Clint takes a look at one or two new releases that come out each week –just a short look at what’s being released in theaters, along with some drinking rules for your own perusal.
Rush / dir. Ron Howard / Universal Pictures
Ron Howard is the poster child for playing it safe: from Apollo 13 to A Beautiful Mind to Cinderella Man, his films are very classically plotted and directed, almost to a fault. Howard is an entertainer, first and foremost, and his style seems well-suited to telling a story (or regaling us with a dramatization of true events) in the most inoffensive way possible. In this light, I’m proud of him for Rush; like many of his films, it’s solidly entertaining and thrilling, without giving us much beneath the surface. Telling the story of the infamous James Hunt/Niki Lauda rivalry of the 1976 F1 season, Rush gives us a perfunctory-but-well-made biopic with plenty of style and some great performances, even if it doesn’t surprise or completely satisfy.
Perhaps the most intriguing thing about Rush is its cinematography, which definitely cops an over-saturated, overexposed fairytale style reminiscent of the late, great Tony Scott. (There’s a big Days of Thunder vibe in the look of the film, mixed with the grit of T-Scott’s later works.) Shots are grainy, hair is haloed, and digital zooms abound; however, the whole thing gives it a look of nostalgia which works in the film’s favor – particularly as the film’s framing device is Lauda thinking back on that rivalry in his old age.* The production is bolstered by an perfunctory-yet-effective Hans Zimmer score and the pitch-perfect costume and production design, which really sells the stylistic differences between Hunt’s and Lauda’s worlds.
Of particular note is Chris Hemsworth’s and Daniel Bruhl’s performances as Hunt and Lauda, respectively; both hold the film capably in their hands as they juggle storylines and focus in equal measure. The film more or less vacillates between one section telling Hunt’s story, then another telling Lauda’s, back and forth until the film eventually blends the two. Hemsworth is all grin and swagger, basically Thor without the faux-humility and seriousness – his Hunt is brash and foolish, only momentarily getting serious when it’s important, and even then being uncomfortable with the concept. His Hunt is stagnant and reckless, but it fits his characterization; his mindset goes in circles as much as his car does, and he constantly tries to settle himself down to no avail. Bruhl’s Lauda, meanwhile, is all percentages and seriousness; he is an engineer and businessman on the track, always calculating risk and focusing on his talents above all else. He is a machine of efficiency, whereas Hunt is one of chaos; Bruhl’s overbite and taciturn demeanor make him easy to dislike as opposed to the affable Hunt, but this makes them feel much more like two sides of the same coin. The supporting cast is admirable, but don’t get much to do – you barely notice Olivia Wilde and the actress playing Lauda’s wife (especially since all the latter really does after their first meeting is look concerned), and everyone else’s role in the film is just to talk about Hunt and Lauda. This is in decent service to the film, though, as it’s all about these two characters and their rivalry.
Despite all of this talk about the characters and the drama, how are the racing scenes? Well, they get the job done; they’re appropriately thrilling and intense, but Howard’s up-close, frenetic shooting style does get repetitive after awhile, especially in a sport as (literally) circuitous as Formula 1 racing. Nonetheless, the film moves along at a good pace, and a large number of the races are shown in montage (complete with wonderfully stylized time/place cards that evoke the advertising of the time), making the film squarely a character drama that happens to feature racing rather than vice versa.
The third-act turn involving Lauda’s accident and recovery is easily the most compelling part of the film; up to this point, it’s all macho car-posturing and the attempts of professional racers to work in a personal life and relationship amidst their own competitiveness and drive. One sequence in which Lauda has to actually have fluid vacuumed out of his lungs is stomach-churning in the best way; one gets the feeling of how much he works and sacrifices to get back in the car as quickly as possible. Of course, this means that Hunt sort of gets the short end of the stick in terms of characterization; he becomes more of a crutch for Lauda to achieve his dreams by the end, and to compare his own philosophy to. (One scene, in which Hunt punches out a reporter who insulted Lauda’s marriage post-deformity, feels engineered to show us that they’re on the same side now and feels a bit unearned.) Despite this, however, Rush remains a solid biopic with great performances and a kinetic style, even if it all plays a bit like every other sports biopic out there.
*NOTE: Is it a recent trend for historical dramas or biopics to end their films with footage of the real people? Rush does it, Argo did it, and I know several others have done it. Is it a Schindler’s List thing?
Clint’s Verdict: Liked It
Drinking Rules for Rush:
1) Drink whenever you see names, places and stats superimposed on screen
2) Drink any time you see grass kicked up or blown by tires
3) Drink every time Hunt or Lauda stare after each other
Finish Your Drink When:
James Hunt says, “FUCK IT!”
Don Jon / dir. Joseph Gordon-Levitt / Relativity Media
Joseph Gordon-Levitt is one of the luckiest men in Hollywood; not only has he been one of the few actors to escape the specter of child stardom (given his teen run on the sitcom Third Rock from the Sun), he’s wormed his way into the Hollywood A-list by sheer determination and talent. It couldn’t have happened to a better guy, too; his experiences to date have earned him the clout to write and direct his first motion picture, and despite a few flaws it’s a very strong debut.
Don Jon feels like Saturday Night Fever for the Youtube era; the film follows the titular Jon (Gordon-Levitt), a beefed-up Italian Catholic of the Jersey Shore mold, as he goes through his daily life, his addiction to Internet porn, and changes in relationships with two different women. One is an incredibly attractive but controlling and prudish “dime” (Scarlett Johansson), and another is a middle-aged-yet-carefree woman in his night class (Julianne Moore). Jon’s life is one of order and routine; Gordon-Levitt shows the monotony and order of Jon’s ritualistic approach to his life – of which he is very proud – by filming each sequence the exact same way. Day in and day out, it’s church with the family, confession, workout, bartend, go to the club, pick up a “random,” fuck her, then sneak off to actually get off to online porn. The ways in which the film’s events change this routine are the bread and butter of Don Jon; it’s a character study about a man whose masculine sense of control is slowly picked at.
It’s also a film about women, and the ways men think about women. Jon’s Internet porn addiction is a central facet of the film; it’s his Achilles heel, and much of the film sees him attempting to quit that habit for his respective girls. First, there’s Barbara (Johansson), an alluring woman who uses romantic comedies in much the same way he uses porn: the film equates the two as masturbation, fillers for what they really want in a relationship. Then, there’s Esther (Moore), who is a woman in mourning who lectures Jon about the unhealthiness of porn. While I admire Gordon-Levitt’s approach to exploring relationships through porn, there are some inelegant aspects to this criticism, namely the aforementioned lecture scene with Esther. Esther notes that, while she watches porn, the “stuff he watches” is unhealthy, because it’s one-sided; it’s a good message, but one that could have been more slyly handled than having a woman sit Jon down and tell him what he needs to be doing. If she were to even explain what the difference between her porn and his porn is, that might give us a better perspective into what Esther means. The film attempts to showcase Barbara as being a controlling, emasculating influence in Jon’s life, but Esther does the same thing, and isn’t given enough screen time to really differentiate her approach from Barbara’s other than that she’s somewhat more relaxed and intimate. By the end, it somewhat seems as though Jon has merely traded his porn addiction for an Oedipus complex.
That being said, Gordon-Levitt’s direction is assured, and the hyperkinetic, flashy editing of the beginning reflects his fast and loose club lifestyle, in which he and his friends sit around rating women on a numerical scale of hotness. JGL himself is fantastic as Jon, a self-assured character who never really collapses into tears, but slowly reveals the frustrations in his life. This is most clearly realized in a great scene where he gleefully tells his priest in confession that he has quit porn and is on his way to a stable, loving relationship, only to be given the same number of Hail Marys and Our Fathers to recite to atone for his sins. Catholicism, and confession in particular, is treated as a hollow, superficial practice in this film, to great effect. He’s also clearly a chip off the old block, as Jon’s father (brilliantly and hilariously played by Tony Danza – YES I SAID IT) is just as lecherous and superficial as he, though he hides it in a family-centric set of priorities with Jon’s overbearing Italian mother (Glenne Headly, who apparently plays everyone’s mom now) and perpetually-texting sister (a mostly-mute Brie Larson, who gets a predictable Silent Bob-in-Chasing-Amy moment late in the film).
Overall, Don Jon has its problems – it doesn’t explore its issues nearly as elegantly or evenhandedly as I’d like (the women get very little internal lives of their own, instead acting as ciphers for Jon to bounce his porn/mommy issues off), and many elements strike me as overly precious or derivative of other works. However, this is still an incredibly solid effort by a first-time director, and shows great promise for future releases.
Clint’s Verdict: Liked It
Drinking Rules for Don Jon (SPOILERS):
- Every time you see a straight-on closeup of Jon’s face
- Any time you hear a laptop startup noise
- Whenever Jon gives confession
Finish Your Drink When:
Brie Larson finally speaks.