A TOUCH OF SIN and RUSH



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A Touch of Sin, the new movie written and directed by film and troublemaker (not necessarily in that order) Zhangke Jia, has more than a touch of a touch in it.  It’s a portmanteau film revolving around four different people who end up doing violence in modern day China, all driven by the corruption and greed that is oozing its way past the Communist idealism, and all inspired by true events.  
In this post-Mao China, men with axes stop motorists on lonely roads for money; local enforcers extort bribes from truck drivers who want to drive through their city; and prostitution is commonplace (it has one of the most extravagant whorehouses you’re going to see on film in some time–the ladies of the evening kinkily marching out to patriotic military music in red army uniforms with short shorts and midriff revealing shirts is one of the highlights of the movie).
The film is a riveting look at how power corrupts and money corrupts even more.   It’s uncompromising and shocking.  Jia shows his characters great empathy, no matter how horrifying their actions, while the bleak landscape offers no sympathy for any of them (beautifully shot, if that’s the word for it, by Yu Likwai).   It paints a very dark picture of Jia’s country and is apparently being released in China, but how is anybody’s guess.
Also based on true events is Rush, but oh, what a difference an ocean can make.  In fact, while I was watching this movie about rival race car drivers, all I could think was, Do writer Peter Morgan and director Ron Howard realize just how bad, how really terrible, their movie is?  And then I checked out the critic conglomerate called rottentomatoes.com and saw that it received a 92% rating.  92%.  From the top critics, the ones with jobs at places like the Chicago Tribune, The Atlantic and The New Yorker (that earthquake you just felt was Pauline Kael turning in her grave).
So I suspect the answer to my question is, no, they don’t.  But at least they have an excuse.  But for the life of me, I have no idea what possible apology the critics could come up with.  Rush is a big, over the top, studio type film that falls resoundingly flat, runs out of gas almost immediately, crashes and burns from the opening shot,  as well as any other number of puns one can come up with to describe just how appallingly dreadful it all is (it’s a real drag, in other words).
The story revolves around a 1970’s rivalry between James Hunt (a blond-haired, blue eyed satyr) and Niki Lauda (an emotionless, stoic Austrian), Formula One drivers lusting to be world champion.  To be fair, Morgan and Howard have set themselves a high bar.  They have given us in these central characters two of the most unlikable people one has met on film in some time.   Worse, they have given us two of the most boring people one has met on film in some time.  They also give these two a rivalry based upon reasons that are so petty, it’s almost impossible to take it seriously, much less become emotionally involved in the stakes.   In fact, there were times when I wondered why Morgan and Howard hadn’t made it a dark comedy; the basis of the story almost seems to demand it at times.
I don’t know how anybody can drain all excitement and interest out of a movie about racing, but Howard has somehow managed to do just that.   He does little to dramatize what the races are like (the camera is more often than not kept at a distance, like a spectator who couldn’t get a good seat).  He seems to have almost no interest in the thrill and passion of the racing experience or in seeing it through the eyes of the characters; instead he only seems to care about who wins what race—the exact opposite of what is interesting the audience.
He does try his best, though.  Most of the time he keeps that camera moving, never letting it stop to smell the roses, with frantic tracking shots and quick edits.  It does imbue the movie with some tension at times, but more often than not it just feels like a desperate attempt to hide the fact that there is no there there on the screen. 
Morgan’s dialog is basically everyone explaining to everyone else how they feel and why they act the way they do.  And there’s just so much of it.  Even more enervating are the taunting back and forths between Hunt and Lauda that never rise about the basic “Oh, yeah?”, “Yeah”, “Oh, yeah?”, “Yeah”, “Well…yeah”.  I doubt Wilde could have put it any better.  And the actors (a bland, as usual, Chris Helmsworth as Hunt and a buck toothed Daniel Bruhl as Lauda) can’t seem to do much with the material either. 
I’m not sure why this movie made me so angry.  It certainly isn’t Morgan and Howard.  They’ve both created solid and successful entertainment in the past and everybody has a failure at some point.  No, I think my real anger is toward the critics who should know better.   People, this movie doesn’t work and you have no excuse for not knowing that.  You really need to get your act together.
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SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN


One of those films that once you leave, your first thought is, “Wow, that movie is going to get a lot of technical nominations at the Oscars next year”.  It’s stunning to look at with amazing costumes by Colleen Atwood; frightening art direction and set design too many people to list; and incredibly beautiful cinematography by Grieg Fraser.  But as for story, etc., well that’s another cup of tea.  It’s one of those cautionary tales (like Network) about what happens when you let a woman try to do a man’s job.  Charlize Theron plays a wicked queen who doesn’t want power, just power over men; she doesn’t want to rule, but just stay eternally young and beautiful and is willing to walk all over any other woman who gets in her way.  Yes, there’s an unpleasant whiff of misogyny and fear of strong women here and there in the movie, but it’s not all the fault of director Rupert Sanders or the writers Evan Daugherty, John Lee Hancock and Hossein Amini.  There is that source material (can anyone imagine a king being bothered to say “Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the handsomest of them all”).  But I did feel like they pushed it a bit here.  Kristen Stewart plays Snow White.  She’s very effective when she isn’t saying anything.  Her eyes and the shape of her face are incredibly expressive; one can’t look away.  This effectiveness is at times unfortunately lessened when she has lines to say (again, to be fair, the dialog does fall a bit flat here and there).  Chris Helmsworth is the huntsman and has the same problem: he’s handsome and has presence out the whazoo (though with not quite so expressive a face), but he also has to speak at times.  And the result, unfortunately, are two characters whose relationship is suppose to be the heart of the story, yet there is almost no charisma or heat between the actors.  Then there’s the problem of the seven dwarfs.  I expect that I will be laughed at here for taking political correctness a bit too far, but I was actually offended that these characters weren’t played by little people, but by better known character actors whose faces were CGI’d onto dwarf-like bodies (not always that well, I thought, though my friend Jim disagreed—he though the SFX people did an excellent job here).  I’m sorry, but it felt a bit too much like black face; are you really telling me you couldn’t find seven small actors to play these rolls (Time Bandits didn’t seem to have the same problem)?  There was also the additional issue in that half the time I wasn’t listening to anything they were saying, instead just trying to remember where I knew that actor from (Bob Hoskins really threw me for some reason).  The whole story climaxes with a battle scene that is begun with Snow White in Joan of Arc drag delivering a rousing speech to the soldiers she will lead, like Henry V before the Battle of Agincourt (talk about mixing metaphors).  At least that was the intent.  It was so unimpressive to me, I’m afraid, that all I could think is that Stewart is no Lawrence Olivier or Kenneth Branagh and the writers no Shakespeare (the very next night I saw the episode of Game of Thrones where Peter Dinklage was required to do the same thing and did it so brilliantly, that I realized that Oliver or Shakespeare wasn’t necessarily necessary for something like this to work).  In the end, the movie is big and over the top and really goes for the juggler.  And though it wasn’t to my taste, I do have to give fare due and say Jim loved it and highly recommends it.  So decide for yourself.