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New films: Rush, Don Jon, Baggage Claim, and Prisoners

Rush
Directed by Ron Howard

In 1976, one of the biggest sports rivalries on a worldwide scale was between Grand Prix drivers James Hunt and Nikki Lauda. This was a big deal in the UK when I was growing up and I’m old enough to have watched these races when they happened. As drivers, Hunt and Lauda were closely matched but as people they were very different. Lauda was the analytical Austrian who calculated his every move while Hunt was a playboy Brit who lived in and for the moment.

“Rush” does the remarkable by capturing both the sense of rivalry between the two men as well as the excitement of the track environment. Auto-racing at this level is very difficult to re-create, especially with what are now vintage car designs, and the film manages to convey a great deal through some fairly minimalistic sequences. At times, early on, this is somewhat disappointing as we get geared up for a race and instead we’re simply told the outcome onscreen – but as the film progresses, the overall pacing of the action succeeds and we’re shown just enough to hold our attention, such that the extra events would probably have detracted from the telling of the story.

And it’s a compelling story – with Lauda pushed hard enough that he acted out of character and raced on a day when conditions weren’t really safe, suffering great injuries as a result. But what would have ended many careers brought him back to the track, with much left to prove.

Ron Howard does a great job here and the lead actors were well selected for their appearances. The story is thin in terms of never introducing us to the other drivers, even in passing – they clearly aren’t the focus but Hunt and Lauda also weren’t out there driving alone. The film also does a better job of capturing Lauda as a fully formed individual than it does with Hunt, who went on to become somewhat of a professional celebrity, before burning out at only 45. But in terms of capturing the racing events of 1976, it’s a great achievement.

 

Don Jon
Written and Directed by Joseph Gordon-Levitt

Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s writing and directing debut will surprise many people, and put off many as well. The subject matter is graphic and frank in its depiction of a young man obsessed with online porn, and as he explains his outlook on life, the film is punctuated early on by repetitive masturbation. However, as much as that needs to be said to ensure people know what they’re getting into, the film is really very good. It’s not going to appeal to everybody (but what does?) but the story and character development at its core are really quite wholesome and meaningful.

Jon (Gordon-Levitt in the title role) is obsessed not just with porn, but with working out, with his apartment, with his family, and with his routine – which includes going out with his guy friends to pick up girls at bars and clubs. There’s a competitive, sporting aspect to all of this and the character of Jon is like “Jersey Shore” come to life. He’s unveiled to the audience in a manner that’s unforgiving and it’s easy to see him as shallow and unsympathetic – such that we’re inclined to feel sorry for any girl he might encounter.

However, he’s not a fundamentally bad guy – he’s just immature and somewhat sheltered in terms of the limited emotional connections he’s ever made. So his world and outlook are rocked when he meets Barbara (Scarlett Johansson), a girl whom he suddenly sees as more than just a Saturday night conquest.

And this is really where the film gets interesting as the development of the relationship causes a re-examination of all the assumptions one has made about the characters. Jon also meets an older woman (Julianne Moore) in an evening class that Barbara convinces him to take. There’s a certain amount of growing up occurring here, but it’s also a significantly cautionary tale about not judging books by their covers as sympathies shift.

“Don Jon” is an excellent debut from a young filmmaker who has navigated the transition from child star to adult actor, and now writer/director, far more successfully than most. While the subject matter may alienate some viewers, the outcome is far better than a casual description might suggest. And, as if the writing/direction isn’t good enough, the casting of Tony Danza as Jon’s father is pure genius.

 

Baggage Claim
Directed by David E. Talbert

The new film to skip this week is “Baggage Claim” – a film that repeats the error of the recent “Austenland” by focusing on a lead female character that isn’t actually especially likable. Instead of rooting for her to get the good guy (you know, the good guy who’s obviously the good guy right from the start), you’re likely to find yourself hoping that things don’t work out, entirely for his sake.

It’s also a film that’s offensive on multiple levels – the lead character Montana Moore is a flight attendant who is desperate to find a husband. Her younger sister is about to marry and her mother has managed to secure five husbands, so far. So she gives in to her colleagues’ plan to track down various ex-boyfriends of hers, by accessing the airline’s customer manifests and reservations system. Aside from working as though there’s only one airline in the country, the story neatly sidesteps what an egregious invasion of privacy that represents (guys, would you really want to marry this woman?). It also includes gay characters, apparently largely because they’re easy to laugh at. And the humor is repetitive at best: Literally every time she has to catch a flight, she’s in a mad rush to make it on time – and somebody thought the idea of having a friend of a friend working as a security screener who rushes her through the line was so funny that it warranted the same “joke” being told several times.

If you’re looking for a lame story about an unlikable character doing unlikable things – then either watch “Baggage Claim” or CSPAN – both will probably fit the bill.

 

Prisoners
Directed by Denis Villeneuve

I missed last week’s column for health reasons, but wanted to take the opportunity to comment on last weekend’s highest grossing film. “Prisoners” is a well acted, well paced thriller about two families whose young daughters disappear. The tone and the overall production are good but the film has, in my opinion, a fundamental flaw.

Back in 1990, I remember watching “Kindergarten Cop” and deciding ahead of time which small kid in the classroom was going to be the target of attention, because I only recognized one of the young actors. And while casting can often be the key to the success of a project, it can also sink one or undermine any sense of suspense if you encounter an actor who seems too important to be cast in a small role.

“Prisoners” works on many levels, but it only works as a true thriller if it keeps you guessing. Unfortunately, many plot points are telegraphed and others are given away by casting choices – at least for regular movie-goers or industry watchers. This is a film that’s probably best appreciated by those who are more occasional watchers of movies. I didn’t dislike it overtly, I just don’t remember ever being surprised by anything that happened.
 

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About the author

Tony Sheppard

Tony Sheppard

Tony is a Professor at Sacramento State, Co-Director of the Sacramento Film & Music Festival and a long-time writer, primarily on topics related to film and the film industry. He is an active supporter of the local arts community, an amateur photographer, and has an interest in architecture and urban planning topics. He is currently designing a 595 sq.ft. house on a very small infill lot in Sacramento.

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