Guest Review: The Zookeeper’s Wife (2016)

guestpost

Directed By: Niki Caro
Cast: Jessica Chastain, Johan Heldenbergh, Daniel Brühl
Runtime: 2 hr 7 minutes

The diversity of Holocaust-themed movies has increased over recent years as filmmakers try different storytelling approaches to keep alive our collective memory of what happened. One film that has divided the critics is The Zookeeper’s Wife (2016). While most of this genre uses graphic realism to confront large-scale human carnage and moral dystopia, this beautifully filmed story tells how 300 Jewish lives were saved by the owners of the Warsaw Zoo.

The film opens in 1939 with stunning photography of an idyllic existence in the charming Warsaw Zoo. Owners Antonina (Jessica Chastain) and Jan (Johan Heldenbergh) are devoted zoologists who love their animals and each other. There are many touching scenes of physical affection that portray trust and understanding across the human-animal divide. The peace is soon shattered by Nazi bombing and there are many disturbing scenes of animal destruction. Soon after the Nazis arrive, the Zoo’s best breeding specimens are sent to Berlin under Hitler’s zoologist Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl). With Nazi soldiers needing housing, the Zoo is under threat but saved when Antonina obtains Heck’s support to convert it into a pig farm to feed Nazi soldiers. He becomes a frequent visitor to the Zoo and his sexual overtures towards Antonina means she must keep him charmed to save the Zoo. As the atrocities against Polish Jews escalate, Antonina and Jan hatch a plan to use garbage trucks to smuggle Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto to freedom via Zoo tunnels. The story focuses on the dangers of hiding the Jews and the horror facing those who are loaded into cattle-trucks for transportation to Hitler’s Final Solution.

The critical ambivalence towards this film dwells on its aesthetic treatment of the opening scenes and what some argue is Chastain’s saintly characterisation of Antonina. While the cinematography is superb from beginning to end, it does adopt an excessively sugary style in the pre-Nazi-occupation part of the story. The opening scenes of Antonina cycling through the zoo, personally greeting the caged and free-roaming animals, smiling and waving to all of humanity, are both beautiful but incongruous for the story we know is about to unfold. From the extraordinary scenes of Antonina saving a new-born elephant in front of its distressed parents to the harrowing escape scenes, the film almost deifies the heroine for her goodness towards others. But these are directing issues rather than acting. Chastain’s performance is excellent across the range of emotions she portrays and she is a glowing beacon of light in a film that could easily have been depressingly bleak.

The Zookeepers Wife is a worthy addition to an honourable genre that includes the multi-award winning Schindler’s List (1993). It communicates the larger Holocaust narrative while keeping its carnage and dystopia off-screen. In an age of audience desensitisation, it is ironic that viewers can be emotionally touched more deeply by the death of animals than humans. This is a story of courage and triumph, told from a woman’s viewpoint, with top-tier production values in filming, acting, and narrative. It is also an important part of Polish history. Antonina and Jan were decorated as national heroes and the re-built Warsaw Zoo still stands as a legacy to their achievements.

4Reels

cinemuseRichard Alaba, PhD
CineMuse Films
Member, Australian Film Critics Association
Sydney, Australia


Have you seen ‘The Zookeper’s Wife’? Well, what did you think? 

Guest Review: ALONE IN BERLIN (2016)

guestpost Directed By: Vincent Perez
Cast: Brendan Gleeson, Emma Thompson, Daniel Brühl
Runtime: 1 hr 43 minutes

War films are stories writ large about aggression between nations. Few of them explore small-scale human undercurrents of suppressed dissent inside the countries at war. Alone in Berlin (2016) does this by looking at an ordinary working-class couple and their compulsion to express feelings about Hitler’s dictatorship at time when dissent meant certain death. It is also an essay on parental grief struggling to voice pain and loss.

Based on real events, the story opens in a small flat in Berlin where Otto Quangel (Brendan Gleeson) and his wife Anna (Emma Thompson) learn that their son has died in battle. In a long marriage that is under strain, the news pushes them further apart as they cannot console each other in grief. Otto had encouraged his son to join the Nazi army and now Anna blames him for their loss. Desperate to voice his rage against Hitler’s regime, he painstakingly writes postcards and secretly leaves them on stairwells and doorways where they can be seen by passers-by: he calls them “small grains of sand in Hitler’s machine”. Initially he keeps Anna away from his dangerous mission, but she insists on being involved and they both become clandestine resistance fighters whose weapons are simple messages about the evils of Nazism. They manage to write and distribute over 260 cards despite extensive investigative efforts to stop them. In the process, they resurrect their marital relationship. After almost two years of card-writing they are caught and together face Nazi justice.

This film has two parallel narratives that start in opposition and end in convergence: one is Otto and Anna’s actions, the other is the investigation. The first is focused on the smallness of the couple’s actions in contrast to the enormous risk they are taking, like a pair of mice squeaking at roaring lions. The filming, colour palette and period setting are drab and lifeless; the atmosphere is paranoid with suspicion and mistrust; and the acting is subdued and understated. Brendan Gleeson and Emma Thompson are actors with broad performance repertoires but here they are minimalist in expression and Spartan in dialogue, with much being conveyed through furtive glances or avoided eye-contact. It is a slow-moving story, observant of small details in an alienated world. This has the effect of amplifying the intensity of Otto and Anna’s actions. Close-ups of a pen leaving a trail of outrage on a small white card become powerful portraits of bravery that are ultimately futile as most of the cards were handed in to authorities. The couple’s nemesis is a young German investigator (Daniel Brühl) who pursues his work with ideological fervour for the Fuhrer but whose success turns into the film’s most devastating moments of despair.

This is a joyless story about humble heroism. Otto and Anna are emblematic of ordinary people dealing with tragedy and anger inside a world of fear and danger. Far from being mere victims, their small protests seriously unsettled the Nazi hierarchy and the closing scenes are a tribute to the power of two human “grains of sand”.

4Reels

cinemuseRichard Alaba, PhD
CineMuse Films
Member, Australian Film Critics Association
Sydney, Australia


Have you seen ‘Alone in Berlin’? Well, what did you think? 

FlixChatter Review – Captain America: Civil War (2016)

CapAmerica_CivilWar_bnr

The buzz over the latest Marvel blockbuster has been through the roof. It’s already made over $200 mil internationally before it even opened here in the US, so no doubt it will wipe out any competition here this weekend.

I have to say that despite my increasing superhero fatigue, I was still looking forward to this one mostly because I love the first two Captain America films, and I have faith in the Russo brothers’ direction. Like Zack Snyder with Batman V Superman, Anthony & Joe Russo had the tricky task of not only continuing the thread of the Avenger story, pulling off a large ensemble cast AND help launch/introduce individual standalone films (Black Panther, Spider-man). Suffice to say the Russos did a much, much better job than Snyder in delivering an entertaining Summer blockbuster that’s actually has depth and thought-provoking ideas. Interesting that The Avengers and Superman share a similar predicament in their effort to safeguard humanity, and how the DC and Marvel tentpole movies are dealing with the issue of accountability.

CapAmerica3_img4

The ‘Civil War’ in the title stems from an ideological conflict about what should be done in that issue of accountability and collateral damage, and whether a governing body (in this case the UN) should oversee them. Now, the fact that the perceived common enemy happens to be Steve Rogers’ (Chris Evans) BFF Bucky a.k.a. The Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), it’s easy to see which side the Cap is on. The events in The Winter Soldier has undoubtedly made Cap wary of big government and how a centralized power could be manipulative and corrupt. So it makes sense that he won’t be so easily persuaded to sign something like The Sokovia Accords that’d essentially put the Avengers under UN control.

Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow: Just because it’s the path of least resistance doesn’t mean it’s the wrong path. Staying together is more important than how we stay together.

Steve Rogers/Captain America: What are we giving up to do it?


Whilst the motive behind Captain firmly believing in self-regulation is more clear cut, I’m not as convinced why Tony Stark would support it with little resistance. A cameo by Alfre Woodard briefly reveals the burden of guilt on Tony’s part as the Stark companies supplies most of the weaponry (including Captain himself who was created in the lab of his dad Howard), but still I’d think he’d be more apprehensive about government interference in the Avengers.

I have to say that the film has a pretty slow start. I understand they’d have to establish the conflict and a reason for all the fighting, but it went on a bit too long for my liking and frankly, it all feels a bit tedious. Thankfully, things do pick up as soon as an incident happens at the UN meeting and before you know it, Captain becomes a hunted man wanted by the government along with Bucky. It’s there that we meet new Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU)’s member Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and he certainly looks the part. This is perhaps one of the most diverse cast in a Marvel film aside from the X-Men franchise.

CapAmerica3_img2

I think the fact that the same writers, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, are involved in the Captain America trilogy so far makes the film flow nicely and has a cohesive storyline. They also did a decent job showing the events in previous films to viewers who might not be familiar with the Avengers story, i.e. the battle in the fictional Eastern European country Sokovia in Avenger: Age of Ultron that caused massive collateral damage. Marvel fans would especially enjoy the references and inside jokes, especially during the actual civil war battle involving a dozen MCU superheroes. This is also the first time we see the new Spider-man (Tom Holland) as part of MCU and he’s definitely a highlight. Spidey is supposed to be a wisecrackin’ teenager and Holland’s captured that. All his comments as he’s fighting the other heroes, like referencing Empire Strikes Back and saluting Cap before he fights him, are a hoot.

CapAmerica3_img3

Spider-Man (to Bucky): You have a metal arm? That is awesome, dude.

The intro to the appropriately-aged character is full of good humor as he’s fanboying over Iron Man, who somehow still has time to flirt with aunt May (Marisa Tomei, Robert Downey Jr’s co-star in the rom-com Only You) despite a brief 36-hour deadline to arrest Cap. There’s a lot of fanboy-ing going on in this movie that’s so hilarious. My fave part is when Ant-Man (the immensely affable Paul Rudd) meets Cap which got one of the biggest laughs in the theater.

Scott Lang/Ant-Man: Look, man, I know you know a lot of super people so… thinks for thanking of me.

Captain America: Civil War is commendable for having the right balance of story, character, emotion, humor AND high-octane action. The fight scenes are well-choreographed that you can see the action and despite the sheer number of people fighting, it wasn’t so bombastic that it’s headache-inducing. The story never feels cartoonish even with SO many characters involved and the battles feel sprightly and fun without being frivolous or silly. When one character is injured, we feel the emotion of fellow team members and the sense of solidarity is definitely there. The Captain America trilogy benefits from the strong base of Steve/Bucky relationship established in the first film. I totally believe why Cap would go to such length to protect his best friend and stand by his side regardless of what he’s done, and I think Bucky would’ve done the same if the situation were reversed. I love Evans and Stan even more as they become more at ease in their respective roles, and Anthony Mackie is always so charming and fun as Falcon. I also have to mention how I appreciate Scarlett Johansson‘s Black Widow more and more, and the fact that she’s undeniably torn between the two sides is a testament to her intriguing character arc.

CapAmerica3_img1

The key in making a huge ensemble cast work is they have to have a reason for us to care for the characters. It’s getting immensely tricky here but I think keeping the focus on just a small group helps. The final battle between Cap, Iron Man & Winter Soldier is not only cool to watch but it also carries a certain emotional weight because there’s something personal that affects the three of them. It’s perhaps one of the most compelling dramatic moments from RDJ that I’ve seen in all the Iron Man & Avengers movies so far.

That said, I don’t think this film is perfect and I don’t think it’s the greatest MCU film so far, as many critics have said. I’ve mentioned about the rather sluggish start, but there are also moments that don’t really work. Daniel Brühl is a perfectly capable actor but he barely makes a dent here amongst an ocean of characters, though I think the character’s motive is a pretty decent one. The romance between Cap and Sharon Carter also feels so obligatory and the lack of chemistry between Evans and Emily VanCamp doesn’t help. Oh how I miss Hayley Atwell‘s Agent Carter who’s such a strong female character who doesn’t need any superpowers to make a difference. I also find the music unmemorable as I barely remember any of it, which is odd given I LOVE what Henry Jackman did with The Winter Soldier.

civilwar_fight

All in all, it’s a VERY good film that ties all three Captain American movies superbly well and would rank amongst the best film trilogies. After this, I’m even more confident in the Russo brothers’ directing talent and MCU is definitely in capable hands if they continue to make Marvel movies. I love the end credits of the first two Captain America movies and they did an excellent job here as well. In terms of replay-ability value, this one ranks third after The Winter Soldier and The First Avenger, both of which I actually just re-watched last night and I still enjoyed them immensely!

4halfReels


So have you seen ‘Captain America: Civil War’? Let me know what you think!

Rental Pick: Woman in Gold (2015)

WomanInGoldPoster

Maria Altmann, an octogenarian Jewish refugee, takes on the Austrian government to recover artwork she believes rightfully belongs to her family.

Let me start by saying that Dame Helen Mirren is one of my favorite actresses I’d watch in practically anything. She’s easily one of the best things of any film, including this one.

As a woman whose torn apart from her family in Vienna, Maria Altmann is given the chance to take back what’s rightfully hers, but she must also face her dark past in the process. Woman in Gold has a historical significance, but what drew me to the story is the personal connection.
WomanInGold_Mirren_MaslanyFollowing her sister’s funeral, Maria discovered letters dating back to the 40s that prompted her to reclaim her family’s artwork. She enlisted help from an inexperienced lawyer who happened to be the son of a friend, Randol ‘Randy’ Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds). I have to admit I’m not enthused on Reynolds’ casting and in the end, his performance confirmed my dread.

The film utilizes several flashback sequences of Maria’s once-blissful life with her affluent family. It’s a close-knit Jewish family but she’s her aunt Adele’s favorite (Antje Traue), who was the subject of famed Austrian painter Gustav Klimt. The Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I (also called The Woman in Gold, hence the title) is practically the Mona Lisa of Austria. Though the monetary value is clearly substantial, the personal value is what’s priceless to Maria. I find myself more drawn to the flashback scenes, I was quite impressed by Orphan Black’s Tatiana Maslany as the young Maria. That goodbye scene with her parents was such a tearjerker.

WomanInGold_Antje_PaintingIn fact, it felt like a different film entirely as the tone is far more serious and emotional. In fact, the scenes where Maria and her then husband Fritz (Max Irons) were chased by the Nazi officers was pretty intense. In contrast to the contemporary scenes in both L.A. and Vienna, the tone is rather whimsical and at times it didn’t seem to have the gravitas the story deserves. Now, I don’t blame Reynolds entirely, as it’s more of a writing and directing issue, but his casting doesn’t help. He’s fine when the role requires him to be whimsical, but I find him entirely unconvincing in the emotional scenes. I just don’t think he’s got dramatic chops, though I suppose I should give him props for trying. It’s quite infuriating to see a perfectly capable actor like Daniel Brühl [as the Austrian journalist who helped Maria’s cause] not given much to do.

WomanInGold_still

Overall I enjoyed this film, there are some emotional as well as fun moments sprinkled throughout. Yet, whenever the film hit a particularly poignant note, the next scene strikes an entirely different note that it seems rather jarring. I understand that perhaps director Simon Curtis injected humor to make the film less heavy-handed, but the movie became so uneven in the process.

That said, if you’re intrigued by the story, this is certainly worth a rent. It’s not exactly a work of art by any means, but I definitely like it more than Monuments Men. Of course having Helen Mirren in the lead makes the film all the more fascinating. I’d still recommend this one if you like historical dramas, I find the flashback scenes in Austria to be especially compelling.

3halfReels


Have you seen Woman in Gold? What did you think?

///

Five new-to-me actors I’d love to see more of – based on 2013 viewings

Since I started last year, I’m going to make this post an annual thing (well, for as long as I have this blog that is). I mentioned in the first post that one of the joys of watching movies is discovering new talents. Again, I may not necessarily love the film they appear in, but the actor(s) in question could still make an impression to me to make the list. The obvious case for me this year is last year’s Honorable Mention Oscar Isaac (who in hindsight should’ve been on my MAIN list) in Inside Llewyn Davis. I’m not terribly fond of the film but I LOVE his performance and I’d love to see more of him in Hollywood.

So like last year, I’d like to focus on those I either wasn’t aware of prior to 2013, or that for some reason I just didn’t notice them until last year. Some of these actors have been working steadily and relatively well-known to some, but they were ‘obscure’ to me until recently. It’s perfect timing that I had just read the BAFTA Rising Star nominees earlier this week, and a couple of their nominees make my Honorable Mentions.

FiveNewFaves2013

In any case, based on my 2013 viewings (not exclusive to movies released last year) , here are five new-to-me actors I’d like to see working more in Hollywood.

[In alphabetical order]

Riz Ahmed

FiveNewFaves_AhmedI had never heard of Riz Ahmed before but apparently the British Pakistani from Wembley London is a pretty well-known actor and rapper. Well he didn’t rap in the movie I saw him in, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, but he gave a pretty soulful and affecting performance as a Pakistani man pursuing the American dream. I was pretty mesmerized by the 31-year-old, though apparently he also had a bit part in Michael Fassbender’s swashbuckling actioner Centurion in 2010.

What’s Next: Well according to IMDb, he’s got supporting roles in Nightcrawler and Violent Talent, not sure yet about the release dates. I hope he’d get a leading role again in the future as he definitely has the talent AND gravitas to pull it off.

Lake Bell

FiveNewFaves_BellApparently miss Bell has been acting in various movies and TV shows like The Practice and Boston Legal, but I haven’t seen a single film of hers until her directing debut where she also starred. The film was this comedic gem In A World … which I saw at the MSP Film Festival in a sold-out showing.

The leggy and beautiful actress could’ve been a fashion model (and she probably was at some point), but she made herself to be a disheveled mess in her own movie, but yet she’s so fun to watch! I hope she does more comedies as she’s so naturally goofy and has quite a knack for physical comedy. As a voice over talent trying to break into a male-dominated industry, she proves her mettle both in front and behind the camera. I love that she explored a plot that hasn’t been explored much but definitely ripe for a hilarious comedy!

What’s Next: I just saw her in the trailer for sports drama Million Dollar Arm with Jon Hamm, and she’s also up for a thriller with Owen Wilson (??) and Pierce Brosnan called The Coup. But what I’m looking forward to is Bell teaming up with Simon Pegg in British comedy Man Up, now I don’t know what the premise is yet, but it sounds like fun!

Daniel Brühl

FiveNewFaves_BruhlNow, I’ve already been aware of Brühl from his memorable supporting role as a Nazi officer in Inglourious Basterds. But everyone’s performance in that movie was practically eclipsed by that Austrian Christoph Waltz. But this year, I was impressed by the 35-year-old German actor in not one but THREE films: RUSH, The Fifth Estate, and Joyeux Noël. I’m thrilled that he’s nominated for a Golden Globe for his performance as Niki Lauda in RUSH, but hopefully Oscar won’t overlook him.

There is a quiet charisma about him that I like, not to mention his versatility. Apparently he’s part Spanish as his full name is Daniel César Martín Brühl González Domingo (wow!) and he’s fluent in German, Spanish and French on top of English, of course. No wonder he’s able to pull off different accent, which is key to being offered roles of various nationalities.

What’s Next: I saw him in the John le Carré’s spy thriller A Most Wanted Man with Philip Seymour Hoffman, but looks like he’d have a more prominent role in the drama The Face of An Angel with Kate Beckinsale.

///

David Oyelowo

FiveNewFaves_OyelowoHe’s one of the trio of British-African actors I’m really loving lately, along with Idris Elba and Chiwetel Ejiofor. I first noticed him in Rise of the Planet of the Apes and then The Help, but last year I saw him in Jack Reacher and Lee Daniels’ The Butler. Now, it’s the latter that REALLY made me take notice as the 37-year-old actor somehow can pull off playing a teenager and college freshman believably. Not only that, the Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (LAMDA) graduate also has the on-screen charisma to match his natural acting talent.

Like many British talents, Oleyowo are often mistaken for being an American as he effortlessly pulls off various accent. In fact, most of the roles I saw him in was him playing an American. Many Brits might recognize him from earlier season of Spooks (MI-5) as well, so he’s perhaps one of the most successful Spooks-alum as Hollywood’s taken notice of him.

What’s Next: He’s got no less than seven projects listed on his IMDb page, yay! One of them is Interstellar. But what I’d love to see is him in leading roles as he surely deserves it. Sounds like he’s the protagonist in Nightingale and Five Nights in Maine, and a supporting role (rumored) in Jurassic World.
///

Andrea Riseborough

FiveNewFaves_RiseboroughWhen I first saw Riseborough in Disconnect, I was blown away by her performance… only to be floored later on when I realized she’s British!! I’d say her role as an ambitious journalist was one of the most grossly-overlooked performances of 2012! Later in the year I saw her in OBLIVION where she uses her natural accent and she was truly the best performer in that entire movie!

The third film I saw her in, Shadow Dancer with Clive Owen, she plays an IRA member-turned-informant and pulls off an Irish accent beautifully. She reminds me of my favorite actress of all time Cate Blanchett, who has the same chameleon-like ability with not only her looks but her accent, demeanor, etc. The 32-year-old English actress was trained at Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA), so I guess we can expect quality work from this future thespian.

What’s Next: She’s part of an ensemble cast of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s upcoming film Birdman (also starring Emma Stone, Ed Norton and Naomi Watts), as well as The Silent Storm with Damian Lewis. Hopefully she’s got a bigger role in the latter.


Honorable Mentions:

These five names did an impressive performance last year, though two of them (Robinson and Nyong’o had not acted before). Poulter and Nyong’o are one of this year’s BAFTA Rising Star nominees year’s nominees, too.

Tye Sheridan (Mud)

Somehow I didn’t notice him much as Brad Pitt’s son in The Tree of Life, but here he’s definitely memorable. As one of the two young boys in MUD who befriended a man with a shady past (Matthew McConnaughey), Sheridan’s character was the heart of the film. I’d love to see what else he’s got going on next.

Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave)

It’s definitely one of the most talked-about performance of the year but her sensational performance hopefully won’t be a one-hit wonder. The Mexican-born Kenyan actress was a graduate of the Yale University School of Drama’s Acting program and she has a pretty extensive stage credits. She’s starring with Liam Neeson next in the actioner Non-Stop [sigh], let’s hope Hollywood finds a project worthy of her talent soon enough.

Nick Robinson (The Kings of Summer)

Soulful. That’s how I’d describe this newcomer. Though it’s his feature-film debut, the 18-year-old has a certain confidence and charisma to carry off a leading role. He also seems wise beyond his years which made him so perfect in this coming-of-age tale.

Will Poulter (We’re The Millers)

Here’s another young Brit who manage to fool me as an American. I totally forgot he was in The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader but the tall, lanky 20-year-old was absolutely convincing as an geeky American teenager who somehow got entangled with a small-time pot dealer pretending to be a family vacationing in Mexico. His rendition of TLC’s Waterfall alone proves that this kid has amazing comic timing, it’s worth seeing just for that part (I’m sure it’s on Youtube).

James Badge Dale (Iron Man 3, Parkland)

Here’s another actor who I’ve never heard of before then suddenly I saw three of his movies in one year (same as Riseborough above). I didn’t really remember him in World War Z but he was definitely memorable in Iron Man 3 and Parkland, two VERY different roles that he pulled off nicely. In the former, he somehow reminds me a bit of Robert Patrick in Terminator 2, though perhaps not quite as iconic. As in Parkland, as Lee Harvey Oswald’s brother Robert, the 35-year-old displayed his dramatic chops. I hope he won’t get stuck playing supporting roles in the future.


Thoughts on any of these actors? Are you a fan of their work?

Weekend Roundup & Review of ‘1976: Hunt vs Lauda’ Documentary

Ok, I’m hoping I won’t have to talk about Minnesota weather on every Weekend Roundup but this is truly ridiculous! Schools are canceled today nationwide, ordered by the Governor, and every forecast says things like “Limit or even eliminate time spent outside today” and “It’s truly dangerous out there.” My brother in Jakarta thought business would be closed too, but not a chance, though I did opt to work from home today. I’m coming in to work tomorrow though as temp is slightly better, but man, I sure hope this is the last arctic blast we’re gonna see in a while. This is brutal!!

Naturally, I hibernated all weekend. We finally caught the sci-fi drama Contact for the first time, thanks to my pal Ted for lending me the DVD. Another film we saw was 1976: Hunt vs. Lauda (Thanks The Revolver Group, for sending me the dvd), which was dramatized in the Ron Howard film RUSH. Here’s my review:

1976HuntVsLauda_DVD1976: Hunt Vs. Lauda

As I quite enjoyed RUSH, I was definitely curious to see this documentary about the first Formula 1 superstars and perhaps the greatest sports rivalry. Sometimes a film took a lot of liberty and over-dramatize the story, especially something THIS sensational, so I wanted to see the real story of James Hunt vs. Niki Lauda. The documentary is only 60-min long and it focuses primarily on the races in the year of 1976. So we didn’t quite get the background of each of the racer which would’ve been nice to see.

What strikes me is how close the portrayal of both Hunt and Lauda in the film version, especially German actor Daniel Brühl as Lauda where he totally nailed the mannerism and way of speaking on top of being made up to closely resemble the Austrian racer. In this film, it’s also Lauda who gives us a bit more insight into his character and also the drama that went on in those dangerous races. I guess the fact that Lauda is the only one still alive today gives him the edge, but the flamboyant Hunt was pretty short in his past interviews as well. We do get a glimpse of Hunt’s ambition from his sister in one of the interviews, how he’s got this single-minded drive to win the world championship.

We’ve got talking heads such as Lauda’s Ferrari manager Daniele Audetto and Hunt’s manager at McLaren Alastair Caldwell, providing eye-witness account of the event. It’s interesting to see that throughout the film, it appears that despite the rivalry, Hunt and Lauda are pretty good friends. Even Lauda himself was happy when Hunt won the World Championship after he crashed his car, and Hunt was one of the first at the scene of Lauda’s crash as well. Caldwell said that Hunt said this following the accident, “Niki, you re the only person I know who could have been in a fire and come out better looking.” Despite the difference in character, they seem to really like each other, so RUSH somehow made it look as if there were more animosity between them.

Top: Lauda & Hunt  Bottom: Lauda with his Ferrari manager (in blue jacket)
Top: Lauda & Hunt
Bottom: Lauda with his Ferrari manager Audetto (in blue Goodyear jacket)

The racing footage was pretty thrilling to see, especially that rainy day in Japan where it obviously looked too dangerous to race on. It showed how the World Championship race was very tight, Lauda was way ahead initially but by the end it was neck and neck. It’s fascinating to see Lauda’s determination to race merely six weeks (2 races later) after his accident, and he was so nonchalant about it when the press asked him about it. It did affect his decision to withdraw from the Japanese Grand Prix as by then he had faced a near-death experience and he simply couldn’t go through it again. I’ve come to really respect Lauda and find him to be immensely sympathetic. He barely has anything bad to say in his later interviews and he doesn’t seem to have any regret despite the major scar he received from the accident.

NikiLauda_ThenandNow
Lauda – then and now

One complaint I have is the audio issues with the disc, which makes the narrator’s voice sounds so dim at times that it was tough to hear. Fortunately the sound from the footage and interviews are fine. It was worth seeing the real story of Hunt and Lauda, especially if you’re a fan of sports documentaries. Hunt had the looks and the glamor, but Lauda’s got the heart and technical precision that made him a racing legend. Though he lost in 1976, he went on to become world champion again in 1977 and 1984. As I said before, I wish there were more backstory here before the real rivalry began. These guys certainly have incredible stories worth-telling.

threereels
3 out of 5 reels


The DVD is available starting tomorrow on Amazon.com


That’s my weekend roundup folks. What did YOU see this weekend!

Double Mini Reviews: RUSH and The Fifth Estate

These two films are both in the BOATS category, that is based on a true story. Whether it’s close or loosely based on the real deal is up for debates of course, especially in regards to The Fifth Estate as Julian Assange himself doesn’t support the film, though given his secretive nature, it doesn’t mean what takes place in the film isn’t true, either. In any case, both of these are not documentaries, so I don’t judge either film based on accuracy, but on the merit of the work as an art form.

RUSH

RUSH_PosterI have to admit that I hadn’t heard of either Hunt or Lauda before this film, who were fierce rivals during the 1970s Formula 1 racing period. I grew up with a brother who was into F-1 racing in the late 80s – mid 90s, so I was more familiar with the rivalry between Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost. By focusing on the rivalry between the two racers, RUSH is more of intriguing character-driven thriller instead of an all-action racing movie.

The beginning of the film shows the stark difference of not just their lifestyle, Hunt is the free-spirited playboy compared to the focused but reclusive Lauda, but also how each approaches the sport. The British Hunt is all about instinct whilst the Austrian Lauda is all about precision, he’d methodically and meticulously scrutinizes the technicality of his car before he climbs into it. Though the film has some thrilling racing sequences that really lives up to the title in giving you a boost of adrenaline rush, what really gets me is their relationship off the track. As someone who don’t normally follow this sport, it’s the characters and their stories that made me enjoy this film and what makes it memorable in the end.

Just as you’d expect in an extreme sport like this, a major incident occurs halfway through that’d make you gasp. I’m not going to spoil it for you but let’s just say there are some very uncomfortable scenes to watch here that seemed to go on forever. The attention to detail achieved by the cinematography and sound editing truly create an authentic feel of the racing experience. The car, the helmet, even the views of the drivers as they’re racing definitely get your heart pounding. The 1976 Japanese Grand Prix in torrential rain is especially gripping and the way the race is filmed is phenomenal. Yet the slower moments are also effective in showing the persona of the people risking their lives behind the wheel with every race.

RUSH_stills
The two leads are excellent. Chris Hemsworth as Hunt and Daniel Brühl as Lauda share an effortless chemistry as both friends and foes. Hemsworth has a natural cocky-ness about him as he displayed in THOR, but he shows some emotional depth and vulnerability when the moment calls for it. Brühl is especially impressive in that he’s not only made up to resemble the real Lauda in his younger years, but he’s got the intensity and mannerism down perfectly. I was much more taken by his character overall and it’s largely a testament of Brühl’s compelling performance. He’s definitely an actor to watch for and I hope he gets a leading role in the future. There are not much to speak of in terms of supporting cast as the films are ultimately about Hunt and Lauda. Olivia Wilde and Romanian actress Alexandra Maria Lara are both pretty good as Hunt and Lauda’s love interest.

Overall it was a satisfying thriller that also packs an emotional punch. It’s fascinating to see the incredible drive of these racers, and in the case of Lauda, his will to not just excel but to survive is inspiring. Kudos to Ron Howard and writer Peter Morgan for crafting a balanced look of visual prowess and intriguing drama. Combined with Hans Zimmer‘s dynamic score, RUSH is one of the most invigorating thrillers of the year.

fourreels
4 out of 5 reels

THE FIFTH ESTATE

A fifth estate is a group within a society that is seen as operating outside of the society’s normal groupings in terms of their roles and viewpoints, especially a group that is considered beyond the restrictions or rules of those other groupings. – per Wikipedia

TheFifthEstatePosterThis film traces the origin of perhaps 21st century’s most controversial organization Wikileaks, and its founder, Julian Assange. It’s interesting that the promo of this film asks us whether Assange is a hero or a traitor? Now of course it depends who you ask as you’d likely find a polarizing view on either side.

One thing I’ll say about the Australian-born Assange is that he’s quite a fascinating man. The master computer hacker is a tech whiz who’s well-traveled, having lived in Europe when he started working on WikiLeaks, as well as Nairobi, Tanzania, Iceland, etc. The film opens with him meeting a journalist Daniel Domscheit-Berg (whose book is one of the source for this story) in Germany, who was drawn to the seemingly noble enterprise of Wikileaks. Their first mission was to take down this huge bank that’s been doing illegal activities. He also admired the charismatic but elusive Assange as a mentor initially, though later it’s easy to see how their relationship became strained.

As I hadn’t been following the whole WikiLeaks scandal too closely, some of the events depicted here went over my head. At times it was hard to follow some of the details, more on that in a bit. But the one thing that interested me was the character study of Assange himself, which I thought was portrayed quite well by Benedict Cumberbatch. There had been reports that Assange himself emailed the British actor to ask him to not to participate in the film. How much that incident affected Cumberbatch’s performance I’ll never know, though he certainly doesn’t paint Assange as a likable man here. He’s brilliant to be sure, but his arrogance and ruthless nature who doesn’t care who gets hurt by his actions. No matter how good his intentions were, what he did with WikiLeaks has gone too far, but obviously the defiant Assange didn’t see it that way.

TheFifthEstate_Stills
Both Cumberbatch and Daniel Brühl as Berg share about a similar amount of screen time and both are wonderful to watch. Once again Brühl proves to be a capable and versatile actor. I didn’t realize just how great the supporting cast are, but it’s nice to see the likes of David Thewlis, Peter Capaldi and Dan Stevens as the Guardian newspaper staff, and playing US Government offials are the immensely talented character actors Stanley Tucci and Laura Linney. Seems like such a small role is a waste of their talents but as always they’re excellent to watch.

The direction by Bill Condon and Josh Singer‘s script leave much to be desired however. To say the pace is uneven is putting it mildly, but the narrative structure is the main issue here. It’s tough enough that there are complex issues being presented, but the haphazard editing makes it even more confusing. It makes me appreciate David Fincher’s brilliant direction of The Social Network even more, and it shows that sharp execution is key when dealing with a story such as this. I do commend the fact the film raises a lot of intriguing ethical and legal issues without necessarily portraying Assange as an evil figure or otherwise, hence the traitor vs hero argument. But it could’ve been a heck of a lot more riveting instead of just mildly interesting and even somewhat tedious. I suppose it’s still worth a rent if you’re a fan of the cast, and I really can’t pick fault with their performances. I feel that if it hadn’t been for the cast though, I’d probably better off watching Alex Gibney’s documentary We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks instead.

3 out of 5 reels


Thoughts on either one of these films? I’d love to hear it!