Sunday, October 20, 2013

Short Takes: Rush, World War Z, and More

Rush (dir. Ron Howard, 2013)

The best sports movies are able to communicate how rivalry and competition drives the people who make playing games their life. Rush, which is based on the true story of the rivalry between Formula One race car drivers James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl) in the 1970s, has a terrific competition at its center, a sport that's extremely dangerous. However, the rivalry never really becomes tangible until about halfway through the film, when Peter Morgan's script decides to focus solely on the year 1976. Until then, the film is a mess, swapping back and forth between the two drivers without any of it feeling important. But when the film kicks into high-gear, it's a terrific thrill ride. Howard stages the racing scenes with great tension, and Anthony Dod Mantle's cinematography is gorgeous at times. However, it's Bruhl who almost single-handedly carries this film. He's been doing great work for years, but Lauda is the first role that most American audiences are going to see him in, and he brings great humanity to a man who was known for his cold calculation. On the track, Lauda was laser-focused; too bad Rush couldn't follow suit. C+

World War Z (dir. Marc Forster, 2013)

Based on the behind-the-scenes drama - going overbudget, star Brad Pitt's on-set arguments with Forster, a completely re-written and re-shot third act - you'd think World War Z would arrive as a bloated, shuffling corpse of a film. Instead, like the film's zombies, it's surprisingly quick and exciting, though don't expect much in the way of soul. Gerry (Pitt), an ex-U.N. specialist, is called back into action when zombies begin wrecking havoc all over the world, as we goes on search of the pathogen's source so that a cure can be developed. It's a role that Pitt is pretty much slumming in, though the film isn't particularly interested in its human characters (Mirelle Enos is his barely-there wife). Instead, Forster - who's previous foray in action cinema, Quantum of Solace, didn't go so well - moves diligently from one big setpiece to the next, the best of which is a stunning crash sequence of a zombie-filled airplane. There's not much human life beneath the surface, but World War Z still manages to be an enjoyable ride. B

*By the way, I was a big fan of Max Brook's original novel, with its oral-history structure and interest in the cultural and geopolitical aspects of such a situation. I realize that that could have never worked as a summer tentpole studio film, but one day - maybe 20 years from now or something - it would be an interesting concept to revisit this as a television miniseries, perhaps as a series of faux documentaries.

Iron Man 3 (dir. Shane Black, 2013)

Leave it to the folks at Marvel to take what should have been a tiring third entry in the Iron Man series and turn it into something unexpected. Of course, a lot of the credit belongs to writer/director Shane Black, the former action-screenwriting wunderkind who found a second wind with Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (reviewed here). He takes what could have been another bombastic entry in the superhero canon and transforms it into a buddy action flick, spending more time with Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) instead of Iron Man (in fact, the suits no longer need a human operator) and seeing Tony team up with old buddy Jim Rhodes (Don Cheadle), now going by Iron Patriot, to defeat the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) and the oily Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce). There's a mid-film twist that I'm not convinced totally works, but the cast is all-around great, and Gwyneth Paltrow finally gets a chance to be more than just window-dressing. It's more fun than it had any right to be, and it's a breath of fresh air as Downey Jr. (presumably) rides off into the sunset from these films. B+

Mud (dir. Jeff Nichols, 2013)

Matthew McConaughey has been having a killer past couple of years, with great performances in a number of films that have helped distance him from his goofy-romantic-comedy past. Mud is yet another of these great performances, featuring McConaughey as a fugitive living on an island in the Mississippi river when he's discovered by two young boys, Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), whom he enlists to assist him in taking care of business before he flees again. Nichols, who made 2011's terrific parable Take Shelter, presents this Southern-fried pulp like a Terrence Malick film, with plenty of shots of the Arkansas environment around the river. The film is perhaps too long, and the story perhaps wraps itself up a bit too neatly to fit with what came before, but both Sheridan and Lofland make engaging young leads. But this is, ultimately, McConaughey's movie, and he lends Mud - both the character and the film - just the right amount of sleaze and soul. B

The Sapphires (dir. Wayne Blair, 2013)

There's a great premise to The Sapphires: the true story of an Aboriginal Australian girl group that travels to Vietnam in the 1960s to perform for U.S. troops at a time when Aboriginals are not considered human but rather "flora and fauna" by the Australian government. However, The Sapphires wastes a lot of its potential by presenting it in standard biopic form that too often feels lifeless. It certainly doesn't help that, in the film as well as in the marketing, the girls - Kay (Shari Sebbens), Gail (Deborah Mailman), Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell), and Julie (Jessica Mauboy) - take a backseat to Chris O'Dowd, who plays their loutish manager. It would have really been interesting to see this story told from their perspective, rather than his. The tunes are catchy, but the film never matches their energy. B-

Captain Phillips (dir. Paul Greengrass, 2013)

Let's get this out of the way first: yes, of course Tom Hanks is terrific here as Captain Richard Phillips, who has taken hostage by pirates aboard the Maersk Alabama in 2009 in the first successful pirate attack on a US ship in nearly 200 years. But attention must be given to first-time actor Barkhad Abdi, who plays the pirates' leader Abdulwali Muse. Abdi, a Somalian-American, goes toe-to-toe with Hanks  and nearly matches him in every scene, proving himself to be a magnetic presence and a spectacular actor. Their duet is what makes this film sing, moreso than Paul Greengrass' expectedly-excellent direction (his usual jerky camera makes sense in the context of being adrift at sea) and Billy Ray's tight script. If the film has any flaw, it's that most of the third act is devoted to US Navy rah-rah heroism, which feels out-of-place within the rest of the film's tight focus. But as a nerve-wracking, impressive thriller, it's one of the year's best films. A

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