Jan. 27th, 2014

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Still working through the backlog.

It's hard not to assume that Cate Blanchett's much lauded performance in the 2008 revival of "A Streetcar Named Desire" lead to her role in Woody Allen's modern-day retelling, "Blue Jasmine." Blanchett has confirmed in interviews, however, that Blanche DuBois never came up, and maybe that's why "Jasmine" works as well as it does.

Instead of a fading Southern belle in New Orleans, Jasmine Francis (Blanchett) is the ex-wife of a disgraced New York businessman, Hal (Alec Baldwin), who was shipped off to prison after various financial crimes. Jasmine, still clinging to the remnants of her life of wealth and privilege, goes to San Francisco to live with her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins) and Ginger's fiancé Chili (Bobbly Cannavale). Jasmine hopes to get a fresh start, but has trouble adjusting to a working class lifestyle and keeps looking for a way to climb back up the social ladder - and wants Ginger to take the climb with her.

Woody Allen fans should take note that "Jasmine" falls in line with Allen's darker morality tales like "Crimes and Misdemeanors" and "Match Point." The film is primarily a showcase for Blanchett's performance, and to a lesser extent Sally Hawkins, with some good assists by Cannavale, Baldwin, Andrew Dice Clay, Peter Skarsgaard, Michael Stuhlbarg, and Louis C.K as their various suitors and ex-suitors. Jasmine is a wonderful creation, a self-deluded, status-obsessed snob whose ego overpowers good sense at every turn. And yet it's hard to dismiss her, especially as we see more and more of the fascinating contradictions that she maintains to allow her to keep behaving as she does. Blanchett's been getting raves and deserves them.

Though I wouldn't put it up there with the classics, this is definitely one of the better films Woody Allen has made in recent years, with a strong ensemble, timely material, and only occasional stylistic flourishes that can immediately be attributed to Allen. However, taken in the context of the past run of films he made in Europe, this feels like Allen returning to a post-financial crisis New York and trying to grapple with some of the resulting cultural shifts. Also, it's fascinating that the basic framework of "Streetcar" barely needs any updating or substitutions to be applied to modern characters. And I can't think of anyone who could have adapted it better.

And now, on to something completely different.

I still have my trepidations about sports films, and I've been pretty cool toward Ron Howard's work in general. "Rush," however, piqued my interest. It follows the rise and rivalry of two European Formula-1 racecar drivers, the English playboy James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth), and the cerebral Austrian Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl), culminating in the exciting 1976 season where the championship came down to only one point and a nail-biting final race.

I don't know a thing about Formula-1 racing except that the culture around it is a fervent as it is for any other major sport, and there are significant barriers to entry for those who want to participate. Fortunately "Rush" provides a good primer, following both drivers from obscurity into the spotlight, showing how both of them managed to excel in the sport, taking different paths to the winners' circle. Initially it seems that Hunt will be our protagonist, and if you've seen much of hte marketing for "Rush," it's Chris Hemsworth's face on all the posters and Daniel Brühl has been credited as a supporting actor. However, Lauda quickly comes to share the narrative on equal terms with Hunt, and Hemsworth and Brühl are co-leads for all intents and purposes.

The racing sequences are wonderfully put together, often capturing the intensity and the peril through the drivers' POV shots. There are a lot of fancy cars on display and lots of beautiful recreations of famous races. However, the racing drama only has momentum because the performances are so good. Hemsworth demonstrates that he's perfectly capable of carrying a non-superhero film, putting his golden boy charm to very good use here. However, it's Brühl who really impresses, as the driven, prickly Niki Lauda. The examinations of the drivers' personal lives and their relationships don't detract from the larger story, and I was thrilled to discover that the biggest stakes in the film really don't hinge at all on who walks away with the championship title.

The real Niki Lauda, who is still with us, has commented that he was surprised at how little embellishment there was in "Rush," how Howard and his team resisted the urge to Hollywood-ize the story. I don't think that's entirely true, as "Rush" does qualify as a feel-good sports film by any measure. However, it does nicely avoid a lot of common cliches, and the narrative has a welcome complexity and grounding that is more concerned with the character studies than the races. And Lauda and Hunt are a pair of subjects who are fascinating enough to sustain it.



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