Oscar season kicks off with ‘Rush,’ ‘Prisoners’

Awards season is underway. Oscar winner Ron Howard (last nominated for “Frost/Nixon” in 2008) returns to the field with the Formula One racing drama “Rush,” while nominee Denis Villeneuve (2010’s “Incendies”)  has unveiled his first English-language film, the provocative thriller “Prisoners.”

‘RUSH’

    “Rush” reunites Howard with his “Frost/Nixon” scribe, two-time Oscar nominee Peter Morgan (“The Queen”). Morgan’s original script digs into the world of 1970s European competitive racing and the building rivalry between the two great drivers of the time, James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth, giving a serviceable but hardly breakout performance) and Niki Lauda (a terrific Daniel Bruhl).

With “Rush,” Howard once again sets a challenge for himself. His range remains a quality to behold, helming everything from the gut-wrenching (his Oscar-winning “A Beautiful Mind,” 2001) to the tension-ridden (“Apollo 13,” 1995) to the commercial (“The Da Vinci Code,” 2006). He adapts material, and he works from new material. He likes hard-hitting drama, but gets behind a screwball comedy every now and then (most recently, 2011’s “The Dilemma” with Vince Vaughn).

“Rush” is an achievement not because Howard successfully charts new territory – though he does. The success of this film derives from the feeling that this picture is almost a culmination of everything Howard has done. “Rush” embraces its sports-film roots, but the two-hander character play that characterizes “Frost/Nixon” echoes in the background here. So, too, does the emotionally bare “A Beautiful Mind” as tragedy in the film mounts.

Morgan’s script, on the other hand, frustratingly gets the “show, not tell” rule of writing backwards. The accomplished screenwriter brings a great story, complex characters and a powerful theme to the forefront, nicely juggling the racing drama with character work. His story here is about chasing death – about people who get in a car, face a 20 percent chance of death, and do it all over again – and two very different men who find that chase fueled by the other.

In a particularly harrowing moment, Lauda protests racing due to severe weather conditions. Hunt, reckless in nature and constantly needing to prove his worth, takes the opportunity to sway the other drivers to vote against Lauda, and to race.

Morgan does not make the point that Lauda is well-ahead in the standings and can sit the race out with limited consequences – rather, he shows us Lauda ignoring this fact. Lauda gets in the car against his better judgment, fueled by his passionate competitive edge. Death and its lure loom over here, as it does throughout.

In terms of showing restraint, this is unfortunately an anomaly for Morgan. Too often, Lauda and Hunt serve as talking heads for the writer, dictating the theme to us like an academic article. Only when Morgan shies away from the theme, allowing his characters to breathe and grow apart from the grand idea of the script, does “Rush” work.

While Morgan’s work is only a
half-success, “Rush” is technically masterful, creating the cinematic experience that carries the film through whenever the script shows signs of weariness. Hans Zimmer’s (“The Dark Knight”) score alters between riveting intensity and meditative introspection, and gets the blood pumping whenever Lauda and Hunt are battling it out on the track.

Howard’s longtime editing team, Daniel P. Hanley and Mike Hill (Oscar winners for “Apollo 13”), arguably
give their best effort to date, and work hand-in-hand with cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle (Oscar winner for “Slumdog Millionaire”) to give “Rush” its look, its feel and its power. Mantle close-zooms in on the drivers, keeping the film about its protagonists and
not about the race itself, while Hanley and Hill’s swift, electric quick-cut editing style provides the adrenaline rush that makes this an exciting ride throughout.

A manageable script, impressive technical attributes and a good cast hardly coalesce without a strong director to tie it all together. This is Ron Howard’s greatest talent, and what separates “Rush” from the flimsy biopics it, at times, wavers toward. He crafts a true picture, keeping everything in perspective and
delivering a ride that is at once exhilarating and pensive, intelligent and accessible.

Final rating: Satisfactory

‘PRISONERS’

Less positive words go towards Villeneuve’s “Prisoners,” an approximately-150-minute ride that ranges from frustratingly opaque to downright unpleasant.

The slow, methodical journey Villeneuve and writer Aaron
Guzikowski (“Contraband”) take us on follows the grief felt by the Dover and Birch families after the youngest girls of each are kidnapped, as well as the investigation into the crime. Gradually, the grief and crime pieces of the film begin to converge, and “Prisoners” evolves into one big mess of yelling, crying, confusion and, most unfortunately, torture.

Without giving the tricky narrative away, the elements of this thriller just do not work, from character behavior ranging on ridiculous to plot twists either nonsensical or utterly banal. Perhaps the greatest weakness in Guzikowski’s script is the way he boxes himself in; by the time the film’s first half is over, there is really only one possible person behind the kidnapping, and so the “big revelation” is left mostly unfelt.

This is just an introduction to its problems, however – “Prisoners” is frustrating on a multitude of levels. Villeneuve’s smug vision of the film falsely elevates the material, as he tries to inject a strange “good versus evil” religious undertone through constant recitation of prayer, and both the good and bad guys’ turn toward faith to explain their actions.

Aside from the obviousness and redundancy of using religion to drive characters’ motives, the behavior of many is, regardless, inexplicable. Hugh Jackman (“Les Miserables”) plays the Dover patriarch with a relentless, admirable intensity. It is no fault of
the actor, but as his character grows more desperate, his actions stretch beyond any natural human response to tragedy. Jackman’s commitment turns from impressive to, sadly, laughable.

Villeneuve masks hollow material with a gorgeous look and a nicely understated score. Shot by the great Roger Deakins (most recently nominated for “Skyfall”), “Prisoners” is an immaculately-shot, beautifully-lit piece of cinema. In particular, Deakins’ tracking shots and long, uncut takes create levels of suspense unmatched by the material he is working with.

With this technical precision, and Villeneuve’s heavy-hitting themes of desperation, religious morality and human deception comes the feeling that “Prisoners” is a lot deeper and more affecting than it really is.

Make no mistake, however: what Jackman resorts to is torture-porn, not deep-rooted human nature. The frequent close-ups of the Christian cross, and the “ambiguity” of religious motif that Villeneuve attempts to convey, are cop-outs, not profound. The twists are not ingeniously thought-out, let alone character-driven; they are abrupt, quick and solely plot-servicing.

“Prisoners” also suffers from an abundance of symbolism, where a moment or a character feeling genuine or rational is a rarity. The opening
scene, where Jackman goes hunting with his son, perfectly captures this – we are given a glimpse of the demon inside of him when he thoughtlessly shoots a deer, and him telling his son to “be prepared” in a most random way is the worst kind of foreshadowing.

If anything could save “Prisoners,” it would be the performances. Jackman may have been hard to watch at times, but that is not his burden. If he had a better character to work with, I’d be hard-pressed not to call this the performance of his career.

Maria Bello (“A History of Violence”) and Viola Davis (“The Help”) are affecting as the grieving mothers, but they too are wronged by a thin script. While the men attempt to solve the crime, wrestle with their demons and confront one another, the women are left to wallow. It does not extend beyond that.

Among other notable performers, Jake Gyllenhaal (“Brokeback
Mountain”) does a decent, if unremarkable, job as the cop investigating the crime. It is not the finest hour for Melissa Leo (“The Fighter”), however, who plays the creepy aunt of the suspect in question (Paul Dano, “Little Miss Sunshine”) as if she were reading lines to pick up a paycheck, and nothing more.

Unlike Leo, “Prisoners” really commits to its material. Too bad, then, that it comes across as a strained exercise in making something silly look insightful and clever.

Final rating: Marginal sat

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