Rush (2013)

2015 #83
Ron Howard | 123 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | UK, USA & Germany / English & German | 15 / R

Screenwriter Peter Morgan (of The Queen and Frost/Nixon) and director Ron Howard (of Apollo 13 and A Beautiful Mind, as the trailer is keen to remind us, rather than, say, The Da Vinci Code) tell the story of the rivalry between racing drivers James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl) as they vie for the 1976 Formula 1 championship, a true story so full of twists and turns that (as Howard seems fond of saying in the special features) you wouldn’t accept it if it were fiction.

Appropriately, the racing sequences are the best part. Those were the days when F1 was a little wild and uncontrolled, which the film does a good job of conveying, and also of using to its advantage to create tense and exciting set pieces. Kudos to every element of production here, not only the brilliant camerawork and editing, and the array of special effects required to tie it together, but also the production design that makes the one or two tracks they filmed on look like circuits all around the world.

Unfortunately, the film stalls in the personal relationship scenes, an equally-weighted part of the narrative. They’re an undercooked mess of clunky dialogue and characters so sketchily drawn they barely resemble stick figures. Lauda’s story is the less objectionable of the two primary threads, because his lack of skill at social engagement at least makes it moderately unusual, and it goes somewhere when he has the accident. Hunt’s stuff is just noise. And he learns nothing from it — he doesn’t change — so there’s no arc. I presume the point of engaging with their personal lives away from the track was to add depth; to make sure it was a two-hander, rather than just about one or other of the drivers, and to ensure Hunt wasn’t just two-dimensional. However, without any growth on his part, or even some kind of active change, he’s just as flat, only now the star of some pointless scenes.

Considering the amount of unwarranted time spent on Hunt, it’s as if Morgan and Howard feel they have to lure us in by making the film about the English guy, then once they’ve got us it can transition to being about the real story, which is the Austrian fella. A “Lauda edit” would make for a better movie: strip out all the BS about Hunt’s personal life; focus right in on the 1976 season, including losing a good chunk of the first 45 minutes, which is so much preamble. The movie would focus more on what it’s really about, not have such a slow start, and feel all the better for it. Interestingly, of the ten-or-so minutes of deleted scenes on the Blu-ray, many are Lauda-focused and from early in the film. Would it have been more balanced to include them? However, a quick scan suggests they weren’t bad deletions, so maybe Hunt’s scenes should’ve been cut back in a similar fashion. Considering his general acclaim as a writer, it’s a little surprising that Morgan’s screenplay is so frequently the weak link.

Similarly, some have criticised Rush for being a bit of a rote, clichéd sports movie. That’s a slightly tricky one to address. I mean, it’s a true story; it happened. If that narrative fits snuggly into familiar plot beats, what are you meant to do? Change the truth to make it less like fiction? That’d be a first. Saying that, I’m taking it on faith (based on comments in the making-of) that the true story was so perfect you wouldn’t believe it if it had been fiction. Maybe they did streamline it. But assuming it’s real… well, it’s not the filmmakers’ fault if life imitates art.

One thing the film doesn’t do, to everyone’s credit, is fall into the stereotypical good guy/bad guy rivalry story. Each of the pair has his pros and his cons, and during the final race it’s genuinely hard to call who you want to win (I guess some will have their favourites regardless, but I know I’m not the only person who didn’t know who to root for). I’d argue that, when it comes to sports movies, you don’t get much less rote-genre-cliché than that.

The two leads give strong performances, particularly Brühl, because he has so much more to work with. Others are less well served. Olivia Wilde’s English accent is faultless, not glaringly over-egged like most yanks playing Brits, and that’s about the most I can say of her. Her mirror image, Alexandra Maria Lara, gets to inject some humanity into the Lauda story, and is pretty much the best supporting actor in a film full of roles but with few of significance. For example, for some reason Natalie Dormer has been shafted with a teeny tiny part. Were her scenes cut? Is it just because she’s mostly a TV actress? Surely she deserves better roles than this. And I didn’t even see Tom Wlaschiha, who is apparently in it too.

All in all, I’m a little surprised how well-liked Rush is. I mean, as of posting it’s at #162 on the IMDb Top 250. That’s a pretty solid placement for the kind of film I’d expect to have a score in the mid- to high 7s on IMDb, enjoyed by some but dismissed by others, not be an 8.2 Top 250er. It is a good film with much going for it, the action scenes in particular, but there also plenty of times when I felt it dropped the ball — I didn’t buy Hunt’s storyline as good moviemaking at all. One of the 250 best movies ever made? No, probably not. There’s a lot to like, but don’t get carried away by the hype.

4 out of 5

I’ve just noticed that three of my last four reviews have been sport-related true stories. Weird, random coincidence.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 (2014)

2015 #127
Francis Lawrence | 123 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

If you’re not au fait with the first two Hunger Games movies, there’s nothing for you here. Why would you want to join a story halfway through anyway?

Even for those of us who are, Mockingjay Part 1 — the first half of a two-part finale that, for my money, plays more like its own standalone movie than most first halves of two-part finales manage (I’m thinking of Deathly Hallows 1 or The Matrix Reloaded here) — throws us in at the deep end, starting a little while after the end of the last film and challenging us to keep up. It’s a little frustrating at times — if you’ve not watched the previous movies into the ground, there are points where you wonder if you’ve forgotten something or just not been told it yet — but ultimately helps make for an engrossing, mature movie.

Naturally I mean “mature” in the sense of “grown up”, not in the oft-misused sense of “for adults only, wink wink”. This is a thoughtful film, one which has more time for examining issues of politicking than for bang-bang-a-boom fight scenes. Indeed, if you’ve come looking for an action movie — as, it seems, most critics did — then you’ll definitely be disappointed. If, however, you’re looking for a film to continue the series’ rich vein of sci-fi political allegory, well, you’re in luck. This edition: propaganda.

In the previous films, heroine Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) inadvertently inspired a rebellion against the ruling Capitol, which has been bubbling away without her knowledge. Now, having been targeted by evil President Snow (Donald Sutherland), she’s been transported to the underground locales of District 13, where they want to put her in films to continue spreading dissension among the other districts. At the same time, the Capitol are putting Katniss’ captured lover Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) on the air, arguing for peace and maintaining the status quo. It’s a war of hearts and minds, essentially, as both sides attempt to rally ordinary people to their cause through the power of the media. It’s a tale that’s as timely as ever, surely.

One of my favourite elements here is the distrust that both sides engender. The rebels Katniss has found herself with are certainly the good guys, battling to overthrow an abusively oppressive regime, but they aren’t whiter-than-white — they won’t always do everything our hero would like; she’s not always sure she can trust them. There’s no doubt about which side is the right one to be on, but it’s at least a little more complex than the norm.

Katniss herself remains a refreshingly un-self-assured heroine. She doesn’t always know or do what’s right, she isn’t always sure of her purpose or her goals, or even her own feelings. That’s so much more human than so many movie heroes, no doubt in part thanks to having an Oscar-able actress to carry the role. True, we’ve seen these facets before from her in both of the previous films, but hurrah to author Suzanne Collins and to the filmmakers for not taking the simple route of having her transform into something she didn’t start as. There’s still a whole outstanding film to bring about such a change, of course, so we’ll just have to wait and see how they follow this through to the end.

The fact there will be another film is an undoubted point of contention. The Hunger Games is the latest to follow in Harry Potter’s footsteps and split the final book of a series in two when filmed. Indeed, since Twilight latched onto that bandwagon it’s become de rigueur, with the final-book-split usually announced as soon as the first film in a wannabe-series is a box office hit — see the Divergent series, for example (or The Maze Runner for one that supposedly won’t succumb to this). Despite the complaints from many other critics and viewers, I must say that (as someone who hasn’t read the book) it didn’t feel overly like the first half of something longer to me. Of course there’s a cliffhanger and stuff, but there was at the end of the last film as well. This is no worse than that. If anything, I felt Mockingjay Part 1 built to its ending more successfully — I was quite surprised when Catching Fire stopped, whereas here the ending felt like a natural stopping point. In fact, given the point some of the storylines reach, it’s difficult to imagine them feeling anything other than rushed if they’d been executed in half the time. Maybe the film is a little drawn out in places and some storylines could’ve been condensed (how many propaganda films do we need to see Katniss make, really?), but that’s a niggle about perhaps wanting a minor trim, not a complaint decrying the need for full-blown editorial intervention.

Whether or not this Part 1 stands alone will be cemented by the next film, I feel. If the focus on using Katniss as no more than a propaganda figurehead isn’t continued in Part 2 then, well, that’s the part of the story that this film is about. It doesn’t feel like it needs to be continued next time — that particular propaganda angle has been fully explored — and so I think this instalment will feel much more like a fully-fledged film in its own right if they just move on. I hope the final film give us new themes, new subplots, new arcs to follow; I hope it feels like Part 4 of 4, in the way this currently feels like Part 3 of 4, and doesn’t play as Part 3B of 3 and retroactively transform this into Part 3A.

If you like a lot of Hunger Games action from your Hunger Games movie, Mockingjay Part 1 will certainly be a disappointment. On the other hand, if you more enjoy the political satire side of the series, it may be your favourite instalment so far (and you wouldn’t be alone in that view). For me, Catching Fire is the best of the three because it crystallises both of those constituent elements; and if the first film was purely the action side (with a bit of the politics), then here we find its mirror image: purely politics (with a bit of action). Either way, perhaps the ultimate fate of all these films rests on how well the next, final part can bring all their action, themes, and plots to fruition.

4 out of 5

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 is available on Netflix UK from today.