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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THERE’LL ALWAYS BE AN ENGLAND: Reviews of Endgame, The Damned United and Pirate Radio


I first saw Endgame on Masterpiece Theatre Contemporary and was then surprised to see it turn up at a movie theater near you, though it’s certainly good enough to play there. The basic set up is quite fascinating: it’s the 1980’s and apartheid is still in full swing in South Africa. This means that businesses, especially those run by other countries, aren’t doing well due to the country being unsettled (you know, riots, strikes, unrest, those sorts of annoying things). Into the midst of this steps one of those mid-level bureaucrats that England seems to be fascinated with as of late (see Children of Earth, District 9, In the Loop), this time played by Johnny Lee Miller, who works for a major mining company. He has a possible, though decidedly out of the box, solution for his company’s troubles: end apartheid. Who’d a thunk it? The company goes along with him and he sets up secret (or so he thinks) meetings in England between leaders of anti-apartheid groups (most notably one played by Chiwetel Ejiofer) and sympathetic white minority liberals (most notably one played by William Hurt). Meanwhile, President Botha tries to sabotage everything by manipulating imprisoned Nelson Mandella, who won’t be manipulated. It’s a crackerjack piece of historical entertainment excellently written, as only the English often can, by Paula Milne. Though the acting is first rate across the board, perhaps Johnny Lee Miller is the most impressive. Normally this actor radiates an incredible tension and intensity that can make one uncomfortable; here he plays a character that is suppose to blend into the background and he does it by…blending into the background.

The Damned United is a sports movie about a person who has to lose before he can win. The moral of the story is painfully formulaic and insultingly obvious—the execution is anything but. Michael Sheen is again the lead in a movie written by Peter Morgan (they also worked together on The Queen, Frost/Nixon and the Deal—why don’t they get married already). He plays Brian Clough, a soccer (excuse me, football) coach who eventually lead England to two world victories. One would think that would be what the film was about. It’s not. It’s about how Clough had to humiliate himself and lose again and again in order to become a better person so that he could eventually lead England to two world victories. Clough’s downfall before victory begins years earlier with a slight by fellow coach Don Revie, played by Colm Meany, who refuses to have a post game drink with him and cuts him upon entering a stadium. Of such slights are great dramas built. Clough eventually becomes such a great coach he is offered to take over Revie’s first ranked team—and then Clough proceeds to alienate everyone he knows and lose game after game after game. When he comes to accept what a mess he’s made of his life and agrees to get down on his knees and beg forgiveness from Timothy Spall, who plays his assistant, he is forgiven by one and all and eventually works his way back up the ladder (but only in an epilogue printed on the screen at the end). The acting is first rate (keep a look out for Stephen Graham who played Baby Face Nelson in Public Enemies), the story fascinating, the script tight and to the point. Those who aren’t into sports movies, you will be relieved to know you actually see very little football played.

Pirate Radio is a great idea that never really comes together. It’s also based on a true incident (can’t English filmmakers come up with fictional stories anymore). It’s the 1960’s and rock and roll is banned from English radio. So a group of D.J.’s take up residence on a ship in the Atlantic and broadcast from there. Though the script was written by the normally enjoyable Richard Curtis (who also directed and previously wrote and directed Love, Actually), this one only works in fits and starts. It’s not always easy to say why. It might have helped if the story had more cleanly focused on the central character, James (played by Charlie Rowe, who also played Annette Bening’s son in Being Julia where he, well, his character, also lost his virginity as he does here), a teenager sent to live on the ship with his godfather (whom he’s never met) played by Bill Nighy. It’s through James’s eyes that the audience is suppose to experience the story, but this through line is a bit wobbly, made more so every time the story cuts to the government trying to put a stop to these off shore shenanigans. While Charlie’s story is done in a more realistic, though still somewhat stylized style, this second part of the movie has characters played (rather well) by Kenneth Branagh and Jack Davenport (this movie’s mid-level bureaucrat) in a contrasting upper class twit as seen on Monty Python style and feels more distracting than central to the story. In addition, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, one of our finest actors, seems out of place amongst all these Englishmen; again his acting style seems so different than the slightly caricatured actors around him, that the whole thing just gets more wobbly (it might also be that he really doesn’t have that much to do or a real reason for being in the story). Only Bill Nighy, who has the most imaginative line readings of almost anyone working today, rises above the material. The story ends with both a parody of Titanic and Dunkirk; possibly good ideas, though they don’t quite work either. I’m sure the whole thing seemed like a good idea at the time, but it just doesn’t really make it.