“RUSH” (2013) Review

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“RUSH” (2013) Review

Before I began this review, it occurred to me that Ron Howard has directed a good number of movie biographies set in the distance past for the last eighteen years, starting with 1995’s “APOLLO 13”. Mind you, the film was not Howard’s first period picture. But in the following years, he has directed four more biopics, including his latest project, “RUSH”

Written by Peter Morgan, who also worked with Howard on 2008’s “FROST/NIXON”“RUSH” told the story about the rivalry between Formula One race drivers James Hunt and Niki Lauda during the 1976 racing season. The two drivers are highly skilled and talented race car drivers who first develop a fierce rivalry in 1970 at a Formula Three race at the Crystal Palace circuit in England. Hunt is a brash young Englishman with a tendency to vomit before every race and the Austrian Lauda is a cool, technical genius who relies on precision. While Lauda buys his way onto the BRM Formula One team, which includes legendary driver Clay Regazzoni, following a falling out with his father. Both Lauda and Regazzoni later join the Scuderia Ferrari team with Regazzoni, and Lauda wins his first championship in 1975. Hunt’s racing team, Hesketh Racing, closes shop after failing to secure a sponsor and the British driver manages to land a driving position in McLaren after Emerson Fittipaldi leaves the team. During this period, Hunt marries supermodel Suzy Miller and Lauda develops a relationship with socialite Marlene Knaus.

Eventually, the movie shifts to the 1976 Fomula One racing season. Lauda dominates the early races, while Hunt and the McLaren team struggle with a series of setbacks that include mechanical failures and a disqualified win at the Spanish Grand Prix. Hunt also suffers a personal setback when his wife leaves him for Richard Burton. All seem to be going well for Lauda, including a private wedding to Marlene Knaus. But all come to a head for him at the German Grand Prix at Nürburgring, when he suffers a major car crash. While Hunt shoots ahead in points during his absence, Lauda struggles to recover the crash and return to finish the racing season.

Aside from the movies in the FAST AND FURIOUS series, the only auto racing movies that ever really caught my attention were two period comedies from the 1960s that featured Tony Curtis, the 2006 Will Ferrell comedy,TALLAGEDA NIGHTS: THE BALLAD OF RICKY BOBBY”, and the 2008 film, “SPEED RACER”. That is it. Since I had never heard of James Hunt or Niki Lauda, I was almost inclined to skip “RUSH”. Thank God I did not. I would have missed out on something special . . . at least for me. I love action films. One of the aspects of action films that I love are the car chases. But the car racing scenes were not the reasons why I finally decided to see “RUSH”. I had three reasons – Ron Howard, Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Brühl. But the cincher for me was the trailer. What can I say? It impressed me.

“RUSH” is not the first time Ron Howard explored the 1970s. He directed two other movies set in the same decade –“APOLLO 13” and “FROST/NIXON”. I am beginning to wonder if this decade means a lot more to Howard than he would care to admit. In “RUSH”, the more glamorous aspect of the 1970s was explored, thanks to the artistry of production designer Mark Digby. His work was aptly supported by the art direction team led by Daniel Chour and Patrick Rolfe, and also the film’s set decorations. But if there is one aspect of “RUSH” that truly captured the 1970s – aside from the soundtrack – was Julian Day’s costumes. I adored them. Below are examples of Day’s work:

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“RUSH” did featured a good number of first-rate auto racing sequences. Cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, along with film editors Daniel P. Hanley and Mike Hill did an exceptional job in recapturing the excitement (well . . . from the driver’s point of view) of Formula One racing. This was certainly apparent in two sequences – the Italian Grand Prix, where a barely recovered Niki Lauda managed to finish fourth place; and the Japanese Grand Prix, where the last race of the 1976 season took place. I realize that this might sound gruesome and I certainly do not mean to sound insensitive to what happened to Lauda. But I cannot deny that Howard’s recreation of the German Grand Prix at Nürburgring and Lauda’s car crash was an example of masterful filmmaking, thanks to Howard’s direction, Mantle’s photography and the editing by Hanley and Hill. The movie really captured the spectacle and the horror of the crash.

But “RUSH” is foremost a movie about two racing drivers . . . two men. Mindful of this, Peter Morgan did an outstanding job in recapturing Hunt and Lauda’s personalities, along with the circumstances that fueled their rivalry on the race track. This was not only in scenes that featured their separate private lives, especially their relationships with their wives Suzy Miller and Marlene Knaus, but also the friendly, yet intense rivalry that existed between them. In regard to their personal lives, I was very impressed by the two scenes that featured the breakup of the Hunt-Miller marriage; Lauda’s first meeting with Knaus and one particular scene during their honeymoon in which Lauda expressed concerns about the effects of his marriage on his racing career. However, the confrontation scenes between the two drivers when they were off the race track really rocked, thanks to Hemsworth, Brühl and Morgan’s screenplay. But there are two scenes that I really enjoyed. One of them turned out to be the drivers’ conference before the German Grand Prix, in which Lauda tried to convince the Formula One committee to cancel that particular race, due to heavy rain on the already notoriously dangerous Nürburgring race course; and their last meeting (at least in the movie), not long after the championship Japanese Grand Prix.

What can I say about the movie’s performances? They were outstanding. I was surprised to see Natalie Dormer in such a small role as a hospital nurse that Hunt briefly dated. Considering her growing fame, I had expected to see her in a bigger role. I could say the same about Julian Rhind-Tutt, who had a small role as a member of Hunt’s racing team. Christian McKay gave a vibrant performance as the flamboyant Alexander Fermor-Hesketh, 3rd Baron Hesketh, who financed Hunt’s first racing team. Pierfrancesco Favino portrayed Italian racing legend, Clay Regazzoni, who drove on the Scuderia Ferrari team with Lauda. I am aware that two drivers actually became good friends. Despite this friendship, Favino gave a sly and humorous performance, while recapturing Favino’s occasional frustration with Lauda’s eccentric personality. There were some grumbles on the Internet, when world of Olivia Wilde’s casting as Suzy Miller was first announced. She certainly proved them wrong by giving a first-rate performance, especially in one scene in which Miller’s breakup with Hunt became permanent. I was also impressed by her British accent, until I learned that one of her parents had been born in the U.K. Alexandra Maria Lara also gave a first-rate performance as Lauda’s first wife, Marlene Knaus Lauda. Not only did she project a great deal of warmth in her portrayal of the race driver’s wife, but also a touch of sardonic humor.

The men of the hour, aside from Ron Howard, are Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Brühl, who portrayed the two rivals. They were outstanding. Superficially, Hemsworth seemed to have the less difficult role, portraying the outgoing playboy, Hunt. The Australian not only bore a strong resemblance to the British-born racer, but also seemed to relish in his scenes featuring Hunt’s penchant for partying hard and womanizing. But Hemsworth also excelled in those scenes that explored other aspects of Hunt’s personality – the insecurity that generally plagues every human being in existence, the emotional chaos of the racer’s breakup with Suzy Miller and his awareness of the tough competition he faced against his rival. Howard selected German-Spanish actor Daniel Brühl to portray the Austrian-born Niki Lauda. Like Hemsworth, Brühl had to utilize a different accent. He almost lost the role, when he attempted an obvious fake Austrian accent during his screen test. Thankfully, he prevailed in the end. Some have claimed that Lauda was a difficult personality. If one is honest, most people are individually difficult. However, Brühl was superb in conveying the difficult aspects of Lauda’s blunt personality, while at the same time, making the racer a very likeable character. It takes an actor of great skill to achieve this goal . . . and the latter did a fanstastic job.

Judging from the manner in which I had just raved over “RUSH”, one would start to believe that I could not find any faults with it. First of all, there is an aspect of Mantle’s photography that did not sit well with me. I found it slightly metallic and wish that it could have been more colorful, especially in a film about the heady days of auto racing the 1970s. I missed that sharp color that was apparent in some of Howard’s past films. And I also could have done without the footage of the real James Hunt and Niki Lauda in the movie’s last reels. Such scenes belonged in a featurette about the movie, not in the movie itself. The footage brought back disappointing memories of how Steven Spielberg ended“SCHINDLER’S LIST” and Spike Lee ended “MALCOLM X”.

Aside from my few quibbles, I enjoyed “RUSH” very much. It was a first-class look at two auto racing rivals who not only lit up the racing scene in one memorable season in the mid-1970s with their driving skills, but also their colorful personalities. Thanks to an excellent screenplay written by Peter Morgan, a superb cast led by Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Brühl, and some outstanding direction by Ron Howard; “RUSH” has become one of my favorite movies of 2013. And it has also become one of my favorite sports movies of all time.

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Ranking of “AGATHA CHRISTIE’S POIROT” Movies

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With one more season of “AGATHA CHRISTIE’S POIROT” left with David Suchet as the famous literary Belgian detective, I thought it would be nice to rank some of the series’ feature-length movies that aired between 1989 and 2010. I have divided this ranking into two lists – my top five favorite movies and my five least favorite movies: 

 

RANKING OF “AGATHA CHRISTIE’S POIROT” MOVIES

Top Five Favorite Movies

1-Five Little Pigs

1. “Five Little Pigs” (2003) – In this beautifully poignant tale, Hercule Poirot investigates a fourteen year-old murder in which his client’s mother was erroneously convicted and hanged for.

2-After the Funeral

2. “After the Funeral” (2006) – When a relative of a deceased man questions the nature of his death at a family funeral, she is violently murdered the following day and the family’s solicitor requests Poirot’s help. Better than the novel, the movie has a surprising twist.

3-The ABC Murders

3. “The A.B.C. Murders” (1992) – In this first-rate adaptation of one of Christie’s most original tales, Poirot receives clues and taunting letters from a serial killer who appears to choose his random victims and crime scenes alphabetically.

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4. “Murder on the Links” (1996) – While vacationing in Deauville with his friend, Arthur Hastings, Poirot is approached by a businessman, who claims that someone from the past has been sending him threatening letters. One of my favorites.

5-Sad Cypress

5. “Sad Cypress” (2003) – Poirot is asked to investigate two murders for which a young woman has been convicted in the emotional and satisfying tale.

Top Five Least Favorite Movies

1-Taken at the Flood

1. “Taken at the Flood” (2006) – In this rather unpleasant tale, Poirot is recruited by an upper-class family to investigate the young widow of their late and very rich relative, who has left his money solely to her.

2-The Hollow

2. “The Hollow” (2004) – A favorite with many Christie fans, but not with me, this tale features Poirot’s investigation into the murder of a successful doctor at a country house weekend party.

3-Appointment With Death

3. “Appointment With Death” (2008) – In this sloppy adaptation of one of Christie’s novel, Poirot investigates the death of a wealthy American widow, during his vacation in the Middle East.

4-Hickory Dickory Dock

4. “Hickory Dickory Dock” (1995) – In a tale featuring an annoying nursery rhyme, Poirot’s secretary Miss Lemon persuades Poirot to investigate a series of apparently minor thefts in a university hostel where her sister works, but simple kleptomania soon turns to homicide.

5-One Two Buckle My Shoe

5. “One, Two, Buckle My Shoe” (1992) – Poirot and Chief Inspector Japp investigates the alleged suicide of the Belgian detective’s dentist. Despite the heavy political overtones, this movie is nearly sunk by a premature revelation of the killer.

“TAKEN AT THE FLOOD” (2006) Review

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If you have never read Agatha Christie’s novel, “Taken at the Flood” or seen the 2006 television adaptation, I suggest you read no futher. This review contains major spoilers. 

“TAKEN AT THE FLOOD” (2006) Review

Written in 1948, Agatha Christie’s novel called “Taken at the Flood” told the story of the Cloade family in post-war Britian, who depends upon the good will of their cousin-in-law, Rosaleen Hunter Cloade; after her husband and their cousin is killed in an air raid during World War II. When her controlling brother, David, refuses to share Gordon Cloade’s fortunate, the family enlists Poirot’s help to prove that Rosaleen’s missing first husband, Robert Underhay, might not be dead. Although the novel received mixed reviews when it was first published, it now seems highly regarded by many of Christie’s modern day fans.

Nearly sixty years later, screenwriter Guy Andrews adapted the novel for ITV’s “AGATHA CHRISTIE’S POIROT” series. However, Andrews set the novel in the 1930s, which has been the traditional setting for the novel. In doing so, Andrews changed the aspect of Gordon Cloade’s death, making it an act of murder, instead of a wartime casualty. This change also removed the ennui that a few of the characters experienced in a post-war world. Other changes were made in the screenplay. The character of Rosaleen Cloade became a morphine addict. She also survived a morphine overdose. Also, Andrews changed the fate of the story’s leading female character, Lynn Marchmont.

I really wish that Andrews and director Andy Wilson had maintained the novel’s original setting of post-war Britain. It would not have hurt if “AGATHA CHRISTIE’S POIROT” broke away from its usual mid-1930s setting to air a story set ten years later. Most adaptations of the Jane Marple novels have always been set in the 1950s. Yet, both adaptations of Christie’s novel, “A Murder Is Announced” managed to break away from that decade and set the story in its proper setting – mid-to-late 1940s. By changing the setting and making Gordon Cloade a murder victim, Andrews and Wilson transformed the original novel’s theme, which centered on how some of the characters took advantage of a certain situation to “make their own fortune”. This theme brings to mind the story’s title and its origin – a quotation from William Shakespeare’s novel,“Julius Caesar”. The movie also established a friendship between the Cloade family and Hercule Poirot. And if I must be honest, I find this friendship implausible. The Cloade family struck me as arrogant, greedy, corrupt, and a slightly poisonous bunch. I find it hard to believe Poirot would befriend any member of that family – with the exception of the leading female character, Lynn Marchmont.

Despite my misgivings over the movie’s setting and some of the changes, I must admit that most of it was very intriguing. Despite being an unpleasant bunch, the Cloade family provided the story with some very colorful characters that include a telephone harasser and a drug addict. Lynn is engaged to her cousin Rowley Cloade and it is clear that she does not harbor any real love for him . . . even before meeting Rosaleen’s brother David. And instead of being a war veteran and former member of the Women’s Royal Naval Service, Lynn is merely a returnee from one of Britain’s colonies in Africa Actress Amanda Douge portrayed Lynn and she portrayed the character with great warmth and style.

But David Hunter proved to be the most interesting and well-written character in the story. I would go further and state that he might be one of the most complex characters that Christie ever created. David is blunt to a fault, arrogant and has no problems in expressing his dislike and contempt toward the Cloades. He does not make an effort to hide some of his less than pleasant personality traits and is a borderline bully, who is controlling toward his sister. The character provided actor Elliot Cowan with probably one of his better roles . . . and he made the most of it with great skill. When David Hunter and Lynn Marchmont become romantically involved, Cowan ended up creating great screen chemistry with Douge.

The mystery over Rosaleen Cloade’s marital state proved to be rather engaging. One is inclined to believe both Rosaleen and David that she was widowed before marrying Gordon Cloade. But when a man named Enoch Arden appeared and claimed that Rosaleen’s first husband is still alive, the audience’s belief in the Hunter siblings is shaken. But when Arden is killed violently, David becomes suspect Number One with the police and Poirot.

I have already commented upon Elliot Cowan and Amanda Douge’s performances in “TAKEN AT THE FLOOD”. I was also impressed by Patrick Baladi’s portrayal of Lynn’s obsessive fiancé, Rowley Cloade. Eva Birthistle was subtle and unforgettable as David’s nervous and very reserved sister, the wealthy widow Rosaleen Cloade. And veteran performers such as Jenny Agutter, Penny Downie, Tim Pigott-Smith, Pip Torrens and a deliciously over-the-top Celia Imrie provided great support. I also have to commend David Suchet, who gave his usual first-rate performance as detective Hercule Poirot. If there is one virtue that “TAKEN AT THE FLOOD” possessed, it was a first-rate cast.

“TAKEN AT THE FLOOD” could have been a first-rate movie. But I believe that both Andrews and Wilson dropped the ball in the movie’s last thirty minutes. Their biggest mistake was adhering closely to Christie’s original novel. I am aware of some of the changes they made. I had no problem with some of the changes. Other changes really turned me off. But despite these changes, they managed to somewhat remain faithful to the novel. As as far as I am concerned, this was a major mistake.

In the novel, David Hunter ended up murdering Rosaleen Cloade by giving her a drug overdose. Poirot managed to reveal that Rosaleen was merely his sister’s former housemaid, who became an accomplice in a scam to assume control of the Cloade fortune. Andrews’ script changed this by allowing Rosaleen to attempt suicide and survive. Instead, they had David guilty of murdering his sister and brother-in-law in a house bombing featured at the beginning of the movie. Worse, Poirot claimed that David had deliberately impregnated the false Rosaleen and forced her to get an abortion in order to control her. Poirot also hinted he was behind Rosaleen’s suicide attempt. How he came to this conclusion is beyond me. In other words, Andrews’ script transformed David Hunter from a swindler and killer of his accomplice to an out-and-out monster. In the end, he was hanged for his crimes.

Both Christie and Andrews’ handling of the Cloade family proved to be even more incredible. Mrs. Frances Cloade had recruited a relation to call himself as Enoch Arden and claim that Robert Underhay was still alive. Another member of the Cloade family recruited a Major Porter to lie on the stand and make the same claim. Later, Major Porter committed suicide.

The murder of Enoch Arden proved to be an accident. In other words, Rowley Cloade discovered that Arden was the relation of his cousin-in-law, Mrs. Frances Cloade, reacted with anger and attacked the man. Rowley’s attack led to Arden’s fall and his death. Then Rowley proceeded to frame David by deliberately smashing in Arden’s head in order to make it resemble murder. Upon Lynn’s revelation that she was in love with David Hunter, Rowley lost his temper and tried to strangle her. Poirot and a police officer managed to stop him. One, Rowley was guilty of manslaughter, when he caused Enoch Arden’s death. Two, he was guilty of interfering with a police investigation, when he tried to frame David for murder. And three, he was also guilty of assault and attempted murder of Lynn Marchmont. Once Poirot discovered that Arden’s death was an accident caused by Rowley, he immediately dismissed the incident and focused his attention on David Hunter’s crimes.

In the end, Rowley was never arrested, prosecuted or punished for his crimes. Frances Cloade was never questioned by the police for producing the phony Enoch Arden in an attempt to commit fraud. And the member of the Cloade family who had recruited Major Porter was never prosecuted for attempting to perpetrate a fraud against the courts. The only positive change that Andrews made to Christie’s novel was allowing Lynn’s rejection of Rowley to remain permanent. In the novel, Lynn decided that she loved Rowley after all, following his attempt to kill her. She found his violent behavior appealing and romantic.

I sometimes wonder if Christie became aware of her negative portrayal of the upper-class Cloades, while writing “Taken at the Flood”, and became determined to maintain the social status quo in the novel. And she achieved this by ensuring that the lower-class David Hunter proved to be the real criminal and no member of the Cloade family end up arrested or prosecuted for their crimes. In other words, Christie allowed her conservative sensibilities to really get the best of her. Aside from the permanent separation between Lynn and Rowley, Andrews and Wilson embraced Christie’s conservatism to the extreme. And it left a bitter taste in my mouth. No wonder “TAKEN AT THE FLOOD” proved to be one of the most disappointing Christie stories I have ever come across.