RUSH: Worth the drive


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RON HOWARD IS a master story-teller. “Rush”, the (apparently, heavily) fictionalized account of the clash of two former titans of Formula One – Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl) and James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) – is as grippingly told a tale as they come. The story tracks the progress of these two combatants, from their early days in Formula Three to a climatic battle in the rain on the track in Japan for the ultimate world championship.

As one of the team managers says in the movie, “Men love women, but their real love is for cars.” Well, perhaps, for some men anyway. The point is, though I’m sure men who love cars will love this film as much as they probably loved “Sena”, that other recent classic about motorsports, this isn’t a niche movie for car lovers or even for that matter, sports lovers. It’s a movie about the lengths people go to win, to pursue some sort of self imposed ideal of perfection.

It takes an almost existential fanaticism to push oneself to be the best. This was a time (the 70’s) when motorsports was probably the most dangerous sport in the world, and at least a couple of drivers died every season. This was the risk drivers faced every time they strapped themselves into the cockpits of their “racing bombs”. And Howard keeps this risk at the forefront of the movie. He wants us both to experience what it feels like to be in one of these cars hurtling along at superhuman speeds (via some thrilling direction and camera placements – he seems to have found new ways of showing cars racing, by sometimes putting the viewer almost under the vehicle, where we feel every bump and skid of the track) and to understand fully the death-defying dare-devilry of the drivers.

They drove, knowing full well that there was always a 20% chance of death; and they drove as though they had nothing to lose. Indeed, Howard suggests, that dimension of non-responsibility, was, as the story makes clear from the beginning, a mandatory.

We are introduced to both men as outsiders – men outside the familial embrace of ‘loved ones’. As Lauder himself says to his (long suffering) wife, Marlene (Alexandra Maria Lara) “Happiness is the greatest danger. For then you have something to live for”. And it is indeed happiness that keeps him alive, but also happiness that it is ultimate undoing.

But what keeps him driven, is his uber alpha need to win, in particular to beat Hunt.

The symbiotic relationship of these two men is the dramatic engine of the movie. Howard takes liberty with reality by emphasizing their differences. Lauder is the thoughtful, contemptuous, controlled, un-liked Austrian. For him, winning is as much the result of science and strategy as brute force and speed. Hunt is the charismatic ladies-man; the swashbuckling, champagne swilling, joint toking daredevil.

This is the Nietzchean dichotomy of Apollo, god of the sun, dreams and wisdom and Dionysus, god of wine, ecstasy and intoxication. For the Greeks, these two were essentially dimensions of one interlinked idea. And Howard offers us that: at a race in Nurburing, raced in appalling conditions, Lauder crashes and, nearly dying, suffers horrible burns. As he lies, bandaged and scarred in hospital, his ferocious will to stay alive is catalyzed by his refusal to accept defeat by Hunt. This Apollonian god of the sun rises like a Phoenix (to mix my myths) to challenge the Dionysian Hunt one last time. And Hunt, feeling responsible for the crash, needs his nemesis to fight one last time. A victory earned with an opponent in hospital or dead is a hollow victory.

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And thus, both needed the other, both preparing to risk everything, Howard builds his story to this modern-day gunfight on the track. Here, racing (once again) in blinding rain, the whine of the F1 engines roaring in our ears, the director brings and keeps us at the edge of our seats as engagingly as any film in recent memory.

Or, maybe I’m just one of those for whom love of car is a mighty and enduring romance.

Of course, Howard, this exile from “Happy Days” is one of the best-loved director brands in Hollywood. He’s had a few downs (“The Dilemma” “The Da Vinci Code”) but he’s also had memorable triumphs (“Frost/Nixon”, “A Beautiful Mind”, “Apollo 13”, “Backdraft”). “Rush” clearly falls into this latter group.

Daniel Bruhl (Lauder) is a Spanish born German actor, who I first remembered in a small part in “The Bourne Ultimatum” (where he was Bourne’s lover’s brother). He had a bigger role in “Inglorious Basterds” and we’ll see him again soon enough in “The Fifth Estate”.

Chris Hemsworth (Hunt) was a pleasant surprise. This Australian has featured mainly in thuggish movies, where he’s the well-sculptured hunk (such as “Thor” and its many iterations and “Snow White and the Huntsman”). But here, he exudes a genuine big screen charisma, and certainly seems to have a lot more on offer than mere muscle.

Also nice to see, in an almost cameo role, Natalie Dormer as one of Hunt’s many lovers. She, some of you may remember is Margery Tyrell of “Game of Thrones” and was the scheming Anne Boleyn in “The Tudors”.

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Rush to “Rush”, it’s worth the drive.

 

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The Reluctant Fundamentalist: Unsatisfying


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I FINALLY GOT around to seeing “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” a year after it more or less rose and fell without much of a trace. And today, Remembrance Day, seems an appropriate time to write about it.

Now here’s a movie that comes with some pretty solid creds: the book by Moshin Hamid was shortlisted for the Mann Booker Prize for 2007 and the film is directed by Mira Nair, whose “Monsoon Wedding” and “The Namesake” were solid, well made, engaging stories. It also has a cast of A-listers: a black-haired Kate Hudson as the love-life (but finally playing – awkwardly – against her usual ditzy-blonde persona), Kiefer Sutherland as a ruthless money-driven captain of industry (so nice not to see him torturing people as he did every week on “24”), Liev Schreiber, who is one of the finest stage actors but whose film roles seem stuck in B-lister nonsense (“Wolverine”, “Salt” etc) and Riz Ahmed (A British actor and rapper according to IMDB) as Changez, the protagonist.

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The story follows the life of this young, poor but patrician Pakistani, as he aculturizes to his adopted country of the US, first as a student at Princeton, and then as a brilliant, and typically ruthless New York financier. His world falls apart just after 9-11 when, to a jittery, shaken US, he is no longer seen as some rich, well-dressed New Yorker, but as a potential co-jihadist. Twice we see him arbitrarily ‘arrested’ and humiliated by racist authorities (Ms Nair is scrupulous to make one of his tormentors Black. This was a time when religion and brown-ness was far more fearful than that old crime of being born Black).

Taunted as much by his poet father (the ever dependable Om Puri) for his choice of career (as inhumane as the same treatment he finds himself subjected to by authorities defending ‘freedom’) as by both his own new-found epiphany of being no more than an outsider no matter his business success, and of being secretly thrilled at the image of the falling Twin Towers (which he finds “bold”, “creative”, “daring”), he quits the job and the faux-life it offered him and returns to Pakistan, newly radicalized.

This is his story – a story within a story – which he tells to an American journalist living in Pakistan, Bobby Lincoln (Liev Schreiber). “Don’t judge me until you’ve heard my entire story”, he tells Bobby. But Bobby isn’t listening to him out of empathetic curiosity, he’s playing him along, guided by a battalion of eavesdropping CIA Agents, in the assumption that Changez knows and will reveal the location of a kidnapped American academic.

There’s an American philosopher called Stephen Heath who says that “the prime function of ideology is to construct subjects” (for instance, he notes, the IRS don’t see you as a husband or wife or employer, they see you as a taxpayer). The trap in which Changez finds himself, and which the movie explores, is finding the balance between identities. We see how this young man: brilliant financier, loving son, patient lover, passionate fan of America is repositioned ideologically as a proto-Jihadist ‘subject’. To his dismay, he feels that his lover (a White woman – Kate Hudson) sees him solely as a Pakistani; his father he thinks, sees him solely as an exploiter of labour. Changez’ ego cannot deal with this fragmentation of his personality, of his super-ego. So he constructs a persona to re-acculturize with his new life in a changed world: he becomes the reluctant fundamentalist.

But his shift from proto-American financier to Pakistani academic is perceived by CIA ideology as signifying a radicalization; one that simply isn’t based on truth. Bobby, the journalist, assumes his guilt and fails, as Changez had implored, to judge him only after understanding his full story.

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This failure leads to tragedy and death (as it has on the bigger stage)

As you’d expect, the story is deftly directed by Ms Nair; she contrasts the two worlds – the pre 9-11 world of New York which is a world of possibilities and hope with the post 9-11 world in the same city: now one of wariness and fear – with the two Changez’ : the clean-shaven go-getter and the bearded (or masked) cynic.

And yet, though the movie opens many doors and embarks upon many themes, most of these are never resolved. So you come away entertained but ultimately unsatisfied.

At one point, Changez asks his students, “I was part of the American dream; and I knew what that was, but,” he asks them, “just what is the Pakistani dream?” It’s a great question – but never resolved or even pursued.

Changez is mentored and shaped by two key personalities: Jim Cross, his financier boss (Sutherland) and Abu (his father – Om Puri); commerce v culture; profit v poetry. Indeed, it is upon being presented a translation of one of his (impecunious) father’s books of poetry by a publisher he’s about to put out of business, that he has a change of heart. So poetry wins the day? Does his father – as artist – represent a kind of honesty that Jim Cross lacks? Is the new changed quasi-radicalized Changez more honest with himself? And how do these ideas play into the bigger narrative that suggests that it was America’s Islamophobia that tipped him over the edge?

“The Reluctant Fundamentalist” is potentially a five hour movie that Ms Nair tried to cram into two. She keeps the drama propelling along nicely, but very much to the sacrifice of intellectual depth and substance.

 

Ain’t Them Bodies Saints: Carefully Crafted


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This is a flawed, but thoughtful and intelligent movie set in the 70’s but in what really feels like a timeless world hovering mid-point between ballad and blues. It’s a moody tale about a small-time bank-robber Bob Muldoon (Casey Affleck) who, after four years in prison, breaks out to journey back to the woman he loves, Ruth (Rooney Mara) and his young daughter. It’s a journey that seeks to pretend away a dangerous past and the reality of a tragic future. Muldoon, so well imagined by Casey Affleck with his boyish, innocent good looks, is like some dumb animal acting on pure instinct, driven on by a doomed love and a belief that life can be as he imagines it to be.

First time director/writer David Lowery (who’s done his time in the industry as an editor and cinematographer, as well as director of numerous shorts and TV shows) is, I think, one to watch. He brings scrupulous care in his creation of a kind of brooding moodiness, where the half-lit, empty landscapes of blowing reeds and grasses, the dun-coloured derelict houses and one-bulb interiors lend an atmosphere of incompleteness, of unfulfilled lives.

And he narrates a story best understood not from what he tells us, but from what he omits. We are introduced to Muldoon and Ruth as they’re about to rob a bank. This presumably doesn’t go as planned as we next meet them under siege by the police. It is in this siege that she shoots, more through sheer fluke than any suggestion of marksmanship, one of the policemen, Patrick (Ben Foster), who later falls in love with her. Muldoon insists on taking the rap for the shooting and is sent down for twenty-five years. He escapes four years later. Lowery makes no effort to dwell on this or offer any real explanation (“I just walked out”, Muldoon tells one of his friends). As he makes his way back to Ruth, we discover that he’s being trailed by a trio of bounty hunters, intent on revenge for something – we’re not sure what – he did either to one of them or their employer. It’s left vague. They’re there more as symbolic choric figures of how a bad past will literally be the death of him.

Directory Lowery is more interested in pointing our attention to his protagonist not as criminal and villain (which he is) but as a manifestation of doomed love. Muldoon’s desire to return to his woman, with whom he has had almost no contact in the four years he’s spent in prison (she claims to have lacked the words needed to write of her love to him), is essentially a Quixotic one. But what it illuminates is the heroic, life-affirming, boundless humanity in the man. For, as this ballad of a movie suggests, love is both ennobling and transcendent (transcending the nasty details of the life he’s lived, and which the director has kept deliberately in the shadows), as well as ultimately selfish and willfully blind.

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Muldoon’s act of selflessness (taking the rap for his lover’s shooting) that sets the tale in motion, is balanced by the selfishness of his desire to run away with his family, as if the implacable relentlessness of the law were a mere fiction. Love just simply isn’t enough to keep the untold story from intruding into reality.

Love, the story shows, is a force for both protection, as well as destruction. Ruth is the narrative’s dramatic center-point. She is the one they – her lovers past and future and her ‘paternal protector’ – all gravitate toward, intent upon her protection. And she is a slightly distant, distracted presence – loyal to her man, but lonely and in need of the care and attentiveness offered her by her would-be protector, officer Patrick (the same policeman she shot) and the father figure, Skerritt (a laconic Keith Carradine). It is directed toward her that we see love’s three faces – Skerrits’ paternal love of parent to child, Patrick’s less than romantic love that seeks to offer the reality of a solid shoulder and a home and Muldoon’s romantic, passionate love that, built only on dreams, can inevitably lead nowhere.

The movie has echoes of “The Place Beyond the Pines” in its exploration of the reality that love itself, no matter its powers of redemption, is ultimately not enough. It’s not enough to simply assume that love is a substitute for responsibility. The fact of fatherhood is not a pass to happiness or fulfillment.

It’s nice to see a well-crafted, thoughtful movie for a change, after this summer of super-hero discontent. And it’s exciting to see such confident maturity in a first time director. But Lowery, clearly influenced by the greats – Eastwood’s “Unforgiven” hovers around many of the shots and its sense of rhythm – still needs to make his filmmaking feel less self-conscious. On many occasions, the dialogue and the set-pieces felt stilted and forced. This meant that even as he achieved at times a  great deal of verisimilitude (people really looked as thought hey were shot), his characters often spoke like ideas in need of personality… as though the writing hadn’t quite fleshed them out.

Which should take nothing from the quality of the acting. In particular, Rooney Mara’s chameleon-like face – at times stunningly beautiful, at times flat and ‘ordinary’ – brings an extraordinary presence to the screen. Her Ruth is low-keyed and understated; and she has taken what is really quite a small part, and made it very much into a quiet gem.

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L S Lowry: Master Painter of Industrialized England


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LS Lowry (now on at the Tate Modern) was the painter whose visualization of England between the wars – a waste land England filled will anonymous hollow men scurrying to dehumanizing factory-belching jobs – offered a dramatic and shocking change from the idea of England as one of Romantic Wordsworthian lyricism.

It’s an epic vision of a post war, ruthlessly industrializing England, painted in a style that’s distinctly, idiosyncratically Lowry.

In the catalog to the exhibition, the artist is quoted as saying, “I saw the industrial scene and I was affected by it.” You bet! Lowry’s range of topics is very limited and focused. He painted how he saw, what he felt about the country – mainly centered around the –sordid- lives of working class urban Manchester and Salford in the 30’s and 40’s.

His large canvasses articulate a strong and uncompromising social conscience with great clarity, and without any hysteria or the appearance of polemic. These are not rabble-rousing paintings illustrating any political agenda – they’re one man’s own perspective of a world where the weight of the city and the industrial fires that sustain its inhabitants, have combined to make urban anomie visually tangible. He is England’s Hopper.

His parsimonious palette – for he used very few colours: ivory, black, vermillion (red), Prussian blue, yellow ochre, flake white – offers us a world that’s drained of colour, of light. In this world, there are no shadows. The colour of the sky is a sort of jaundiced yellow-grey. It’s the same colour as that of the earth, as if the artist were suggesting that looking up offered no better view than looking down.

And his people, the thousands that fill his canvases, are all mainly looking down even as they slant forward, as if pulled by forces beyond their control; pulled either toward packed football stadia or toward blank, feature-less edifices topped by towering chimneys that dissolve into smudges of grey smoke. The buildings, the houses, the landscapes are all as faceless and anonymous as the people that congregate around them.

Lowry’s world seems to be one where winter has settled in for the long haul. But not the winter of white wonderland picturesqueness, but a winter of long coats and mackintoshes that help weigh down his people who seem to cluster together in knots as if the anonymity of the crowd offers some sort of solace, an emotional warmth against the cold, unyielding emptiness out there.

This painting shown above is, to me classic Lowry. It’s called “The Match”. There, dead center of the painting is the stadium to which the crowds are hurtling. Lowry’s bare economy of lines and colours offer just enough information to illustrate his point and evoke a perspective. There’s no sense of jubilation here. These people are as hunched over just as they are in the paintings where he has them slouching to work. And the artist has arranged them in formal patterns, in clusters of souls, not as a suggestion of friendly socialization, more as a reflection of almost intuitive tribal behavior. Even as they rush to entertainment their lives are regimented and, it feels pre-ordained. In the background, as they almost flee the belching chimneys, Lowry seems to be offering us the dynamic of working class life: work all day and then escape to the gladiatorial arena – their only opiate and relaxation.

As we noted earlier, the sky and the earth blend into the same dull tone – a distorted version of Larkin’s “milky sunlight”. They could be reflections of each other. Within this dimensionless backdrop, he arranges the spatial clusters in the painting. On the left is the football club; a solid massive place; on the right, fading into a twilight distance are the mills and manufacturing places from whence the crowds flow. This area of the painting – the area of work – has an ironic lightness to it, an emptiness. It is from this work/emptiness that the crowds are fleeing. And it is in the need to stand against this emptiness that they clump together the way they do.

This is TS Eliot’s world. Listen to him from “The Waste Land”

“   Unreal City,

Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,

A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,

I had not thought death had undone so many.

Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,

And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.”

It’s also the world of a more modern poet, Adam O’Riordan, whose poem Manchester laments:

“You’re the blackened lung whose depths I plumb,

The million windows and the smoke-occluded sun”

To Lowry, painting eighty years before this poem was written, here’s what his “smoke-occluded sun” looked like:

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There has always been a clear divide between the idea of England, which has tended to be one of city life v rural life, with the latter often suggesting not so much innocence as honesty and shelter. Shakespeare in ‘As You Like It’, summed up the two worlds succinctly:

“Are not these woods

More free from peril than the envious court?”

It was the divide between Seamus Heaney’s city, with its Lowry-like…

“          …safety of numbers,

A crowd half straggle-ravelled and half strung

Like a human chain, the pushy newcomers

Jostling and purling…”

And Anne Bronte’s idyll…

“I’ll rest me in this sheltered bower,

And look upon the clear blue sky

That smiles upon me through the trees,

Which stand so thickly clustering by.”

Lowery’s landscape makes a mockery of this divide. For him the smoky detritus of the city has seeped into the idyll of the country. The trees have disappeared and have been replaced by collapsing electricity poles; the barges and boats that you’d expect to glide upon a sparkling river are half sunk into a grey quagmire. His landscape has deliberately removed the usual crowds that surge through his paintings. It’s as though the feral collusion of the city’s dark Satanic mills and the once free flowing river – source of easy navigation, angling and rustic bliss – have edged man entirely, literally, out of the picture.

This is an art of such timeliness and relevance (oh those clever boffins at the Tate) that you’d wish some sneaky guide could lead Cameron, Osborne and his city slicked mandarins to this exhibition where, oh it would be nice to hope, some of them might be tempted to ruminate on what life in England was and is so hurriedly returning to.

WE’RE THE MILLERS. Harmless


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WE’RE THE MILLERS is an occasionally funny film that, sadly will soon be back (I’m sure) in an even less funny version, “We’re the Millers 2”. The story offers an engaging enough premise: small time weed dealer, David (Jason Sudeikis – mainly from Saturday Night Live and other minor appearances) has had all his stock and savings stolen by a gang of thugs – which leaves him indebted to slime-bag drug king pin, Brad (Ed Helms of “The Hangover” series).

In order to pay off his debts, he’s forced to go down to Mexico to pick up just a smidgen of weed (really, you could probably get all you need from LA…anyway it’s just a movie). David reasons that in order to avoid border patrol searching him, it’ll be easier to look like a boring mid-Western family. So, he recruits Kenny, a neglected teenager neighbor (Will Poulter from “The Chronicles of Narnia” and who’s actually the funniest thing in the movie), Casey, a vagrant (Emma Roberts, from various teen horror flicks) and of course, the star of the show, Rosie, a disgruntled, unemployed, dumped upon stripper (Jennifer Aniston)

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Along their picaresque journey, this faux family meets various bad guys, drug dealers, DEA agents, closet swingers, gay Mexican policemen, nasty tarantulas, the “smidgen of weed” turns out to be more like a ton of it and of course they finally all bond as a real family.

There’s a smattering of funny lines, with enough “fucks” thrown in so that you know you’re watching an ADULT COMEDY; the situations are less puerile than the usual American comedies (the Hangovers and American Pies and the variously named Frat House indulgences) and there’s Jen quasi stripping.

The good news is, as we’ve always known, she has a wonderful bod.

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The bad news is that her funny bone has now been stretched well past its sell-by date. Haven’t we seen Jenifer Aniston in this role for the last century or so? Sandra Bullock I could see making something of this half -baked production and a whole lot more of Jen’s stripper with a heart of gold cliché. As we saw in “Miss Confidentiality” this fifty year old can fuse together sexy and comedic seamlessly. Jennifer just seems uncomfortable. Indeed, she seemed curiously distant from the entire production. My guess is that bad drug dealers in her neighbourhood (dealing probably tofu and spinach) blackmailed her into this role. Or, more likely, some desperate agent felt she needed to ramp up her sex creds to finally leave “Friends” behind. And what we get is this less than sexy, unfunny performance. If she continues like this, she’s going to turn into Meg Ryan.

That said, the rest of the cast work industriously hard to make “We’re The Millers” just a smidgen above mediocre. Director Rawson Marshall Thurber is the one who gave us “Dodgeball: The Underground Story”, which would indicate that viewers really shouldn’t get their hopes up too high. It’s a sold more or less OK. If you have nothing else to do and there are no books worth reading in your house and the US Open isn’t on.