Tag Archives: B+

RUSH

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B+

You don’t have to be a race fan to enjoy Ron Howard’s take on the rivalry between James Hunt and Andreas “Niki” Lauda in the 1976 Formula One championship season. In fact, it’s possible to consider the series of races a pretty silly business, given the inherent and unnecessary danger they pose, and yet still find “Rush” a winner, even if it sputters occasionally in its progress around the track.

Actually the script—another literate gloss on actual events by Peter Morgan (“The Queen,” “Frost/Nixon”)—introduces the two men before the year of their down-to-the-wire competition. As shown here, Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) is a carefree though ambitious hedonist, happily taking risks on and off the track while depending on the financial reserves of his aristocratic backer (Christian McKay), as well as his own talent, to lift him out of the lower racing division into the big time. Hunt is the polar opposite of Lauda, an intense Austrian who defies his father to pursue his dream, putting his own financial future at stake in the process. As obsessively pragmatic as Hunt is wildly intuitive, he’s also socially inept in contrast to Hunt’s easy companionability, bluntly telling others the truth as he sees it and offending whomever he talks to in the process. Needless to say, they rub one another the wrong way from the start, and the animosity builds after Hunt nearly causes a crash with a reckless move against Lauda in a race.

It doesn’t take long before both men effectively buy their way into Formula One placement, and both find romance—Hunt with supermodel Suzy Miller (Olivia Wilde), whose career soon causes strain in their marriage (along, of course, with his off-track activities), and Lauda with aristocratic Marlena Knaus (Alexandra Maria Lara), who gives up her independence to become a supportive wife. But their main interest continue to be on their cars, and in the series of grueling races that together determine the contestants’ place on the roster, Lauda goes significantly ahead, until a terrible accident intervenes.

The rest is history, of course, but since it’s a story not every viewer will know, it would be churlish to reveal too much of it here. Suffice it to say it involves an excruciating period of recuperation, shown here in quite graphic detail, an astonishing comeback, and the development of a grudging friendship in the aftermath of competition. And Howard doesn’t skimp on expanding the film with archival material that provides information on the two men’s later lives. Though the picture loses steam in the sections dealing with the men’s domestic lives—the segments about Miller’s flirtations with other men, including Richard Burton, especially come across as glossy soap opera—for the most part Morgan and Howard make the right choices.

Throughout Howard and his pit team—headed by cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle and an expert visual effects crew supervised by Jody Johnson—succeed in making the racing footage almost palpably exciting, abetted in no small measure by the razor-sharp editing of Dan Hanley and Mike Hill and Hans Zimmer’s insistent score. That’s an important part of the film’s success, but the action would be of little interest unless the piece were character-driven as well. Hemsworth has the easier job, since the extrovert Hunt seems a natural fit with his exuberant personality. Lauda is the greater challenge, particularly since Bruhl must play him with a set of prominent false teeth that give him—as with the man in real life—a rodent-like appearance that racing enthusiasts freely ridiculed. But even behind makeup that would have done Lon Chaney proud, he gives a stunning performance, capturing the passion that simmers beneath the apparently cool, calculating exterior and the indomitability that marked his character. The remainder of the cast—even Wilde and Lara—are definitely spectators in the stands, as it were, but they all do what’s demanded of them (which basically consists of watching Hemsworth and Bruhl strut their stuff) more than satisfactorily.

Howard’s film delivers the adrenaline rush the title promises, but thankfully it does more than that, providing an engrossing—and ultimately stirring—human story as well. There’s plenty of speed and action here, but “Fast and Furious 7” this certainly is not. And while that might limit its boxoffice take, in terms of quality it’s something for which serious filmgoers can breathe a sigh of relief.

WADJDA

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B+

As many Iranian directors have done in the past, Saudi filmmaker Haifaa al-Mansour weaves a tale that possesses political bite, but makes its points through the eyes of children. “Wadjda” is on the surface a lightweight tale of a twelve-year old tomboy who challenges what’s expected of young girls by wanting a bike. But the film is no more about a bicycle than “The Bicycle Thief” was. It’s an indictment of the treatment of women in fundamentalist Islamic society, told from the perspective of a youngster who challenges the system in a modest way that brings a small but real triumph.

Waad Mohammed, a bright-eyed girl with a winning smile, plays Wadjda, who loves her mother (Reem Abdullah) and father (Sultan Al Assaf), but trouble is brewing in the household. She’s an only child, and since her father badly wants a son, he’s inclining to his mother’s wishes that he marry again. (Wadjda herself is crushed when the note she adds to her father’s family tree, which lists only males, is removed.) Meanwhile her mother, a teacher, is constantly upbraided for her tardiness by the driver she must have because women don’t operate cars. And at school, Wadjda—who’s somewhat rebellious, as is demonstrated in an early scene that focuses on the beat-up sneakers she favors over the polished black shoes of her classmates—gets stern looks from the principal (Ahd), who insists on absolute female propriety, in accordance with Islamic tradition, among her students.

Wadjda does get some solace from her friendship with the neighbor’s son (Abdullrahman Al Gohani), a tyke who’s obviously in awe of her attitude and—after she announces her determination to buy a bicycle to beat him in a race—even agrees to help her learn to ride his (after getting her agreement to string some election-campaign lights on behalf of his uncle from her house, despite her mother’s misgivings). Meanwhile, she puts down a deposit on the bike she’s enamored of with the proprietor of the neighborhood toy shop.

But where will she get the rest of the price tag? The solution comes with the announcement of a school contest pitting students against one another in answering questions about, and reciting portions of, the Koran. Though heretofore an indifferent student, Wadjda sets her mind to winning the prize, joining the religion club and plunking down cash for a video game centered on knowledge of the Holy Book. The principal is properly impressed with her apparent change of heart, even as she’s punishing other students for their behavioral lapses (which, we’re told, might well persuade their families simply to marry them off as punishment). But, of course, she isn’t aware of the motive behind Wadjda’s new-found devotion.

Mansour’s film certainly isn’t shy about driving home its point about the subservient status of women in Saudi Arabia. In addition to the myriad plot threads on the subject already noted, there’s another, concerning the consideration Wadjda’s mother gives to taking a new job in a hospital, where a more liberal attitude toward wearing the burkha prevails, that further reinforces it. But the writer-director’s touch in dealing with these matters is generally fairly light, always returning to Mohammad’s beaming face as she savors the possibilities that lie before her or the earnest concentration with which she regards the disappointments she has to confront.

“Wadjda,” moreover, is smart enough to say what the girl comes to realize: that while she may enjoy an occasional small triumph, she remains part of a culture in which she’ll still be constrained by custom and law. As moviemaking goes, that’s a cunning strategy on Mansour’s part, allowing for a juxtaposition of climaxes that mix messages of hope and the obstacles to it in a satisfying way. The result isn’t a Pollyanna movie, but neither is it a downbeat one. By including both small steps forward and setbacks, it manages to be both uplifting and realistic, charming and incisive.

“Wadjda” proves a winner in a great many ways.