasting friendship and working relationship told across the background of four major films made by one of the cinema’s most astonishing filmmakers. For a man who ironically disliked being photographed, some of the happiest pictures here of Kubrick are from the home movie of the party he held for Emilio when he was leaving for Italy in the early 90s.  I still think when the phone rings it might be him

Niki Lauda 22nd February 1949 – 20th May 2019

I’ve been through a lot and I realize the future can’t be controlled. I’m not worried. You can always learn to overcome difficulties.  Iconic racer Niki Lauda has died aged 70. For those of us obsessed with motor sports this brings a tear to our eyes. Lauda’s clinical approach to engineering ensured his success given the right team and backing. His miraculous return to Formula 1 just six weeks after surviving the German Grand Prix at Nurburgring in 1976 when he received third-degree burns in a horrific crash is one of the legends of sporting history and it led to that track’s closure. That story is told in documentary The Green Hell; while his contemporary rivalry with James Hunt is dramatised in widescreen movie Rush and their personality clash is one of the reasons the sport became such a global hit in its third decade. He is the only racer to win the World Championship for both Ferrari and McLaren and for that alone he is in the history books. A keen pilot and a successful businessman with his own airline, he could be seen until very recently in the paddock on race weekends, ready to speak to the media pack about Mercedes where he was the non-executive chairman. The toxic fumes that damaged his lungs in 1976 led to a transplant last summer and he has finally succumbed, 43 years after receiving the last rites. His fighting spirit is an example to us all, his courage unparalleled.  He was some kind of man. Race to the stars, Niki.

Williams: Formula 1 In The Blood (2017)

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The accident didn’t just happen to Frank, it happened to everybody. Frank Williams’ career as an F1 team boss didn’t quite end in 1986 as his eponymous team was cresting towards major success but his mobility was brought to a crashing conclusion at a wall in the South of France when he was rushing to the airport to get back home to England. He was in and out of consciousness for six weeks after snapping his spine in two and became a quadriplegic overnight.  His team would come visit him at the London Hospital to regale a man barely alive about the latest intra-team spats between Nelson Piquet and Nigel Mansell simply to try and keep him going. The man who ran 12 miles a day and competed in marathons was subsequently confined to a wheelchair. This revolves around his refusal to engage with his family’s desire to come to terms with the horrific accident and how they handled it – he simply never mentioned it and got on with things, unable to share a bed with wife Ginny and looked after by a 24/7 carer. Ginny wrote a book (A Different Kind of Life) in 1991 which she recorded in secret with the help of a writer friend. The conflict in the film is this: Frank has never read it while his daughter Claire, now team boss (and says I never expected to be given the keys to the shop) is in tears at the fact that her mother died of cancer in 2013 without the couple ever discussing its contents, namely her anguish at his physical destruction.  Ginny’s absence is the most powerful presence in the story. The narration is primarily excerpts from the book (filmed to her audio as staged reconstruction, like the crash) but visually the film mostly consists of Claire Williams interviewed today and archive footage starting with Williams in his early career as a Northern chancer selling spare parts, obsessed with becoming a driver and sharing a flat with posh Etonians, one of whom, Piers Courage, died in one of his early cars. The film concludes with Claire reading to her father from Ginny’s book and there are perhaps a few tears in the man’s eyes.  It’s a feeble conclusion considering the breadth of his actions. The impact of his own attitudes was borne at far greater price by third parties, the team’s recent failure to achieve podium finishes notwithstanding, a terrible fate for an old school marque. Williams’ imperturbable visage had a quite different, sinister affect when he was introduced (like Count Dracula) in slo-mo in Asif Kapadia’s magnificent Senna, clearly the villain of that tragic piece, when he and Patrick Head forced the greatest driver of my lifetime, who was at the forefront of the F1 driver safety campaign, into a dangerous car to his death, literally cut off in his prime. This is the flipside of Williams’ refusal to engage with humanity, open his mouth and speak. Sadly, when you look at this old, strangely enigmatic quadriplegic, dead from the neck down, you realise that sometimes bad things can really happen to bad people. It’s a vital story in F1 history but it’s hard to care. Featuring interviews with Mansell, Peter Windsor (who was in the crash with Williams), Jackie Stewart and Head. Directed by Morgan Matthews.

The Rake’s Progress (1945)

The Rakes Progress UK.jpg

Aka The Notorious Gentleman. The private life of a magnificent heel…who brought out the woman in women! Posh boy Vivian Kenway (Rex Harrison) is sent down from Oxford after putting a chamberpot on a beloved statue. He is known as a cad, a playboy and a scoundrel. Seducing his best friend’s wife Jill Duncan (Jean Kent) and his father’s (Godfrey Tearle) secretary Jennifer Calthorp (Margaret Johnston) before ultimately marrying for money may be considered reprehensible and foolish. But when his questionable behaviour results in his serving in the Army during World War II, his actions and decisions just might lead him to redemption after being challenged by his conscience … Eton’s no joking matter old cock. Half the war cabinet came from there.  Zippy, funny and snide, its conclusion may be affected by the recent days of war, but this is a superb entertainment mostly set between 1931-1938, with a raft of comments about class, conduct and notions of masculinity. Harrison is ideally cast in a screenplay written by director Sidney Gilliat with his usual partner Frank Launder and Val Valentine. Harrison’s wife at the time, Lili Palmer, appears in the supporting cast. There’s a wonderful score by William Alwyn. Fast and rather furious about a lot of things.  It’s just that you’re the last straw that’s all. I’m sick and tired of teaching their jobs to gilded youths backed by influence and class privilege, and then watching them end up with better positions than my own

Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (1951)

Pandora and the Flying Dutchman theatrical.jpg

The measure of love is what one is willing to give up for it. Dutchman Hendrik van der Zee (James Mason) living in the 17th century, is not permitted to rest until he finds a woman who loves him enough to die for him. In 1930s Spain where his body is fished out of the water, he meets the reincarnation of a woman from his dead past Pandora Reynolds (Ava Gardner) and falls in love. The story progresses to a hair-raising reconciliation of past and present as she becomes engaged to besotted racing driver Stephen Cameron (Nigel Patrick) while also juggling with the affections of ardent matador Juan Montalvo (Mario Cabré) whose mother has predicted their union … There’s something beyond my understanding. There’s something mystical about the feeling I have for you. Albert Lewin’s cult film is weirdly compelling and boring all at once:  a woman who drives men wild with desire is herself obsessed with a man who has been condemned to wander the earth forever. This legend is elevated to almost mythic quality in a production that is beautiful, sensuous and strange, and that’s just Gardner. There are lengthy exchanges of meaningful dialogue, lusty looks and a gorgeous shadow hangs over every Technicolor frame. Never mind the melo, feel the drama. That’s not me as I am at all. But it’s what I’d like to be

Driven (2001)

Driven 2001.jpg

He’s a younger, better you. Jimmy Bly (Kip Pardue) is an up-and-coming young star of the open-wheel circuit known as Champ Car, but he’s slipping in the rankings as the championships loom. Under pressure from his promoter brother Demille (Robert Sean Leonard) and wheelchair-bound team owner Carl Henry (Burt Reynolds), Jimmy is given a mentor – Joe Tanto (Stallone), a legendary former CART racer whose career and marriage to Cathy (Gina Gershon) were destroyed by a tragic accident. Joe has to earn the rookie’s trust, while attempting a career comeback following years of retirement, dealing with persistent reporter Lucretia Clan (Stacy Edwards), and seeing Cathy, now married to rival racer Memo Moreno (Cristian de la Fuente). Meanwhile, Jimmy is pursuing Sophia (model Estella Warren), the girlfriend of top driver Beau Brandenburg (Til Schweiger) and there’s a journalist (Stacy Edwards) following everyone around the place in search of a scoop for her season-long coverage … Fans of Formula One racing will have spotted Stallone lurking in the team areas in the late 90s, attempting to get top-secret information for a biography of Ayrton Senna, killed while driving for Williams in 1994. He abandoned that idea when he got nowhere and decided to go his own way in an action drama set in Champ Car, albeit with guest spots from some of my own sporting heroes (Jacques Villeneuve! Juan Pablo Montoya!). As an F1 nut (or petrolhead) there is nothing more exciting on this good earth than watching a live race:  this consigns the danger into a raft of effects and no matter how impressive they cannot compete with the real thing. There are also some geographical issues:  for F1 fans the great races are the European classics at Monaco, Monza and Spa.  This was shot at Long Beach, Chicago, Florida, Canada and Japan. Stallone is of course starring in this Renny Harlin-directed epic, with real-life NASCAR enthusiast Burt Reynolds co-starring, (but in a wheelchair, recalling F1 team owner Frank Williams) and in a nod to his own epic lifestsyle, he comments of the journalist pursuing them, She’s doing an exposé on male dominance in sports. More of this ironic dialogue would have enhanced the fast-cutting and action sequences which don’t dwell on the ever-present danger of death in a tangle of metal – here the outcomes from a crash are minimised to a broken ankle. It’s never going to get to the root of what makes drivers do what they do despite the tagline What Drives You? but there’s a nice sense of jeopardy, coming to terms with the past and some terrific racing – even a completely implausible episode through night-time traffic in Chicago. As if! That’s movies for ya. The best motor racing movie is still Grand Prix;  and the best film about Senna would take devastating form in the titular documentary. Stallone wrote the screenplay from an original story by Jan Skrentny &  Neal Tabchnick. Glad you stuck around