Friday 3 June 2011

Gods and monsters: "Senna", "X-Men: First Class" and "Mammuth" (ST 05/06/11)

Senna (12A) 106 mins ****
X-Men: First Class (12A) 132 mins ***

Mammuth (15) 92 mins ***

Early in Asif Kapadia’s documentary Senna, we watch the McLaren Formula One team announcing the sport’s thrusting stars, Brazil’s Ayrton Senna and the French champion Alain Prost, as their drivers for the 1988 season. This was the drivers’ rose garden moment, uniting them in a common cause – the razzing of team boss Ron Dennis. Yet it would be a fragile alliance. Kapadia’s film has at its core one of the great sporting rivalries of all time, right up there with Ali-Foreman and Borg-McEnroe, but faster, deadlier; in the interests of balance – and in a nod to a previous Working Title success – it should really be titled Prost/Senna.

For F1 fans, Senna will be a reminder of a pre-Ecclestone age, when the vast financial and safety support modern drivers depend upon wasn’t as yet set in place. This was a moment when Murray Walker – with that perfect voice for race commentary: propulsive, and with so many gears to go to – was at the microphone; where the glitziest thing to be seen in the pit lane was Nigel Mansell’s cloth cap. The archive footage – a Christmas TV special from which Senna took home the suggestible blonde host, more fractious episodes from the drivers’ pre-race briefings – is never less than evocative.

In revving up the rivalry, Kapadia and writer Manish Pandey are hard on Prost, a rather better driver than the scheming blocker presented here. The allegation the Frenchman cosied up to his compatriot, F1 chief Jean-Marie Balestre, to sink Senna’s chances of winning the 1989 championship has been heard before, but it’s a low blow on the filmmakers’ part to back up their character assessment with footage of Prost flirting, mollusc-like, with Selina Scott on the Wogan show. And I can recall how Senna’s dominance in the early 1990s became almost as tedious as that enjoyed by Michael Schumacher years later.

In the home straight, however, Kapadia finally liberates himself from the cult of Senna to reveal something of the God-fearing, self-doubting mortal beneath the helmet. At San Marino’s Imola circuit in 1994 – in a sequence handled with supreme sensitivity – the wreckage piles up, one driver after another is airlifted away, and Senna, muttering to himself in his team garage, gives the impression of a man who knows he may shortly be heading to his grave at 190mph. Not even Prost, by this point ensconced in the commentary box, can quite believe what he’s seeing – as the chequered flag falls on both a champion and a fine, moving tribute.

Director Matthew Vaughn violently deconstructed the comic-book form with last year’s Kick-Ass; with the origin movie X-Men: First Class, he buys into that same mythology whole. Part of Vaughn’s project here is to get his actresses down to their skimpies wherever possible, making it difficult to forget these movies are aimed at wresting disposable income from the sticky palms of teenage boys. Yet Vaughn’s blunt force, his very tactlessness, lends a warped heft to at least one subplot: the young Magneto (Michael Fassbender) and his pursuit of the Nazi war criminal who experimented on him in the camps and is now – in the guise of a terrific Kevin Bacon – egging on the Soviets to stockpile Cuba with missiles.

First Class settles for being another film in a series, and an overlong one at that, cluttered with in-jokes and callbacks that hardly qualify it as a start point for the uninitiated. Yet it flows acceptably, seguing between smart Cold War intrigue, superhero fraternity hijinks and mutants-on-a-mission movie, and benefits considerably from a cast capable of slipping tiny, non-virtual felicities between the heavy-duty effects shots. I’ll give Vaughn this: as a producer-turned-director, he’s developed a facility for stage-managing large ensembles. By arming himself with Fassbender, the breezy James McAvoy, Rose Byrne, Nicholas Hoult and Winter’s Bone lead Jennifer Lawrence, he’s turned First Class into a showcase for mutants of its own: performers under the age of 40 in a summer event movie who can actually act.

For the divertingly odd Mammuth,
Gérard Depardieu adopts those ratty hair extensions last seen on Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler to assay another of those bulky character roles he’s getting rather good at: a retired slaughterhouse worker hitting the road to retrieve the paperwork required to secure his pension. If directors Gustave Kervern and Benoît Delépine prove distractible, tossing on stick-insect supermarkets and competitive beachcombers, there’s an unwavering poignancy about our hero’s itinerary of abandoned bars and funfairs, mills-turned-new media hangouts; even the film stock, faded and grainy, strives to honour a history of manual labour – an entire way of life – vanishing before our very eyes.

Senna and X-Men: First Class open nationwide today; Mammuth opens in selected cinemas from today.

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